one I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion regarding leadership potential and how to best define and unlock it.  Identifying leadership potential as early as possible in an individual’s career was top of mind for the audience.

What Is Potential?

Potential infers something different from one’s demonstrated or current skillset. It establishes a probability or likelihood that an individual will be able to harvest those yet-to-be-demonstrated abilities to drive business performance at some future point.

Potential is a powerful, yet often misunderstood concept.  It is not uncommon to hear it referred to as this “thing” that can be easily observed and captured. But it’s not as though we can identify the future senior executives in a group of children by observing their behavior on the playground. A lot of things can happen between now and then that can accelerate or inhibit one’s development. For example, have you ever had a bad boss? The type of leader who stifled instead of supported you? Even if potential was a “thing” that can be captured, it’s hard to activate potential when you are being blocked from above.

Leadership potential is more helpfully defined as a group of indicators (e.g., attributes, motivators) that points to one’s ability to succeed given increased scale, speed, and complexity. But what are those indicators?

To kick off the discussion, the moderator posed the following questions – “Do you believe leadership potential is static in a person, or can it change? Does it vary by organization or is it the same across situations?” Given the passion of audience responses, there are clearly differing points of view on this topic.

Potential Indicators as Static

Some believe indicators of potential are comprised of innate individual traits that are stable across time and situations. This perspective places a premium on identifying these abilities early in an individual’s career and providing opportunities to bring these underlying attributes to the surface.

‘Potential’ in its many forms and models, then, is a repackaged concept consisting of individual attributes that are already well-researched and documented in employee selection domain (e.g., cognitive ability, personality).

For example, general cognitive ability appears as an indicator of potential in almost all contexts, and is one of the more generalizable predictors of work performance. Research suggests it becomes an even a stronger predictor as jobs becomes more complex. This would support the notion that general indicators of potential do exist. Strategic thinking and managing ambiguity–or some version of these dimensions–are also frequently cited in models of potential.

The simplicity of this approach is obviously appealing, but it doesn’t address an important question when thinking about potential: potential for what?

Potential Indicators as Contextual

There are others who believe potential is always tied to organizational decision-making. The weight placed on certain indicators changes depending on the needs of the situation. Trying to define what potential “looks like” without being clear on the HR-related problem you are trying to address can turn into a guessing game.

The first step for any organization when discussing potential becomes a consideration of the question potential for what? Potential to advance to front-line supervisor? Potential to advance two levels to a general management position? When the “for what” changes, so do the variables that influence one’s likelihood for success.

But, if the practitioner becomes too fixated on the congruence of observed skills with role requirements, the exercise becomes more about assessing job-fit versus a true evaluation of one’s potential.

A Little Bit of Both

At Vantage, we believe both perspectives are important. That is, defining and unlocking potential requires balancing general and contextual indicators when making people decisions.  An employee’s motivation to advance must also be fit into the equation.  The dynamic nature of career aspirations and commitment suggests the need for a fluid process.

There are certainly characteristics that will generalize across most contexts.  In our experience, mental agility, strategic thinking, and curiosity—to name a few—tend to be good indicators of potential. However, there are undeniably factors that vary by organizational culture and context. For example, one organization may highly value risk-taking while another frowns upon it. Then, “capacity for risk” becomes an indicator of an individual’s ability to succeed at subsequent levels in the first organization (but not the second).

An “off-the-shelf” model in the public domain may get you some of the way towards defining and identifying potential in your organization. However, if the conversation around potential is not linked to what is required to succeed in a particular organization or job, ultimately the model will be insufficient.

How does your organization define potential? How has it changed over time? Sound off in the comments below.