Identifying Potential in Young Professionals

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What kind of experience will this person need?

This is often the very first question asked at the start of the hiring process. It is also the most critical lens that recruiters use to differentiate people. The vast majority of applicants are eliminated simply on the face of a resume that lacks the right kind of experience. This is old news for recruiters. After all, the simplest way to figure out whether a candidate can do a certain job well is to find out if they have performed well before in similar situations. However we don’t always have this luxury. Many organizations have critical roles that require top performers at the very beginning of their careers.

Shifting focus from experience to potential

How do you assess and differentiate bright young professionals who do not have relevant experience, tend to have very similar resumes, and who often don’t fully know themselves yet and what environment they will thrive in?

This requires a different mindset. While experience is easily identified on a resume, potential is a little more hidden between the lines. Instead of looking back at what has happened, the recruiter now looks forward to what will happen. In short, when assessing younger candidates, the focus shifts from experience to potential.

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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