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How to tell if an inexperienced job candidate has growth potential

Some people can excel in a role even without a ton of experience. Here’s what you should out look for.

How to tell if an inexperienced job candidate has growth potential
[Source illustration: MHJ/Getty Images]

Most of the knowledge and skills you need to do well at work are things that you were not taught in school—even if you have a college degree or advanced degrees. For one thing, each organization has its own processes and procedures, so the knowledge and skills you got during your education will need to be adapted. For another, the pace of change in business is so fast that much of what you learned is probably outdated less than a decade after the last time you set foot in a classroom.

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So, when you’re hiring someone who does not yet have a lot of experience in your industry, knowing what they studied (and even how well they did in school) isn’t going to tell you much about whether they will grow into their job. Instead, there are a few other things you need to be looking for in new hires:

Ownership of mistakes and resilience

One reason why good grades in school don’t necessarily predict success at work is that getting good grades on exams is primarily about minimizing the number of mistakes you make as you answer questions that the person who asked the question already knows the answer to. But, success at work typically requires the ability to answer questions that nobody yet knows the answers to, and so you’re likely to make a lot of mistakes. A key skill that separates those who succeed in a workplace environment from those who don’t is the ability to recover from those mistakes.

When watching the performance of a new hire, you should be looking for people who own their mistakes. As soon as they realize they have done something wrong, they should be coming to you to let you know. And when a problem is pointed out to them, they should seek to understand their role in the problem.

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People can only recover from mistakes when they are able to analyze what they did wrong. Those who hide their errors may look good in the short run, but they are unlikely to continue to improve in ways that will make them great performers in the long run.

Humility

More generally, the people with the best potential have some humility. Being humble does not mean lacking self-confidence. It means recognizing that success requires a combination of effort, teamwork, and luck. Yes, people need to work hard, but they also need to be willing to rely on others to carry out key parts of projects. That means it’s important to give credit to others when projects go well. In addition, every success also requires the circumstances to be right. Even the best team can fail if the timing is off.

When a new hire acknowledges the many factors that contribute to success, they are likely to be great performers in the long term. They will work effectively with team members and give everyone credit for their efforts. They will also begin to learn which aspects of a situation are conducive to success. Bad luck can derail a project, but highly successful people also begin to recognize aspects of a situation that are likely to make a project go bad.

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A willingness to listen

There is also a lot of wisdom in the environment around you. You never know when someone you meet will tell you something or show you how to do something that will be valuable for you later. That means that successful people are willing to listen to others.

There are a few kinds of people who typically avoid listening to others. Some have low self-esteem. When you don’t feel good about yourself, you tend to avoid paying attention to other people who are good performers because they remind you of things you don’t know how to do yet. If you don’t pay attention to successful people, though, you are missing out on an important source of information.

In addition, narcissists don’t listen well to others, either. Narcissists are people who feel special and that information should flow from them outward to others. They don’t want to learn from others because that would be a sign that they are not so special.

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When you are watching your new employees, look for people who are sensitive to what their colleagues are doing. They will soak up that wisdom in the environment, which will help them bridge the gap between the knowledge and skills they had when they were hired and what was actually needed to be a long-term success.

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