How to spot employees with the most learning potential
Employers that fail to meet learning needs may drive top performers to greener pastures.
The Pareto Principle, when applied to the workplace, says that 20% of employees perform 80% of the workload.
Earlier this year, HR Dive spoke with Katie Burch, an architect and firm co-founder from Brenham, Texas, who subscribes to this theory and says it means that employers need to be "laser focused" on these superstar employees. For her, that means lavishing them with training opportunities.
But identifying these employees — or candidates likely to become superstars — can be challenging. In a nutshell, they're often considered the staffers that help others, ask smart questions, look for more work, thrive on a challenge and have an entrepreneurial mindset. But they're also easy to miss, because managers take them for granted, knowing their assignments will get done. Allowing your most reliable workers to operate on auto-pilot and focusing your training on poor performers is a mistake, experts say.
Identifying high-potential employees
When evaluating employees for learning potential, experts identified three key characteristics to look for: "learnability," adaptability and curiosity.
Employers should look for individuals who exhibit "learnability," according to Beth Linderbaum, VP, principal consultant for Right Management. This refers to a desire and ability to grow and adapt their skills, she told HR Dive via email. "With how fast jobs are changing, your employability is less about what you already know and more about what you can learn. This means moving from judging individuals on past performance to future potential."
To do so, employers first need a good understanding of the skills they'll need in the future. Then, they can leverage assessments and other talent data to ensure individuals have the foundation they'll need. "Organizations may find that because new skill sets are needed for the future, they first need to hire for foundational skills needed for the role and then invest in building that talent," she said.
Adaptability is key, Tabitha A. Scott, founder and CEO of Cole Scott Group agreed. Anyone can learn new things, but employers need to find the individuals who prefer change to the status quo. "As a SVP of Innovation for over 14 years, I personally would look for employees who create, explore, innovate and adapt quickly," she said in an email. "[T]hen the key qualities include: curiosity, future-focused, and flexibility."
And that extends outside the workplace. "If I had to pick a single characteristic that is a predictor of a person’s potential, it is a person’s attitude," said Lorraine Gusé, senior VP, human resources director at Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest. Moreover, she said that employees who give their time to others — either at work or in their communities — tend to be high achievers. Such actions demonstrate a generosity of spirit, she said.
"Look for someone who asks for training," wrote Kevin Gumienny, senior learning architect at Microassist. As a manager, he offers professional development opportunities whenever he can and makes it clear employees should look for training they can use, without regard to cost. "After all, the worst we can say is 'no,' and we might say 'yes.' I look for people who follow up on those opportunities without prompting; and, of course, people who push for more training."
It’s that thirst for learning, that curiosity Gumienny is looking for. He tries not to base approvals on what he thinks about the training topics that employees suggest. "After all, there’s a lot of times when people see benefits and connections that I don’t see. They’re the expert in their field, not me. As long as they can make the case that the training opportunity will help them benefit the company, they’ll get my support."
Identifying high-potential candidates
Of course, employers also will want to gauge job applicants' potential for learning. But that can be more challenging, given the relatively little time HR and hiring managers are able to spend getting to know them.
Still, it's possible, the experts said. For example, "I like to ask candidates to provide me with various examples of how they have handled challenges in their lives, whether personally or in their jobs," Gusé said. The answers provide insight into candidates' attitude, motivation and ability to solve problems. She’s also pays attention to any volunteerism, either on the job or in the community.
Burch, from PlanNorth Architectural Co., said she looks for scenarios where a person has overcome some adversity, or beaten the odds in some way. "Regardless of whether it’s related to our field, that personality makes a great asset to the team," she said.
She also places weight on the questions they have for her team. "I’m always interested more in what they are asking because it indicates to us what is important to them for the future...are they excited about innovation, or people, or technology?" Those with greater potential typically ask the harder questions; "They’re the ones who will help you grow," she said.
A rigorous assessment process can also help employers find the talent they'll need for the future, said Linderbaum. "We need to use assessments to identify potential, basing decisions not just on past performance ... what further capacity individuals may have for growth, learning and leadership."
Performance is contagious
Employers often want to prioritize this work not only because it helps top performers perform even better, but also because good performance is contagious. A study published in Harvard Business Review in 2017 found that good behavior boosts the effectiveness of other members of a team by 5% to 15%. Hiring and developing high-potential employees can create a company-wide ripple effect.
Employees with the most potential for learning may have unique qualities, but they also have unique needs. Employers that fail to recognize them and meet them may not only drive superstars to greener pastures, but also may miss out on the potential ripple effect their good work can create.