How to recruit for potential

  • 01-06-17
  • Geoff Balmer

Finding candidates whose resumes match your business needs perfectly can be difficult in today’s market. Since there is a limited quantity of these candidates available, and because they tend to command a higher salary they often have their pick of the available opportunities. This is why uncovering the ‘diamonds in the rough’ as opposed to continually chasing A+ candidates can be just as much of a win for your staffing strategy. As a people manager, it can also be a more enjoyable, long-term experience. Although it can be a challenge that carries some risk, the same goes for hiring an A+ candidate – albeit for very different reasons. Hiring for potential requires a degree of courage, both from the Hiring Manager and also the business that endorses the strategy, but the end results can be very rewarding.

However, aside from the great feeling you might get from identifying and recruiting one of these hidden stars and increasing your talent pool, there are also other reasons you may want to stray from the tried and tested, “past experience equals future success” mantra. The chief one of these is cost. Candidates who realise that they need assistance or development to do the role you are hiring for will most likely cost you less than a highly experienced, ‘like for like’  contender, and may even bring you a higher return long-term.

Another advantage is that you can target the employee’s development to the specific needs of your business, potentially getting a far bigger return on your initial investment than you otherwise would’ve. This is especially relevant when looking at the Job market; we often hear from our clients that talent is hard to come by, especially in specialist roles. By identifying the candidates who may not be quite there yet, but have the potential to be great, you may see faster, more efficient hires and potentially with budget left to spare.

That said, it’s all well and good to talk about potential, but how do you actually spot it in an interview scenario? How can you tell which candidates are the diamonds and which are the cubic zirconia? Here are a few things to look out for:


This one does tend to stand out when you are interviewing potential employees. The questions they ask are one of the biggest giveaways here. Questions like “What is the aim of this role?” “What could my career paths be?” indicate that the candidate is confident of being successful in the role, and is already looking at long-term career growth.

However, if the interview doesn’t head in this direction, maybe you can ask questions like “Tell me about a time when you had a goal and how you went about achieving it?” “Did you succeed?” “Why?” “Why not?” Or of course, “What are your career goals?” “What have you done in the last year to work towards this?”

The second part of this question is crucial in fleshing out a person’s ambition. If they are actively working towards their goal, then that’s a tick from me. If not, then perhaps that says something about their level of drive, and what they are prepared to do or not do for their career, which may give you an idea of how quickly they’ll adapt to your business.


This is important as it illustrates a need to continuously improve, as well as stay abreast with or ahead of the times – two crucial aptitudes to look for in a potential star. To identify this, pay attention to the questions they ask you rather than what you ask them. Think about what they ask, how they phrase it, and why they would want to know (feel free to ask that question, by the way).

If the interview goes another way and you need to ask a question to address your interest, try this “Tell me about a skill you have tried to develop in the last six months. Why, and how did you go about doing this, and what was the result?”


Has the person done meaningful research into your organisation? Do they know who you are? How well did they prepare for the interview? Beyond just your name, the name of your company and what you generally do, how much research have they really done? If a candidate makes inferences from the job advert around the kind of person you’re looking for and the kind of problems that you’re looking to solve, then this is a good sign.

Again, you can tell a lot here by the kinds of questions that the candidate might ask. For example, they may ask questions such as “Has your company explored the [insert market here] market?” or “The company has promised the market a saving of $5 million off the bottom line in the next 12 months, will that all be due to redundancies? If so, how secure is this role?” Questions like this show that a candidate is looking to delve deeper than usual; a good sign for potential success.


People who are problem solvers, who can think clearly through unexpected crises, are a great asset to any organisation. Being able to think on your feet is a great sign for anybody, but especially for those who might not be what the company sees as a candidate worthy of an interview. One way to look for this is to ask questions about previous situations the candidate has been in, finding out how they’ve reacted and whether this would fit with the role.

Why not throw in a “curveball” question? Try something “different” to your normal questioning or interview technique to catch the candidate off guard. For example, Heineken famously threw a fire drill into an interview to gauge someone’s response (see the video here). While we’re not suggesting that’s the route to take, using a curveball question can definitely give you an idea of the person hiding beneath the cool exterior that is required in an interview situation.


These are attributes essential to anyone’s success.  You may see potential in someone, but if that person just expects results to come without working for them, it is not a risk worth taking. Try asking the candidate “Tell me about a time when you had taken on a number of tasks you thought unmanageable, and how did you deal with it?”

For me, I want to hear how the candidate perceived the problem and how they worked through it (did they just give up and ask their Manager or Supervisor what to do, or did they have a solution in mind when asking for help?). What was the eventual solution? There are times in every job when we have to deal with stress, especially in the Accounting and Finance sector, and finding someone who is able to handle this is a sure-fire sign that they have more to offer your business.


Being creative and open in the way you go about your hiring process will allow you to increase the pool of candidates with potential, versus just sticking with the tried and true model of “right fit”. Not only that, those candidates will often come at a lower cost to your business, both in terms of salary and time-to-hire, and can have a huge upside long-term.

If you are brave enough to explore this path, good luck. If you are still not sold on the idea and wish to beat the talent shortage, call us today to discuss the best way forward for your business.

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