Potential Assessment

Potential Assessment: Finding the right people

I doubt that human potential can be expressed by any single figure. On the other hand I find myself considering only 5% of my employees for 95% of my tasks. It’s always the usual suspects. So it seems I do have an intuitive concept of potential. When it comes to hiring that makes my goal easy: I try to find somebody that will end up becoming a usual suspect. You could call that potential assessment.

Potential Assessment

How do I find these people? That’s the one million dollar question, isn’t it? First I try to make sure that candidates don’t give me the “text-book answer to interview questions” rub. Don’t get me wrong: if she knows these answers that means she’s coming well prepared for the interview. That’s already more than many others…

But I want to predict how the candidate will actually act in my company. Hence I either talk about past actions of the candidate (“Can you think of an event where…? Can you please describe it to me? What did you do?”) or put her into a live working situation during the interview (quite often I use case studies for that).

But what criteria am I looking for? I have found Egon Zehnders big five criteria to be helpful: they resonate with my experience and are easy to remember. Plus it is not too hard to test for these criteria in an interview. Let me describe them for you:


Driven to proactively seek understanding and new learning through gaining new ideas, experiences and information. This insatiable curiosity is energized by change, experimentation and feedback.

If you cut the marketing lingo this means doing loads of things to get input. That rings true: The best engineers (and managers) I know are always looking for ways to improve – their environment as well as themselves. Typical interview questions could be:

  • “What do you do to stay up to date knowledge-wise?”
  • “Describe the last feedback you got? What did you make of it?”
  • “When did you last start an activity of which the outcome was unclear?”


Gathering and making sense of a vast amount of information from a range of sources, and discovering new insights that, when applied, transform views or set new directions.

That’s IQ in modern and practical terms: the ability to create value out of information. Seems like a good thing for a knowledge worker.

For potential assessment I like to watch the candidate work during the interview. It can also be interesting to let the candidate philosophize a bit. When doing that I am looking for original insights. Questions could be: “what is the most important thing you learned during that period?”


Connects with people because he or she resonates with their motivations, priorities and logic. Their enthusiasm, energy and sense of purpose are infectious: Engages the hearts and minds of others to deliver shared objectives and mutual benefits. Gains energy from authentically connecting with others and understanding them at a deeper level.

The days of IT specialists living as hermits are long gone. Any meaningful challenge today requires the complex interaction of people. Agile methods in particular require a mature personality with good interpersonal skills. What I like most about the formulation above is that it is about making a real connection with others on a personal level. That is so much more than being polite.

To get a feeling for this factor I look at the interview situation on a meta level: did the candidate make a connection? Also I watch when the candidate talks about people. That is often very telling.


Enjoys a challenge, overcomes obstacles and willingly takes on higher risk opportunities with ingenuity and tenacity. Possesses the self-discipline to focus and stay with the challenge. However, does not let strength of purpose descend into mere stubbornness. Continues to look for disconfirming evidence to stay nimble and change direction when needed.

There are always reasons for not reaching goals. I am looking for people who consider these obstacles interesting challenges. You could call that result focused. Or pulled by the future. Or player mentality.

This also means being able to tolerate setbacks (I guess the current buzz word is resilience). Some of the most brilliant people I know are bored too quickly. They have a tendency to throw in the towel before they can make a difference.

Everybody will tell you that they are determined. So it makes sense to look at the biography again. Can we see any proof of that determination?


Being energized and engaged on an emotional level.

And here is the old classic! I need to find out how difficult it is to make the candidate leave the comfort zone. You are getting the gist: I look for signs of that behaviour in the candidates vita.

Summing up

So here is my summary on potential assessment:
  1. Talk about past situations in the candidate’s life.
  2. Make him work during the interview.
  3. Look for signs of curiosity.
  4. Look for signs of Insight.
  5. Look for signs of Engagement.
  6. Look for signs of Determination.
  7. Look for signs of Motivation.
Potential assessment is easy, isn’t it?

Photo by JefferyTurner


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