We like to hire for the potential to make sure the candidate can grow with us, and we need to make sure that the candidate has the capacity to succeed.

While initiating a search project, we frequently get requests from the client like “we want to hire an ‘up and comer’ – or ‘high potential’ candidate.” Generally, the motivations are along this thinking: The candidate will work harder for us, not have expectations or limitations and biases from their past similar roles, and the client can pay a lower salary and bonus to get the job done. Efficient thinking? Maybe. I find this true of many C-Suite hires, or that VP role, where the client thinks a senior director is ready to step up, would work out well, especially in a smaller company. While I agree with this logic, this is often not how it plays out in real life. You need to be certain of the candidate’s capabilities – they are not just “high potential” but also highly capable. We tend, as humans, to be enamored by potential. What is important is capability. So, how do you measure capability?

First, you need to define your business goals and clearly defined objectives for the role you intend to hire for – in other words – if you hire a great candidate, what outcomes do you expect? What do you want to accomplish with this hire? Then you need to look at what the candidate has already accomplished in their current and previous roles to see how they measure up.

For example, if you want to commercialize a novel and disruptive technology, you will replace or improve a standard of care or protocol. Has this person done this before? Did they set the strategy for the launch? What were the results? Did they direct hire a team and work with consultants or use partners or distributors? Were they on target with sales? What was their spending budget? How well did they coordinate with other key members of the leadership team?

You must also examine the candidate’s leadership capacity as a C-Suite hire. How well is this person

able to establish trust quickly, build strong relationships based upon mutual respect with your other leadership team members, how well do they communicate ideas, negotiate good outcomes for all, and focus on advancing the company more than their personal agenda? If you want to grow your team, you need to understand these critical capabilities in your candidate. Determining what the candidate has executed in their previous roles is easiest.

If the candidate has not demonstrated mastery of these skills and abilities, they cannot bring that to your company. However, if they have led teams of people, mentored and developed other people, and demonstrated key leadership capabilities while they executed well, then they could step up into a bigger role.

When defining capacity, it is very important to conduct thorough reference checks – from the people, the candidate has worked for, with, and supervised. You need to understand the candidate’s “in the trenches” strengths and weaknesses, not just the surface person you meet in the interview process.

You also need to understand how this person’s skills have evolved and grown over past roles, which will also provide insight into how this candidate will grow with you. Understanding how the candidate manages pressure and unexpected events is especially important. This information will allow you to learn just how to motivate and manage the candidate and their capacity for growth and execution.

Remember, hiring potential can lead to unmet endpoints for you if the person does not have the capacity or capability to perform to your business needs. It is very important to learn as much as you can about the candidate – their strengths, weaknesses, and capability before you hire.

Working with a seasoned executive search consultant can help you not only identify strengths and weaknesses, but also help you rank candidates with their peer group, ensuring that you make a great hire every time.