The Top Reasons You Should Hire For Potential, Not Experience

Two male professionals shaking hands

Traditionally, employers have made hiring decisions based almost exclusively on competence, breaking down a role into a laundry list of “required skills” and seeking candidates whose experience matches up with their wish list of ideal traits instead of hiring for potential.

However, the state of the workforce is rapidly changing. Recruiting in low unemployment continues to be a challenge for companies while finding candidates who are a good “culture fit” is an increasingly important component of hiring processes. This means that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies to find employees who meet the criteria they’re looking for — and, most importantly, are actually seeking to make a career move.

The ability to hire employees who align with your needs will become even more critical as senior talent is predicted to become scarcer in the future. In fact, a Boston Consulting Group survey found that 56% of executives foresee “critical gaps” in their ability to fill senior management roles in the coming years.

So, how can your business overcome these modern hiring hurdles to build a workforce that isn’t just aligned with your current needs but also has the ability to scale and adapt to achieve your future goals? We have an idea: hiring for potential, not experience.

What Does Hiring for Potential Mean?

Let’s say you need to hire a graphic designer for a fashion brand. You come across a candidate with an impressive portfolio, but they don’t have any prior experience in fashion or apparel. You have two options: 1) move on to a candidate with more relevant experience, or 2) give them a shot based on the strength of their portfolio and other desirable qualities like drive and creativity. If you choose option 2, you’re hiring for potential. 

Hiring for potential means selecting a candidate based on their aptitude and likely ability to develop the required skills rather than on their proven track record. It may mean hiring a candidate who meets your education requirements but lacks experience, hiring a candidate from a different field with transferable skills, or hiring someone who’s missing a technical requirement but is enthusiastic about learning. 

The Benefits of Hiring for Potential

Hiring for potential can offer several benefits to organizations. 

Expand your talent pool

At a time of persistently low unemployment, hiring for potential can broaden your talent pool. Making an exception to rigid degree requirements, for example, can open the application process to candidates who are capable of doing the job but lack a formal degree. 

Embrace diverse perspectives

Hiring strictly for skills can confine your search to a homogenous pool of applicants–people with the same general career path or professional record. On the other hand, hiring for potential allows you to consider applicants who don’t fit the traditional mold and, therefore, offer unique backgrounds and perspectives. Diverse teams tend to achieve superior performance, which can benefit your productivity and innovation. 

Build a cohesive culture

When you hire for potential, a candidate’s personality, work style, and values play a greater role in your decision than their technical qualifications. Coincidentally, these elements also influence company culture more than skills alone. So, by prioritizing more personal characteristics, you can assemble a team that more closely aligns with your vision for the company’s culture. 

Invest in employees

Today’s top candidates want to work for companies that are invested in their success. Hiring for potential is the ultimate display of that investment. You’re assuming a certain level of risk when you hire for potential, going off your faith that the applicant will wind up fulfilling the vision you have for them. This is a valuable way to show your belief in a candidate and can help you seal the deal with future high performers. 

When You Should Hire for Potential vs. Experience

When you’re growing quickly

Sometimes, the most important thing is getting more hands on deck ASAP. If you’re growing rapidly as a company and the employees you hire will have lots of room to grow as well, hiring for potential is a good way to fulfill your immediate headcount needs while adding great people to your talent base. 

When you already have a strong depth chart

If your bookkeeping is a mess and you’re in desperate need of an accountant to sort things out, hiring for potential is only going to make your problems worse. However, if your books are in good shape and you’ve got a senior accountant who’s already running things smoothly, hiring a more junior team member based on potential who can be trained to support their senior colleagues could be a practical decision. 

When you have the bandwidth for training

This is imperative to understand: when you hire for potential, your new employee’s performance rests heavily on your shoulders. Since they’re not coming in with extensive experience, you’ll be largely responsible for giving them the tools they need to succeed. This means you must have the time and resources to commit to employee development to make your new hire a success. 

When soft skills are paramount

Some skills, like software programming or Microsoft Excel, can be taught. Others, like creativity and adaptability, are less easy to learn from a course or a book. In roles where soft skills are more important than experience, hiring for potential is often the way to go.

Related: How to Assess Soft Skills

How You Can Evaluate Potential 

‘Potential’ isn’t a quality that can be objectively scored. However, there are strategies you can use to identify it. Here are a few ways to tell when a candidate has strong potential. 

Assess preparedness

Even without years of experience, a good candidate will still put in the work to show you that they care about the job. Pay attention to whether they’ve done the basics to get ready for the interview, like researching the company and preparing to answer standard interview questions like ‘What are your strengths?’

Reflect on their background

Instead of focusing on prior jobs and professional achievements, spend the bulk of your time considering the candidate’s background. How might the skills they have be transferable to your position? Are there parallels between jobs they’ve held before and the duties they’d be performing? For example, someone who’s been a nanny might have great organizational skills that would make them a valuable office administrator. 

Ask situational interview questions

Situational questions are open-ended questions that prompt a candidate to describe how they’d react when faced with a scenario. These questions can give you useful insight into a candidate’s character and critical thinking skills. Here are some examples:

  • What would you do if one of our customers called to complain?
  • How would you handle a mistake in a delivery?
  • What if you found out one of your coworkers was stealing?
  • How would you react if your boss gave you negative feedback?

Use assessments

Pre-employment assessments aren’t just for technical skills. Modern assessments can gauge diverse aspects of a candidate, from personality to leadership capabilities to teamwork. Assessments have been proven to be a strong predictor of future success, so they’re a great tool when a candidate doesn’t have a long list of experience. 

Ask for their sales pitch

What better way to discover a candidate’s potential than to ask them directly? Prompt them with a question like ‘Why should I hire you?’ and let them make the case. You can ask follow-up questions like ‘How would you overcome your lack of experience?’ or ‘How do you advance your skills?’ to see whether they align with your thoughts on ongoing development. 

Advantages of Hiring for Potential, Not Experience

Here are a few of the primary upsides of hiring for potential over experience.

Ability to shape and mold employees

Workers with more professional experience will naturally have developed their own ways of doing things. They may have preferences about the type of technology they use to do their jobs, for example, or about protocols for interacting with customers. These preexisting preferences can present challenges, especially if they’re quite different from the culture or processes that exist in your organization. 

When you hire for potential, these pre-existing preferences don’t exist. You have more ability to shape and mold employees to your preferred work style and systems. 

Stronger succession planning

Hiring for potential puts you in a great position to develop future company leaders, which is an important aspect of effective succession planning. Companies that practice succession planning experience fewer negative impacts from turnover and are better positioned for longevity than those who don’t actively groom the next generation of leadership.

Supports an adaptable workforce

When you feel that someone has strong potential, one reason is probably that you recognize they’re adaptable. This indicates a willingness to learn and to take a different approach when faced with obstacles. Adaptability is one of the most important qualities for a resilient workforce, so hiring for potential can improve your staff in this key area. 

Is Hiring for Potential Better?

Hiring for potential is a long-term approach. It requires the ability to look strategically at the company’s future and how an individual might bring value to that future picture. It also requires you to take a more holistic view of each candidate, considering the type of person you want to be part of the team rather than focusing solely on the role you need to fill right now. 

Hiring for potential isn’t always better. As we discussed earlier, for example, if you urgently need to cover a highly specific skills gap, hiring for experience is a much more suitable approach.  However, if you can commit the necessary resources to training and development, hiring for potential can be an excellent way to build a strong culture of high performers who are engaged with their work and excited about continuous growth. 

Identify Your Hiring Needs — and Fulfill Them — By Partnering with the Right Staffing Agency

Do you need assistance identifying your immediate or long-term hiring needs? Do you need help weighing the pros and cons of hiring experienced vs inexperienced employees? Have you decided that you’re looking to hire for potential, not experience, but have been struggling to source the best candidates?

There’s no need to figure it all out independently — turning to the right staffing agency or headhunter can help. This is where we will come in to help you figure out these unknowns and develop a strategic hiring strategy that brings you the talent you need.

At 4CR, we’re a professional staffing agency dedicated to recruiting only the best candidates for our clients. We’re here to help you uncover your deeper hiring needs and then apply our years of experience and access to extensive resources and candidates to help you achieve them. Let us connect you with the talent your company is looking for — whether that means a fresh graduate or seasoned candidate.

Ready to get started? Contact one of our professional recruiters today to learn how we can recruit and screen the candidates most aligned with your business needs.

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn