Should You Hire Based on Accomplishments, or Potential?

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“Potential” is a word recruiting analysts use to describe job candidates who have the talent to become top performers but who aren’t guaranteed to make full use of their abilities.

So what does a company do?

Hire an unproven talent who might be the next Steve Jobs, or select an impressive candidate whose potential is fulfilled and who is essentially risk-free? Surely a company would make the safest of hiring decisions and choose a proven performer. Or would it?

Will an investment in potential pay off?

According to a 2012 study by researchers at Stanford University and the Harvard Business School, companies favor candidates who have potential over applicants who have translated their potential into accomplishments.

In the study, a panel of evaluators was asked to predict who would perform better in a leadership role: a candidate with two years of relevant experience who scored well on a leadership achievement test, or a candidate with no experience who scored well on a leadership potential exam. Most evaluators chose the second candidate.

The perception that potential is more valuable than accomplishment leads companies to hire candidates whose greatest attribute is an air of promise instead of candidates whose resumes read like a hiring and staffing manager’s wish list.

For employers, it’s a bit like investing in lottery tickets instead of municipal bonds. The only question is whether the investment pays off.

For a company named Fishbowl, it certainly has.

The story of Fishbowl

Recently featured in Forbes, Fishbowl – a provider of software solutions for manufacturing, distribution and asset tracking since 2001 – is a prime example of how basing hiring decisions on potential can pay off big time.

Initially, the goal of Fishbowl’s recruiting team was to attract top talent, but they soon found that it wasn’t easy to lure the best performers away from established companies. So, instead of wasting time fishing for big catches, they began targeting candidates whose potential could make them the top performers of tomorrow. Essentially, they believed that compelling personal qualities could make up for imperfect resumes.

Their success isn’t the result of lucky hiring decisions. Instead, the company went prospecting for certain traits. The recruiters believed that a star candidate would display qualities such as loyalty, commitment, trust, respect, courage and gratitude, among others.

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Today, rather than targeting people whose accomplishments make them perfect for the job, Fishbowl continues to look for candidates who possess high potential and attractive intangibles. In a way, employees are created, not hired.

Considering that Fishbowl has grown by 70 percent over the last three years and has won awards for project and management quality, it’s safe to say that this hiring solution turned out to be a winning strategy.

Psychology in perspective

According to Heidi Grant Halvorson – a motivational psychologist and author of the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals – individuals who possess potential are more attractive than individuals whose potential is already fulfilled. “The potential for success, as opposed to actual success,” she says, “is more interesting because it is less certain.”

In other words, as illogical as it may seem, uncertainty has a hidden value – and our brains recognize it. Still, as Halvorson says, candidates who possess potential must have positive traits to go along with it, otherwise their attractiveness to hiring and staffing managers diminishes.

Values-based recruitment helps companies target candidates who possess positive traits that predict success. Considering that 50 percent of U.S. companies struggle to find qualified candidates (ManpowerGroup, 2012), using values-based recruiting to target workers who have high potential makes perfect sense. If a company has difficulty finding ideal candidates, it should reevaluate its hiring decisions and consider targeting those who have the potential to become ideal.

Has your company had success hiring candidates based on potential instead of accomplishments? Leave a comment and let us know.

This article originally appeared on The Resumator Blog.