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Young bucks versus gnarled veterans: are employers really looking for potential over experience?

Much has been written about how banks are focusing more on their graduate pipeline than experienced recruitment or stripping out expensive MDs and bumping more junior staff into positions of responsibility. But can your potential, rather than experience, really count more in a job hunt?

Bear with us on this one; in a world where only 100% fit hires will do and sign off for new recruits is hard to come by, this theory seems unlikely. However, a new study by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia and Harvard’s Michael Norton suggests that potential could outweigh achievements when it comes to recruiting.

They ran a series of experiments, looking at preferences for everything from athletes to artists to hiring decisions and conclude that: “Potential is more interesting than achievement precisely because it is imbued with uncertainty: The target might achieve greatness, but also might not. This uncertainty appears to be more cognitively engaging than reflecting on what is already known to be true.”

In the sports world, identifying the next big thing is obviously fairly common. The research focuses on how participants playing the part of an NBA manager would pay more for a rookie on the basis of his potential capabilities, than a veteran with the statistics to support their achievements. In the Premier League, sometimes this approach has worked out well (18-year-old Wayne Rooney’s  £25.6m move to Manchester United in 2004), other times not so much (Liverpool’s £35m punt on Andy Carroll in 2011).

Is this theory really relevant to recruitment though?

The search for leaders of the future

Apparently, yes. The research compared perceptions of one candidate applying for a ‘divisional leader’ banking position who had two years’ relevant experience and a high score in a test of leadership experience versus someone with a similar academic background but no experience and a very high score in a leadership potential test. They plumped for the latter, believing them to likely perform better in the fifth year of their career than the other applicant would by their seventh year.

“Even though people would recognise that a high achievement target has a more objectively impressive resume at present, they still prefer and be more subjectively drawn to – for instance, be more interested in hiring – an individual with high potential.”

Just to be clear, the research did suggest that this was not an age-related bias and used controls to ensure this wasn’t a factor.

The split between experience and potential

If this is a reality in the job market currently then many people with a wealth of experience will feel understandably frustrated.

It’s true that investment banks are taking the old ‘more with less’ approach – throwing junior staff in at the deep end with greater responsibilities, while handing the expensive MDs their P45. However, relevant experience is still a key selling point.

If financial services firms sign off on a new role they want to see results immediately or at least take on someone able to hit the ground running. With such a wealth of talent on the job market, hiring processes may be slow, but those firms doing the recruiting are using it as an opportunity to take on some people who may otherwise been unavailable or subject to expensive buyouts.

Potential is, of course, relevant at a graduate level. If you’ve ever asked a graduate recruiter to spell out exactly what they’re looking for in an investment banking analyst, the answer is unlikely to be: “An ability to work on spreadsheets and pitchbooks for up to 90 hours a week.”

The ability to conduct day-to-day tasks will be taught. The somewhat clichéd responses to what they want from new recruits are therefore “drive”, “motivation”, “self-confidence”, “enthusiasm” – or, in other words, potential.

The problem of proving your potential

From a candidate perspective, one of the problems of this theory is having to prove your potential. You can’t walk into a job interview and espouse your qualities and the benefits you can bring to an organisation in the future without anything to back it up. Essentially, someone else has to identify this.

“Perhaps perceivers interpret high potential claims as defensive or as masking some crucial deficiency,” says the research. “If so, we would not expect to replicate the current findings in the context of self-endorsements.”

Comments (4)

Comments
  1. have you ever noticed how all comments are being removed from this site ?

  2. ‘Tis the era of the Prat. Both ends of the hiring market.

  3. @msieniaw – it’s not that we’re removing comments, but that no one is leaving them now that they have to login. We’re attempting to remove the login requirement….

    SarahtheEditor Reply
     
  4. Pingback: Potential or a blank socialization slate – what do employers want? « commorgiland

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