How You can Recognize High Potential Employees During an Interview

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

Are you looking for high-potential people to join your team? Can you tell the difference between someone who can quickly grow into a role, and someone who won’t be worth the effort and time investment? 

And are you confident in your hiring process to ensure you hire the right person the first time when they don’t have years of experience already?

These are tough questions that many managers struggle with. It’s easy to say on paper you want to hire talented and hungry, yet inexperienced team members, but it’s much harder to actually successfully do that. 

The best of intentions…

So you’ve decided to hire someone new to your team, and you’re open to them being new or inexperienced. 

Maybe you can’t afford a veteran, high performer with a lengthy list of wins on their resume. Or maybe you’re hungry to give back and want to help develop the next wave of great performers. 

Whatever your reason, you’re now looking at a high-risk, high-reward situation. 

If you’re bringing in someone who’s relatively inexperienced, things could backfire and you could easily lose your time and money. You can spend a ton of time on a junior hire and have that turn into a failed investment. They can also damage your company’s reputation with customers, frustrate other team members, and waste many resources. 

However, if they are hungry and eager to learn, they can grow rapidly, becoming more and more valuable to your company every day. 

Today’s post is all about recognizing the signs of a great high-potential hire and what traits you can build on to turn them into your best performers.

high potential employees are one of your biggest assets

How to find the most high potential employees in your hiring process

This post covers four key traits you should look for to find people who can make a difference for you and help you avoid making bad hires. They are: 

Let’s see why these four characteristics are so crucial for inexperienced hires and how they enable them to develop more quickly than others.

high potential employees will learn on their own

Trait #1: Attention to detail

Attention to detail is a prerequisite for everything else on this list. If the person you’re trying to hire at an early stage of their career is sloppy and unreliable now, this is a huge red flag for the future. That’s because this affects how they’ll execute the tasks you give them *and* their ability to learn new things.

If someone doesn’t have attention to detail, they’ll be more likely to miss deadlines, fail to act on your feedback, and deliver subpar work, costing you precious time as you’ll need to constantly supervise them.

They’ll also have difficulties learning new things. People who pay attention to details are more likely to figure some things out on their own, and pick up on what their colleagues may be doing that they should model.

On the other hand, people who are sloppy by nature will struggle and ask for your help more often. They’ll also need to be reminded of what to do, and be more likely to deliver work to you that requires many more rounds of iteration than you had hoped or have time for. 

For all these reasons, you have to make sure you filter for this skill *before* you hire someone and realize they are missing this essential trait for success.

Therefore, when talking to candidates, ask yourself the following questions to understand how detail-oriented they are:

  • Are they doing the bare minimum or going above and beyond to impress you during the interview process?
  • Are they following up on what they said they would do?
  • How closely were they paying attention to what you said to them? Can they reiterate your instructions so you know they’ve understood them correctly?
  • Have they listened to your feedback, and made adjustments, in any test tasks you gave them?
  • Are they asking you follow up questions to better understand what you expect from them?
  • Do they take notes and ask good questions in the interview, showing their preparation? 

If a person ticks all of these boxes, you’re looking at someone who has high potential. However, if they aren’t showing enough attention to detail, they’re likely not going to produce high quality work for you. 

If a person isn’t making a good first impression by being thorough and prepared during your interview with them, it’s unlikely they’ll be any different after you hire them. 

high potential employees will learn on their own

Trait #2: Eagerness and hunger to learn specifically related to core parts of the job

Another important characteristic of a good hire is a person’s willingness to keep learning in their own free time. You’re ideally looking for someone who enjoys what they do, and wants to put in the work to become even better.

In order for someone who’s young and has high potential to be a strong hire, they can’t just be learning on the job. You need them to be interested in developing some of their skills independently and outside the work they do for you.

Otherwise, the time it takes for them to level up and contribute value can be longer than you planned or can afford. 

Actions > Words. Look at examples of what they’re already doing.

You can tell if a person is excited about what they do by taking a look at their previous work. For example, if you’re hiring a copywriter, ask them to share their landing pages, emails, blogs, or similar pieces of content they’ve created. You can also ask if they’ve had any training and what areas they feel are strengths and where they hope to be coached and grow.

Not having any experience shouldn’t necessarily eliminate a candidate. However, someone who can showcase a bit of their work in a relevant area is more likely to have high potential. Even if it’s simply a few bits of work they did for a portfolio, or small project for a friend, that initiative to try and apply what their learning is a big positive sign. 

A story of high potential.

I know how important this is, because I was once this person.  

When I started my career I was an Electrical Engineer who had recently gotten a business masters degree and wanted to break into software startups. Not surprisingly, a lot of people looked at me baffled, both not understanding why I’d want to do it, and not seeing a potential role for me.

So I made my own.

I started a side project website and launched it as a business, which forced me to learn some sales, marketing, product management, and a lot more. This became my resume that led to an internship, which then led to the person that hired me as an intern recommending me as a full time hire. 

That got me my first Associate Product Manager role, and propelled the rest of my career. All because I took a chance and decided to build a portfolio of work to show people I could do what I said I wanted them to hire me to do. 

Since then, I’ve similarly watched many people launch their careers by making this kind of effort, too. 

What they do > what they say

I love hiring high potential people who are willing to take risks in their careers. However, in doing so, I have absolutely been burned. 

There are unfortunately people who are much bigger talkers than doers. They get you excited with all the promises in the world. They say all the right things about what they want to do. Yet, when they actually get the job, they constantly disappoint. 

That’s why this trait is so important. Actions speak louder than words, so ask candidates the following questions to check if they can back up what they’re claiming they can do:

  • What have you already done that shows you’re passionate about X, Y, Z?
  • What have you experimented with and learned from to learn about that skill?
  • Can you share examples of your work (portfolio, websites, blogs etc.)? What do you feel is your best work and why? 
  • How do you usually learn about what you do? What certifications do you have, courses you’ve taken, or books you’ve read (if any)?

Even the smallest sample of their work is more valuable than listening to them simply talk about their skills or things they plan to do in the future.

Candidates who have a portfolio or a few examples handy will stand out from the rest and make your hiring decision much easier. 

high potential employees have to be masters of at least one skill

Trait #3: Mastery of at least 1 thing

If you’re hiring someone who has high potential, you want them to be good at at least one thing you need them to do in the role. This gives you something they can do and deliver on from Day 1, while they learn additional skills. 

With an intern, you’re expected to guide people in almost every aspect of their work. On the other hand, high potential hires can still contribute in one area while you coach them on other things. It also means there’s a fall back where they can do more of that type of task (and do it well) while they wait to get guidance from you, or another colleague. 

Now, to be sure they have that mastery of a skill, it’s essential to test their knowledge.

See how they’ll really do the job.

In From Impossible to Inevitable, best-selling author Aaron Ross describes this fantastic interview tactic for hiring a digital marketer: 

"Step 5: Assign Homework: Paul sent an email outlining the steps of his interviewing process to all those who had applied....and asked them to write a 300-word essay (a) on any aspect or trend in digital marketing that they found interesting and (b) why they would be a great fit for the role. This helped eliminate the people who weren't serious or qualified and helped Paul quickly get a sense of how/if they'd fit."

No matter the role you’re hiring for, you can think of an assignment they can do that will reveal their skill level. Depending on your industry, try:

  • Having a marketer write a 90-day marketing plan to hit a growth target that you’d actually want them to do if you hired them.
  • Having a designer suggest a high-level process for designing a new feature that will have an impact for your customers.
  • Talking to an engineer about their process for maintaining a legacy code base. Ask them how they would help another engineer come up to speed quickly.
  • Asking a product manager for the 3 biggest things they'd fix in your product's experience.
  • Asking an executive for their plans for getting you from your current stage to the next level.

If you ask them to do work you'd actually use (like writing a blog post, creating mock-ups or designs you use, writing code, etc) keep in mind you should compensate them whether you hire them or not.

This is not free work. Show them you value their time even before you hire them, and you'll make a great impression.

For more on how to create a great test assignment when hiring candidates, check out our post The Key Interview Tactic that will Help You Hire Great Employees.

a high potential employee will have an attention to detail

Trait #4: A bias toward action

Showing initiative and being proactive is another trait that can be tremendously valuable in younger, inexperienced hires. Think about which type of person you’d rather have on your team:

  • A) Someone who gives up after they encounter their first hurdle at work and waits for you (or someone else) to solve their problem.
  • B) Someone who finds other things to do if a blocker is preventing them from handling another task, and/or is resourceful enough to search for answers and learn things on their own.

Obviously, the preference would be person B. 

People who are biased toward action will keep finding ways to add value to your team, even in the face of challenges. These people are self-starters and creative problem solvers. They’re valuable throughout their careers because of this mindset, and especially so in the early days when they have fewer skills and less knowledge. 

For example, imagine a writer who couldn’t post a blog to WordPress because your website was down.

Someone who hides and waits for you would blame the issue on technical problems and do nothing. On the other hand, a person with initiative would prepare a Google Doc so all they’d have to do once the website was back up is copy/paste the post into WordPress and fix any quick formatting issues.

In case the blocker is too big, people with a bias toward action will just find other things to do instead. 

This attitude also shows up in how a person acquires knowledge, too. 

Rather than always relying on you, proactive team members will find other sources of information on their own to complement what you teach them; it’s always fun hearing how surprised new engineers are to learn what they can learn and accomplish simply by knowing how to search Stack Overflow when they get stuck. 

Looking first at what they can do themselves to learn more quickly and solve their own problems makes them more independent, which is what you want to see in a high potential candidate.

high potential employees and their independence shown in dilbert

Ask these questions to understand if they’re self starters

During the hiring process for high potential candidates, make sure they have basic skills to search for answers before they come to you. The point of this is to understand how well they’ll manage the balance of solving problems on their own, and learning with your coaching.

You won’t have time for a million questions a day. That’s why you need to see if they can answer some of their own, while also knowing when things are worth asking you.

Finding out if someone is biased toward action isn’t easy. It sometimes happens only once you hire them. However, you can get an initial impression of the candidate by asking the following behavioral questions:

  • What do you do when you get stuck? 
  • What are your go-to ways to learn and get questions answered about <topic related to the role>? 
  • What did a previous manager or teacher do that really helped you learn best? 
  • How have you used mentors, coaches, and teachers to help you learn? 
    • Do you tend to rely on their curriculum, or do you bring some of your own questions? 
  • What’s a situation where you’ve had to overcome a roadblock in your work, and how did you do it?

With the help of these questions, you’ll start to get a sense of how someone performs, learns and acts when they encounter issues.

high potential employees will have great references when you call. You can even ask about their attention to detail

Use reference checks to really learn what they’ve done in the past

If you want to further confirm what the candidate told you in your interview with them, and find out what their past actions were like by comparison, contacting their references for a quick call is a great idea.

Whether it’s a former manager or peer, ask them for specific examples of: 

  • How they handle setbacks
  • How proactive/independent they are
  • Their attention to detail
  • Their skill level and experience
  • How quickly they learned new things
  • What seems to work to bring out their best

With a few quick reference checks, you’ll get a comprehensive view and an opportunity for a second check on the 4 traits we covered today. This will help you separate the talkers from the truly high potential, and learn what you can do to make the person successful once you hire them. 


Hiring a high potential, low experience team member is a high risk/high reward process. If they don’t work out, you’re potentially wasting your budget and time on someone who just can’t provide quality work.

However, if someone is willing, hungry, and eager to learn, they will rapidly ascend in your organization and become a future star on your team. This will have them far outperforming their compensation, and set them up to be a valuable asset to your company for years to come.

To make sure you hire the right person, check for the signs we’ve discussed above. 

The work is just beginning…

Once you hire someone, your work has only started. It’s now up to you to hold up your end of the bargain. You need to provide them with the support and positive work environment they need to keep growing and delivering for you.

To do that, you need a few key things:

  • A strong investment in 1:1s to keep a pulse on their growth and morale
  • Clear agendas and action items for every meeting so you’re intentional about what you need them to do and how you’ll support them
  • Consistent feedback to and from them, so they can get coached in areas that matter most to them

And if you want more advice on improving your hiring process, check out these posts and podcast episodes:

And once you hire them, make sure you're a great coach by following this advice:

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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