What is potential?
There are three terms that are often used interchangeably in the Career, Management and Leadership Development fields – ‘ambition’ ‘competence’ and ‘potential.’ We see them as quite distinct.
Ambition reflects what a person wants from their career – this could be quite specific e.g. a career as a clinician in one area of medicine or a leader / management role. What people want also embraces some of the work life balance trade offs more and more people seek to accomplish when making career choices. Competence is different to ambition, it reflects the skills and knowledge a person has acquired and uses (unconsciously) on a day to day basis. Potential on the other hand reflects is different again, it looks at the speed at which a person learns when faced with demanding situations that goes beyond their experience. When measured potential can be seen as a predictor of how well someone can convert their latent qualities into competence.
When is potential important?
When recruiting to senior NHS roles competence is more important to the employer than potential. This is because the critical selection criteria reflect whether someone can ‘hit the ground running’ – ‘they’ve got what it takes to do the job now.’
When assessing people’s suitability for leadership and management development programmes (as well as recruiting graduates) potential becomes more important than competence. The selection criteria in this scenario are concerned with whether someone has the potential (independent of their ambition and competence) to step up to more demanding roles - ‘they’ve got what it takes to take on more complex roles in the future if we develop them in the right way.’
Nomination processes (to development programmes) often rely on historic information - how well someone has done in the past. Experience suggests that nominating managers when asked to judge someone’s potential are more likely to reflect someone’s performance in their current role and their ‘likeability’ in such judgements. Whilst useful this is not about potential as we see it as the past is not always a good predictor of someone’s future. As the Peter Principle tells us, organisations do have the unwitting ability to promote people to their level of incompetence rather than their potential. The cost of getting it wrong is high both emotionally and financially.
How do you measure someone’s potential?
We use a long established and well respected tool called Potentia. It combines 2 ideas – 1) that work gets more complex and ambiguous the higher up a person goes (see sectors of work below) and 2) that their ability to cope with differing levels of complexity and ambiguity depends on how they think and interact with others (their qualities of intellect and action below.)
Sectors of work
Sectors of work reflect the fact that different roles in an organisation require their occupants to deal with different levels of complexity and ambiguity. The table below illustrates this:
Sectors 1-3, described as the ‘operational arena’ cover roles that thrive in a data rich environment and can use established protocols and precedents to progress things forward. Roles in sectors 4+, known as the ‘strategic arena,’ deals more with long term trends and patterns, incomplete and conflicting information and a multiplicity of different stakeholder agendas. Precedent and protocol is less helpful here, the ability to intuit and ‘see around corners’ is more so.
Roles that require people to follow layed down procedures reside in sector 1 – the vast majority of roles. Specialist and Managerial roles mainly reside in Sectors 2-3. Senior roles, often with some form of accountability for either generating or implementing long term strategy, start at Sector 4. In an NHS context each sector may correspond with the following types of roles:
It often surprises people that Consultants and Doctors are ‘only Sector 3.’ This because these roles work in a data rich environment and where there is much protocol and procedures to follow. The level of complexity and ambiguity is relatively small.
Qualities of Intellect and Temperament
Potentia examines how an individual processes their thinking – the way they analyse problems, think creatively and prioritise actions as well as their temperament – their drive, resilience and empathy – and predicts the sector of work at which these sets of qualities reside. This happens either during a 3½ interview that measures intellect and temperament in all 6 Sectors or a 1½ hour interview that measures up to Sector 4. Trained profilers give a participant every chance to show how their intellect and temperament works. A brief description of what the profiler is looking for in the operational arena (sectors 1-3) and the strategic arena (sectors 4-6) is
Similarly for a person’s temperament:
The resulting profile predicts the extent to which an individual’s intellect and temperament accesses the operational arena and whether it extends to the strategic. The 4 generic profiles that emerge are
In any random population approximately 80% of will fall into the Type D profile above – Intellect and Temperament Operational. At the other extreme only about 5% would be expected to reach above Sector 4 in the Type A profile - Intellect and Temperament Strategic.
The generic profiles aid a number of individual and organisation decisions. For example in a talent management / succession planning context –
Who are our stars of the future?
The characteristics of ‘stars’ will differ for each part of a health system. For example Clinical teams need a lot of specialists in the Intellect and Temperament Operational Profile. Those concerned with a significant change agenda may want ‘Change Agents’ in the Intellect Operational and Temperament Strategic Profile. A Policy Unit or strategy planning function will need strategic Intellect more than temperament. All organisations at the very senior levels will need Strategic Intellect and Temperament in either one or a number of individuals.
What is our bench strength?
By profiling existing and next generation leaders, the results show which of the four generic profiles are predominant in an organisation. When matched to analyses of the critical roles and the likelihood of them becoming vacant in the future, understanding of the extent to which critical roles can be filled by internal staff vs. reliance on the open market becomes clearer.
How do you select people for development?
The profiles indicate who is capable of stepping up to more challenging work and so form the basis for this selection decision. Existing competence is a less reliable predictor of ability to ‘step up.’ This is particularly so in the graduate recruitment field. Academic qualification, whilst very useful, does not equate to potential to thrive in complex and ambiguous sectors of work.
What type of development investment?
The profiles lend themselves to different types of development activity as follows:
From an individual’s point of view, questions such as the following become more open to discussion:
How is Potentia different to other tools?
Potentia has a long history; it was developed in the 1980s by Shell who experienced problems when putting people in ‘country manager’ roles, based on their performance in more junior roles in the UK, and failing. Shell needed a predictor of whether someone could step up to the more complex and ambiguous demands placed on people when they managed Shell’s affairs in a foreign country.
Potentia is not a paper and pencil or online psychometric test. It relies on the intervention of a trained profiler to interact with a participant in order to fully assess their potential both in terms of how they think (intellect) and their behaviour towards others (temperament). This human interaction is Potentia’s strength and weakness. Strength because participants enjoy the profiling process and feel they get a fair hearing and real insight into their latent strengths. Weakness in that the integrity of the tool depends on the quality of the profiler. To mitigate this risk all profilers undergo a 3-week training period and are tested themselves every 6 months to ensure their assessments are consistent with the Potentia’s underpinning model and research base. Failure at this 6 monthly re-calibration test means the profiler loses their licence to operate.
How is the profiling done?
There are two processes used to measure an individual’s potential – the full profile and the Potentia Prelude profile.
The full profile takes 3½ hours and measures potential at all six sectors. It also measures the extent to which a person’s current role is drawing on their potential so both employer and employee can gauge the extent to which a person’s full potential is being put to use. The full profile is supported by a customised report sent to each person and, if required, their employer.
We recommend clients use the full profile when considering development for very senior management and executive positions.
This is a shortened version of the full profile and takes 1½ hours to complete. It measures a person’s potential up to and including Sector 4. So its intention is to discriminate those with sound operational potential - much needed by most organisations - from those with access to the strategic arena who will be much fewer in numbers. We recommend that those with access to Sector 4 at the Prelude stage go on to do the full profile to determine whether their potential is higher still. The Prelude report is a standard report and there is no time to assess the extent to which a person’s potential is being called on in their current role.
Prelude profiles are done at one location across one or more days. We recommend clients use Prelude when considering the development potential of their middle management cadre.
For every profiling project we also provide consulting support that enables clients to do the following: