Identifying Potential in Young Professionals

What kind of experience will this person need?

When the employment process begins, this is sometimes the very first question posed. Additionally, it is the most important lens that recruiters use to separate candidates. Most candidates are disqualified based only on the appearance of a résumé that doesn’t demonstrate the appropriate level of experience. Recruiters are already aware of this. After all, determining if a candidate has demonstrated success in comparable circumstances in the past is the quickest method to determine whether they can perform a specific job well. We don’t always have this privilege, though. Numerous firms have crucial positions that call for top achievers right from the start of their careers.

Shifting focus from experience to potential

How can you evaluate and distinguish amongst bright young professionals who lack relevant experience, have resumes that are often extremely similar, and frequently lack a complete understanding of who they are and the environments in which they will thrive?

This calls for a different mentality. Potential is a little harder to spot between the lines on a CV than experience is. The recruiter is now anticipating what will happen rather than reflecting on what has already occurred. In other words, potential rather than experience is the main consideration when evaluating younger prospects.

How to see potential

In most cases potential is evident throughout a person’s  life and, as such, it can be seen on a resume or in any interview. It is a matter of knowing where to look:

Evidence of drive

Even before some people start their careers, it is already easy to see that they are driven to test their limits and be successful.

Some examples I have seen include:

  • People who started working at a young age
  • Marathon/Iron Man participants
  •  Students starting companies like house painting, lawn mowing or (up here in Canada) driveway shovelling

These are early indications of people are prepared to take initiative and challenge themselves. This is probably how they will spend their careers.

A record of excellence

Being driven to succeed is essential, but it doesn’t guarantee success. A true high potential candidate must also have ability. This is why recruiters should also seek out a record of excellence in young candidates. People who have shown they can be successful in challenging situations are more likely to be successful again.

Here is where we can be open minded and creative to truly look at young people on their own terms and come to understand where they have tried to excel.
Little hints on a resume can be absolutely anywhere. Examples I have seen include:

  • Champions of everything from scrabble to fiddling
  • Accomplishments in arts such as music or painting
  • Athletic success and leadership in team sports

What you want to establish is not just that people have been active. You want to establish they are determined and demand excellence from themselves.

Assess the match

While anyone with these indicators may be worthy of consideration, even when you are certain someone has great potential, it does not guarantee that the person will reach that potential in your environment.

There are many kinds of potential, and many kinds of companies. The hiring company must understand exactly the kind of potential it is looking for. For small companies, the focus may be on individuals who have shown potential as generalists who can work with little direction. Larger companies may be more structured and require candidates that have the potential to dive deeper in one place.

Many companies attach too much importance to experience when hiring young people, often just as a means of narrowing the field. For many roles, potential is much more important than having small exposures of experience. Organizations that can find potential and build teams of strong young people have a tremendous advantage.

When a company really knows who it is, what it is looking for and how to find it, great things can happen.

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Mark Nelson

Mark has spent his career in executive search and human resources as a recruiter, a salesperson, an HR leader and a business owner. He also writes and manages the career advice site Career Digressions. Connect with Mark.


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