Identifying High Potential Employees with Soft Skills Assessment Tools

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How to Achieve a Dynamic and Evolutive Selection of High Potentials - Requirements for a Successful Assessment of Behavioral Skills

The availability of employees who display the required knowledge, know-how and behavioral skills has become one of the company's keys to differentiation and success. This is not only true in relation to the company's competitors, but also in order to successfully cope with change in the industry, the technological evolution and the anticipation of future competition.

By Liliane Held-Khawam, author of the book "Management through Professional Coaching (MPC): Learning to Cope With Complexity in a Globalized Economy"

On a market in which standards have ceased to exist and in which long-term planning has become extremely difficult, success is ever more dependent on the development of the human and technological potential available. That is why one of the essential aspects of Human Resources Management consists in selecting the company’s managers and specialists in a dynamic way. A strict ("selected" / "not selected") or static selection process ("the closest match today will still be adequate tomorrow") does not match the needs of the environment anymore, whether we are dealing with an external or an internal selection process.

The aim of this article is to discuss selection and some of its requirements in order to achieve a dynamic, people-oriented and efficient selection process. We make a distinction between the two types of selection processes:

  • external selection process (recruitment processes)
  • internal selection process (promotions, job transfers, "inplacement")

Many companies tend to favor more and more the identification of the company's "high potential employees", and this for several reasons:

  • the mitigation of recruitment and integration costs;
  • the repositioning of some employees when personnel downsizing has taken place in certain departments;
  • the valorization of internal potentials that already fit into the organizational culture.

An internal selection process is similar, in the main lines, to an external one. It is however more delicate to handle, because of the potential impact on the motivation of non-selected employees.

The Risks and Opportunities of a Selection Process

Selection is frequent within the company in the following cases:

  • when the group's future top decision-maker has to be chosen
  • when we have to pick someone who will be entrusted with some special tasks
  • when we want to pick an external candidate rather than an internal for a key position
  • when a person has to be chosen from a group of several selected candidates
  • when an employee changes position within the same company (inplacement)

A selection process generally entails a notion of "success" or "failure", of acceptance or rejection, of the continuation or end of a career. It generates much expectations and emotions. As a consequence, it often leads to traumatizing situations, to a sense of failure or even humiliation, that can lead to a phase of deep soul-searching. This often translates into a departure from the company or a significant loss of motivation, which is synonymous with a waste of human potential.

The Success Requirements of a Selection Process

An adequate orientation of the company's human potential requires that three main conditions are met:

  1. A clear definition of the requirements of the position or mission. Experience shows that selections are often performed without any reference to a job profile, or with a reference to an inadequate profile that often represent an alibi. Instead, one should resort to a job profile that results from a reflection on the criteria that are absolutely essential to the success of the mission.
  2. A systematic consideration of the human potential taken as a whole, as well as of the goals and aspirations of the persons involved in the process.
  3. This assessment of the candidate’s potential will be conducted as part of an assessment interview. The success of this interview depends on one’s ability to establish an open and frank dialogue, in which the employee feels considered, understood and informed. It also implies the adoption of a perspective of evolution, progression and development. During the interview, the assessor will seek to measure the gap between the position's requirements and the candidate's competencies, in order to mitigate the risk of failure should the candidate be selected.

And now, let’s take a closer look at these requirements.

1. A clear statement of the job requirements

Stating a given job's skills requirements amounts to stating its success criteria in all relevant areas of activity. This may refer to technical skills, language skills, experience, know-how, personal and relational skills, a given set of values… This process implies hierarchizing the job's skills requirements; some success criteria will absolutely have to be met from the beginning, while others may be acquired or developed over time.

The resulting job profile may be designed in different ways:

  • by a person (as a general rule, the direct superior)
  • by a group
  • by conducting a systematic analysis, so as to identify "critical incidents": the most difficult aspects of the activity should be identified and analyzed.
  • by analyzing the skills of  the people who are already doing this job. In this case, two groups are considered: a group made up of the individuals who are considered as highly effective, and a group with the individuals who perform less. Starting from the comparison of the two groups' respective skills profiles, we will be able to identify the jop's key criteria, (or "success criteria") in terms of both technical and personal skills. These criteria will allow differentiating individuals who are highly effective in this position to individuals who perform less; this will allow for a reliable identification of the position’s requirements.

2. A systematic assessment of the candidate's potential

An individual's potential is the synthesis of different factors that we will regroup here into three categories:

  1. the "technical potential": is made up of the person’s training, technical and professional skills, know-how, language skills, past experience…
  2. the "physical potential": refers to the individual’s ability to produce a required amount of work (health, vitality, energy…) and to the image he/she projects.
  3. the "personal potential": is made up of the candidate's values, motivations and even personality traits; this will have an impact on the person's ability to communicate, lead, manage, analyze, make decisions, etc.

Whatever the position we are dealing with, it is essential to consider these three types of potential. However, their relative importance varies from case to case: a low physical potential, a precarious health, or even a bad presentation will significantly impair the efficiency of one’s activity, and may even prevent someone from accessing to certain functions. Thus a low technical potential will represent a handicap quite insurmountable for a specialist but not necessarily for a manager, for example.

As for the personal potential, it will play a decisive role when the candidates display similar technical and physical potentials. At the end of the day, it is thus by highlighting this potential that the company will gain a competitive edge. So, how can we assess such skills?

The identification and assessment of an employee's personal skills may take place at two different levels: 1) the observation and assessment of the person's behavior and 2) the assessment of the person’s potential.

a) The observation and assessment of a person's behavior

We have to assume, on the one hand, that present behaviors reflect the person’s potential and, on the other hand, that these behaviors have a predictive value in relation to future behaviors. This approach leads to the conduct of interviews and of "Assessment / Development Centers". Behavioral skills may be observed while the employee is performing his/her activities within the company.

  • Assessment interviews (guidelines): the behavioral dimension of a person's potential may be identified during an interview by systematically referring to concrete situations of life, in which the dimensions we want to assess can find an expression. For example, in order to identify the candidates’ ability to make decisions, we may ask them to tell of a recent situation in which they had to make a decision. We may ask them to describe it precisely by precising its context and goals, as well as the people involved. We will then ask them to show how they acted and which results they achieved. Precise complementary questions will allow detecting whether the person is inventing and imagining, or if he/she is really referring to a situation he/she has experienced.
  • Assessment Centers (guidelines) aim to put the candidates in the most critical situations that they may have to face in their future capacity. Their behavior, actions, and reactions, as well as the methods they employ in order to reach their goals will have to be assessed. The assessment report (sample) will consist in detailing these observations.
  • Development Centers are set up in a similar way, except for the fact that their aim here is not to select candidates, but to develop behavioral skills the lack of which may be preventing them from achieving success in their activity sector.

In every case in which employees naturally express their potential, observing their behavior will allow to directly observe their personal potential. However, some candidates may be going through difficult times, feel uneasy because they are being observed, or be hindered from expressing their potential. In such cases, the assessment will generally lead to unsatisfactory results. Yet, these candidates will not have disclosed their true potential. This will result in a discrepancy between the persons' true potential and the behaviors observed, which will make it difficult for such candidates to accept their assessment's results. If a negative decision ensues - which amounts to a failure - there is a significant risk that the development of such individuals will be impaired, and even that some of them leave the company.

b) The measurement of a person’s potential with the help of assessment tools

A variety of tools, such as HR assessment tests (articles), graphology, morpho-psychology, NLP, etc. are used in assessment processes around the world. All these methods have not only followers, but also opponents. The reason for this lies in the fact that many of these tools have not been validated on a population of reference, their reliability often has not been demonstrated, it may be possible to manipulate their results, etc. In addition to this, they often lack solid ethical foundations, which is a crucial aspect of every assessment process. It consists in communicating the results to the candidates in the course of an assessment interview, which gives them the opportunity to express their opinion regarding the relevance of the test's results.

The reliability of any given assessment tool may be checked for by asking the following questions:

  • Has the tool been calibrated for the local population?
  • Has the tool been validated in a scientific manner, as an analytical and predictive instrument?
  • Does the tool offer identical testing conditions to all candidates?
  • Does the tool identify attempts by the candidates at manipulating their answers?
  • Does the tool allow for a comparison of the way in which the person sees herself and the way in which the tools assesses her?
  • Is the tool systematically followed by an interview that remains decisive for the selection decision?

All these criteria should be met for the use of the selected assessment tool to be meaningful. This approach will result in an objective assessment of the gathered data, whether it was obtained in the course of an interview, of an "Assessment Center", or by observing everyday life behaviors. However, such tools should always be considered as a mean that remains subordinated to the much more essential assessment interview.

3. Conducting the Assessment Interview

A relevant understanding of the person's potential may only be gained by actually talking to the employee or job candidate being assessed. Thus, we must remember that the assessment tool's results will only allow the assessor to formulate a set of hypotheses. It is the candidates themselves who will provide the true explanation of the results obtained, by referring to concrete situations they have experienced in real life.

This first interview should ideally be completed by an additional interview in presence of the candidate's direct supervisor. The latter will have the possibility to express his/her assessment of the employee's skills and to formulate observations. Together, they will be able to extend and validate their understanding of the person’s potential and behavior. The superior will thus be able to better supervise the employee and the communication between them will improve.

In the case of a disagreement on the results of the assessment, it can be useful to perform occasional role plays that will focus on the aspects that must still be clarified. In this case, the conduct of "Development Centers" will apply. Role plays will only be conducted in order to assess those precise criteria for which opinions differ.

The assessment process thus becomes fast, efficient, personalized and versatile. It regroups the data collected from the use of assessment tools, the conduct of assessment interviews and on-the-field observations or role plays. The success of this approach will also depend on the quality of dialogue and of communication with the candidates, as well as on whether one abides by the ethics that should apply to the detection of the company's potentials.

Establishing a good quality of dialogue and communication presuppose that the candidates feel they are understood and respected; they must sense that their personal skills and qualities are acknowledged. All this will make it much easier to encourage employees to maximally highlight and develop their potential. We will then jointly delimitate with them the environment in which their potential may best come to an expression, and discuss ways of coping with the possible lacks that have been detected. This may translate into the attendance of courses, seminaries, coaching sessions, simulations, job rotation, and even lead to personal development project. This will also be the occasion to discuss the employee’s personal goals, by validating or challenging them.

Towards a Dynamic Selection Process

The goal of this process is to minimize the gap between an individual's skills and the job requirements of the position they hold. A first remark is that this gap should not be equal to zero. Indeed, the perfect command of a position does not allow for development opportunities anymore. In the contrary, one should aim at measuring the gap, at assessing the risks taken. The main job requirements should thus be put in a balance with the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. If they are comprised within the person’s strengths, it is probable that the latter will be able to "grow" in this activity. This is the configuration in which the results of the development will be the most spectacular. In the opposite, if the main job requirements correspond to the person’s weaknesses, there is a very significant risk that the employee will spend much energy at this level, wear out and get disheartened. Moreover, such a situation will have a significant and negative impact on the person's potential as a whole.

It is however possible to make arrangements by modifying the job requirements themselves. For instance, responsibilities may be shared among different persons, a personalized coaching process may be set up for the dimensions that need development action, etc. In addition to this, the best results in terms of development will be achieved when the selection itself has been prepared.

1. Preparing the selection process in advance

The main part of the work should be done from one to two years before a nomination is enacted, so as to allow employees to truly prepare for their future positions. The identification of the gaps will serve as the basis of any effective development plan - i.e. a development plan in which employees will play the main part. We will thus increase the probability that the selection and integration processes will be successful. Another dimension that is too often neglected relates to the monitoring process that will have to take place after the selection.

2. Monitoring the selection process

The assessment of the selected employees’ potential allows for a close monitoring and an on-the-job coaching process that will make it possible to assist them in the difficulties they encounter with their work, and thus help them with the development of their weak points. By doing so, we will also increase – with relatively little effort – the selection process' chances for success. This holds for both internal and external selection processes (monitoring of the recruitment process).

Conclusion: Achieving a Dynamic and Evolutive Selection of High Potentials

Selection processes represent a key activity for the management of an organization. In order to be relevant, they should always be carried out in relation to clearly defined job requirements that take the company's organizational culture into account. The (internal or external) candidates' potential in relation to a position should also be assessed in the most objective, reliable and fair way possible. It should also take the different dimensions of the individual's potentialinto account, namely: the technical potential, the physical potential and the personal potential.

In order to assess a candidate's personal potential, validated assessment tools can be of great help. Their results will however have to be compared to the data collected during interviews and/or everyday life situations (whether on the actual workplace or during a role play). This approach demands the observance of strict ethics throughout the assessment process and the feedback interview.

Finally, the selection process does not end with the choice of a candidate: a monitoring process of the selected candidate's integration will have to be set up in order to allow for a faster integration on the workplace is also of interest. Furthermore, a follow-up of non-selected internal job candidates can, by giving them new perspectives of development, help avoid conveying a sense of failure.

For more information on assessment techniques and methodology, please refer to the article "Assessing Employee Potential with Personality Tests and Assessment Centers".

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