Why, and how, to hire for potential — not experience

It’s no secret at this point that the hiring process has been in dire straits since the COVID-19 pandemic. The aftermath of the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and an increased focus on work-life balance have made recruiting top talent no easy task. In fact, most recruitment industry professionals from around the world reported tight talent pools as their main hiring challenge in 2023.

In short, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies to fill their open positions.

The solution?

Organizations should hire for potential, not experience.

While it’s long been the norm to seek many years of experience for open job positions, that’s becoming less of a possibility for recruiters. Experienced hires are becoming few and far between due to an aging workforce, and younger candidates tend to lack direct experience.

Hiring for Attitude D

Proprietary research from Boston Consulting Group discovered that 56% of business executives predict critical gaps in their ability to fill senior management roles in the coming years. This means hiring managers should focus on finding high-potential candidates with less experience than they typically would.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either.

When handled properly, hiring for potential can yield many benefits for your organization, including higher employee engagement, more diverse teams, and long-term success. Stay tuned to learn how you can develop an eye for candidates with a lot of potential to ensure your future success.

What does it mean to hire for potential?

Recruiters love candidates with prior experience because it makes the hiring process easier and more affordable for them.

Since experienced candidates have already held previous positions in the same field, they already possess the necessary technical skills to get the job done right. Not only that, but the chances are high that they won’t require any training at all, which saves time and money.

Hiring for potential carries a lot more risk than hiring for experience since you won’t have any way to vouch for their competencies. It also requires more work on the recruiters’ part, as they have to keep their eyes open for factors that signal the candidate has true potential.

While it’s riskier and there’s more work involved, hiring for potential, not experience, can be highly effective — and it yields some distinct advantages. For example, I’ve already stated that companies are having a hard time finding candidates with extensive experience and that tight talent pools are recruiters’ top challenge.

Well, hiring for potential over experience greatly expands your available talent pool. Instead of drawing from a handful of experienced candidates, your open positions will expand to the greater public, increasing your chances of finding the best candidate.

The flaw of only hiring for work experience is how exclusive it is. Just because someone has held previous positions in the same field doesn’t mean they’re more talented than a candidate with no experience.

Hiring for potential: An example

Let’s consider a possible scenario to illustrate the power of hiring for potential.

You’ve got two candidates applying for an open copywriter position at your organization. Candidate A has 12 years of prior experience, but he was a bit rude and arrogant during the interview. You can already tell that he’s not a good cultural fit for your team, either.

Candidate B has no professional experience yet, but she provided an impeccable writing sample that perfectly embodied your brand’s tone. She also has a pleasant personality and impresses everyone during the interview process.

In this scenario, Candidate A may have more experience, but it’s clear that they aren’t the right choice. Candidate B shows massive potential for growth, and she’ll likely hit the ground running if hired. She may require more training than Candidate A, but she’ll provide more value in the long run.

That’s a brief example of how hiring for potential can be the right call, so don’t let a candidate’s years of experience blind your judgment.

Why should you hire for potential, not experience?

Whether you just need to get someone through the door or are looking for a senior role, you should never dismiss a candidate if they don’t have enough experience.

Why is that?

It’s because there are many benefits of hiring for potential, and you may miss out on the perfect candidate if you ignore it entirely. Here’s a look at the top reasons why considering a candidate’s potential is worth the time and investment.

It will greatly expand your talent pool

When recruiters only focus on experience in today’s age, their talent pools only get smaller and smaller. The remedy for this is to adopt a growth mindset and seek candidates who demonstrate potential.

Once you do that, your talent pool will expand like never before, as you’ll be able to interview a lot more candidates. While it’s not wise to interview every person who applies, you should make your job requirements less stringent.

After all, does that entry-level position really need someone who has 5 or more years of experience? Or will you find just as much success with hiring a newly graduated candidate who shows massive potential and interest in what you do?

The more potential employees you have to choose from, the easier it will become to make the absolute best hiring decision. Yet, the mere thought of expanding talent pools in this way is enough to make some recruiters shudder. That’s because they falsely assume that hiring for potential opens the door for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to become a new hire, which isn’t true.

You’ll need to develop an eye for it, meaning that you’ll know when an inexperienced candidate shows potential for a specific job description. Once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll worry far less about hiring the wrong person (even if they don’t meet your experience requirements).

Hiring for potential means more diverse teams

Whenever you hire for experience, you tend to hire the same kind of candidates repeatedly, which can cause your company culture to stagnate.

However, hiring for potential opens the door for candidates who don’t fit your traditional mold, which can be very healthy for your organization. These types of candidates have unique backgrounds and perspectives, which will breathe new life into your team members and foster innovation.

The proof?

Evidence shows that diverse teams deliver 60% better results and make stronger decisions 87% of the time as compared to non-diverse teams. Diversity is undoubtedly a strength, and hiring for potential will help you find more diverse job seekers. Moreover, employing a diverse team makes your organization more attractive to top talent.

A Glassdoor survey found that a whopping 67% of job seekers consider workplace diversity a top factor when looking for employment opportunities. The survey also went on to discover that 50% of employees wish their workplace would do more to promote diversity.

Therefore, hiring for potential will help you increase diversity, which will improve the engagement of your current staff as well as attract top talent.

It leads to long-term success

Sure, your new hires may require some education and training before they reach their true potential, but once they get there, the value they provide will keep rolling in.

Also, high-potential employees are rich in soft skills, which are the essential skills that everyone needs to succeed in any type of organization (such as communication, problem-solving, adaptability, etc.).

These soft skills will come in handy while you help develop their hard skill set through training and on-the-job education. When you invest in your employee’s success, the returns often come back ten-fold. This will also positively affect your reputation as an employer, as it won’t take long for word to get out that you invest in your people.

Potential employees dream of working for companies that invest in their future development, so you’ll have top talent knocking at your door continuously.

Hiring for potential builds a stronger company culture

This perk goes hand-in-hand with the others, especially the benefit of hiring more diverse teams.

Whenever you hire for potential and invest in your employee’s success, you’ll enjoy a diverse team that’s firing on all cylinders. Your employee engagement levels will soar to new heights, and your productivity will follow suit. That will help form a strong company culture featuring bonded team members, a cheery work environment, an emphasis on working together, and a rigorous work ethic.

A positive company culture will help you recruit even more talent, which is a bonus. According to Gallup, attractive company cultures attract the top 20% of available talent. They also discovered that 71% of workers use referrals from current employees to learn about what it’s like to work there, which is how the word gets out.

That’s why it’s worth investing in your organization’s culture, and hiring for potential over experience is one of the best ways to do so.

When does it make sense to hire for potential instead of experience?

Hiring for potential definitely yields benefits, but it’s not always the right call. There are times when experience trumps all, especially for senior roles requiring vast amounts of prior knowledge and existing skill sets.

Hiring for experience also makes more sense when you lack the budget for proper training materials. If there’s no possible way for you to train employees with high potential without going broke, you’ll want to focus on experience instead.

Having said that, there are certain scenarios where hiring for potential actually makes the most sense, so let’s take a look at them.

When your organization is experiencing rapid growth

If you’re scaling your operations, your #1 goal is to fill your open positions as quickly as possible. This is the perfect situation for hiring based on potential, as experienced candidates likely won’t provide a large enough talent pool.

Whenever organizations experience rapid growth, it’s common for recruiters and hiring managers to want to hire anyone they can find. However, this can be extremely detrimental since you don’t want to wind up with a poor fit for your organization.

That’s where the magic of hiring for potential comes into play. Rather than hiring anyone who applies, hiring for potential gives you a way to vet candidates’ compatibility with your organization, even when they have zero experience.

Developing an eye for potential will help you make the best possible hiring decisions when you’re trying to fill dozens of open positions. That’ll ensure that the new hires you make will mesh well with your existing team and that you can mold them into experienced professionals in the near future.

Roles where soft skills matter most

Some roles require lots of on-the-job training to learn specific software programs like Salesforce or WordPress. These tend to be the roles where recruiters look for experience over potential since it’s far easier to hire someone who’s already familiar with the tools you use.

However, other roles are less focused on hard skills, and soft skills like communication, creativity, and adaptability reign supreme.

These are the picture-perfect roles for hiring for potential since most soft skills are inherent and can’t be taught. For instance, if you value creativity above all else for your marketers, then looking for years of experience shouldn’t be your top concern. Instead, you should scour resumes for evidence of the kind of creativity you’re looking for, such as unique promotional concepts (even if they’re just samples created in a college classroom).

These talents are often transferable skills, meaning they can apply to multiple roles at different organizations.

That’s another reason to focus on hiring for potential since the soft skills high-potential employees have can apply to more than one role at your organization. Therefore, they can become prime candidates for promotions or lateral moves (if they’re interested in a similar position).

When you have the capacity to train new hires

If you have an ample training budget and materials on hand, then hiring for potential instead of experience is a great idea.

As stated before, the primary reason recruiters love to hire based on experience is it eliminates the need for lots of on-the-job training. Yet, whenever your organization is willing to train new hires, that reason flies out the window.

With a healthy training capacity, you can expand your talent pool to include candidates who don’t have many years of experience (or any at all).

That’ll give you the opportunity to truly find candidates that:

  • Have loads of potential to become future leaders and innovators

  • Will offer unique and diverse perspectives to your team

  • Possess the types of soft skills the position requires

  • Will work well with your existing team

As you can see, being able to train new staff makes the hiring process far less restrictive, which is something recruiters desperately need in today’s age.

When your existing team has adequate expertise

If your organization has lots of senior employees and experienced leaders at the helm, it gives you more wiggle room to hire employees who show potential. For example, if your sales department features a manager with 20 years of experience and three decorated salespeople, you’ve already got your bases covered expertise-wise.

Therefore, hiring a fourth salesperson straight out of college who has incredible communication and interpersonal skills is a wise choice. The candidate clearly has the makings of a great salesperson, and your existing team can help them fill in the gaps and get used to the way your organization does things. Before you know it, the new hire will soak up the senior employee’s expertise like a sponge, and they’ll be a valuable and productive member of your team.

How to evaluate potential in candidates

Evaluating a candidate’s potential is a skill anyone can learn, and there are some special techniques you can use to speed up the process. While potential isn’t a tangible force that you can measure using an instrument, it undoubtedly exists, and it gets easier to identify once you know what you’re looking for.

Here are the most effective ways to identify candidates that have potential.

How prepared are they?

A great way to identify potential in a candidate is to analyze how they prepared for the interview.

Did they look into your company, or do they not have a clue what your organization does? Are they dressed to the 9s, or do they look like they just got out of bed?

The more prepared an employee is for the interview, the more serious they are about the role – which is a key indicator of potential.

Ask targeted interview questions

During the interview, you should ask situational questions that relate to scenarios that occur on the job. These are open-ended questions that aim to give you a sneak peek into how an employee would handle an assigned task or solve a problem.

Examples include:

  • A customer calls to complain about a product; what do you do?

  • We need a new idea for a promotion, but we’re drawing a blank; what are your ideas?

  • How would you handle it if one of your team members quit pulling their own weight with group work?

  • How would you recover a customer’s business if they called to complain?

These questions help you determine the candidate’s personality, critical thinking skills, and soft skills.

Closely examine their background

This involves a lot more than checking for years of experience in a related position. Instead, take a look at their education, previous roles, certifications, and any groups they’ve worked with.

Does any of their background experience align with your open position?

For example, if you’re hiring a junior member of your marketing team, participation in college marketing groups (or even impressive results from a class) can indicate potential. Also, be on the lookout for transferable skills from past roles, such as strong organizational and critical-thinking skills from working as a night auditor at a hotel.

Have them complete pre-employment assessments

All manner of pre-employment assessments exist online, and they judge everything from their personality type to soft skills and everything in between.

You can use assessments to judge an employee’s:

  • Culture fit

  • Cognitive abilities

  • Personality traits

  • Job-specific skills

There’s a reason why over 65% of companies today use some form of pre-employment assessment, and it’s because they’re effective ways to gauge an employee’s potential.

Wrapping up: Hire for potential, not experience

It’s crucial for recruiters to broaden their horizons when searching for candidates, which means breaking the ‘hiring for experience’ habit. While it doesn’t always make sense to hire for potential, there are plenty of scenarios where it actually benefits organizations, so you definitely shouldn’t ignore it. With experienced candidates becoming increasingly scarce, recruiters must focus on candidates’ potential instead of their existing expertise.