An industrial manufacturer had an opening for the General Manager position at one of their flagship US facilities.  The organization hired a search firm to find the best candidates and internally vetted several top contenders. They ended up hiring Fred, a well-known industry veteran who had many years of experience managing  similar-sized facilities.  On paper, Fred was a good fit. The organization invested considerable time and resources in his onboarding. But within eighteen months, Fred was in over his head.

What went wrong? The business was experiencing rapid growth and seismic shifts in the markets they served. General Managers were being asked to think more creatively and proactively about customer needs, the business was globalizing in response to rapid advancements in technology, and there were plans in the works to significantly expand the production capability of Fred’s site. As we listened to the story in preparation for conducting assessments to fill Fred’s open-again role, it become clear what had been overlooked in the first hiring decision.

The Best Predictor of Future Performance is…

We’ve all heard the axiom, “The best predictor of future performance is the past.”  Evaluating experience and past performance is important, undoubtedly, but it is increasingly insufficient as a primary predictor of future success.

Most HR selection protocols rightly stress the importance of interviewing for the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required to drive job performance today. But how do you take into account what the job – or the entire organization – could look like tomorrow? Critical aspects of the future are unknown. Jobs and organizations shift rapidly and unpredictably.

How do you assess for what you don’t know? Even without the clearly defined KSAs that will be required in the job’s future state, you can still anticipate a candidate’s longer-term success, if you know what to look for.

Rigorously evaluating “potential” when making a hiring decision is now critical. Without it, you may find yourself with a Fred.  Potential is different from one’s demonstrated behavior or current skill set. Instead, it’s about something not yet realized. Potential establishes a probability of great performance at more advanced levels of responsibility. Put another way, it is the capability to thrive in roles of greater scale and complexity than what a leader has experienced in the past.

The Four Indicators to Look Out For

Based on thorough reviews of academic research, organizational and management literature, as well as our experience assessing thousands of executives and up-and-coming leaders, we’ve determined that evaluating these four factors can help you get a good read on a candidate’s ability to stretch, adapt, and tackle increasingly difficult challenges. Further, these four indicators of potential have utility across most job families and industries.

Thinking Agility

This is about more than simply being smart; it’s the ability to demonstrate mental flexibility, see the big picture, and identify patterns within the business environment which have strategic importance.

Going back to our example, while Fred was certainly intelligent and possessed highly relevant experience, he was too operational in his focus. He struggled to get out of the fray to look across the business and spot problems while they were still on the horizon. Plus, as his facility was required to change the way it was operating, he had to rely less and less on his past experience and struggled to manage the ambiguity.


Being inquisitive and motivated to learn are critical elements when trying to establish someone’s potential for growth.  Those high in Curiosity are hungry for feedback and motivated to put that insight into action. Indeed, research has demonstrated that curiosity promotes exposure to new and challenging opportunities, which are forerunners to learning and growth.

An important element to curiosity is the concept of learning agility. This refers to the ability and motivation to acquire knowledge and apply it. Learning agility is a cliché whose time has come, and for good reason. Given rapid expansion of disruptive technologies, the ability to quickly learn is more important than ever.

In spite of his commitment, Fred lacked the self-awareness to recognize his shortcomings, or seek out enough feedback to calibrate his perception against that of his management team. He struggled to implement the constructive feedback he was being given and didn’t make the necessary course corrections.

Leads with Purpose

There is an emerging body of literature on the power of engaging, inspiring and connecting people to a higher purpose.  This means using the company’s mission to articulate his or her higher purpose and helping others do the same.  This concept is consistent with Daniel’s Pink’s research: one of the biggest motivators to an employee is the desire to spend time at work in the service of something larger than ourselves. Leads with Purpose also includes one’s level of humility and social competence.

In Fred’s case, he struggled to articulate a shared sense of purpose.  While he tried to make visible improvements to the operation (for example, he upgraded talent in a few key management positions), employee engagement was low. A recent study by NYU indicates that purpose-oriented workers are more likely to thrive than those who work mainly for status, pay, or an advancement because such individuals are more likely to stay engaged, perform, and to lead.

Fred was so immersed in the details of managing change that he failed to connect with his employees. As a result, morale remained low and the safety culture within the facility began to deteriorate. This trend is consistent with research on the relationship between employee engagement and performance in manufacturing, where disengaged workers have 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents and 60 percent more errors and defects.


This refers to one’s level of perseverance, resilience, and motivation to achieve. Of the four indicators of potential, Drive may be the most widely used measure to predict leadership potential.  In our experience, having passion, energy, and drive are crucial to the emergence of successful leadership, but by itself, it’s not always enough.

Drive was an indicator Fred had in large quantities.  He had an unrelenting motivation to achieve and be successful. He was energized by new assignments and overcoming obstacles. Perhaps his strength in this area led the organization to incorrectly assume he possessed the necessary potential during the hiring process. Unfortunately, his deficiencies in the other indicators ultimately contributed to his downfall.

Strength in One Potential Indicator is Not Enough

It’s worth nothing again that Fred would be evaluated very highly on one of the indicators – Drive – but possessing the skills and abilities of one indicator is not enough. The four indicators work together, and the overpowering presence of one should not be mistaken as indicative of general potential. Thinking Agility, Curiosity, Leading with Purpose, and Drive are all necessary components to thrive in increasingly complex and uncertain futures.

Improving your hiring decisions by looking to the future

We’ve found that individuals who score highly on all four of these factors demonstrate the best potential for growth and are more likely to be successful at the next level, or when the role they’re in changes in scope.

When evaluating a candidate for any position in the organization we recommend focusing on the ability to:

1) Manage increasing levels of complexity and speed when making decisions through Thinking Agility,

2) Be open to feedback and apply learning in novel situations as a result of Curiosity,

3) Inspire, empower, and help others gain a sense of personal fulfillment in their work by Leading with Purpose,

4) Demonstrate high levels of resilience and determination to achieve difficult goals through Drive.

While carefully taking into account past performance and current levels of competence relative to the demands of the job are important components of a hiring decision, it only gives you a partial picture when trying to predict job success. A candidate’s ability to quickly adapt and respond to changes in the workplace is critical in today’s complex environment.

When the manufacturing organization filled the General Manager role, they selected a candidate who showed up well both with past experience and potential, and the organization is feeling confident in that their new hire will bring long-term success. More fully assessing the candidate’s capacity for learning and growth by evaluating against the four indicators will help organizations avoid costly hiring mistakes.

Do you have other indicators of potential that you’ve found to be great predictors of success? What have you learned from previous hiring mistakes? Share your thinking in the comments below.