young woman smiling in front of a shiny office building
Kitty Harris
Thursday, May 27, 2021
8 min read

How to hire on potential rather than experience

If you're hiring for your fairly early-stage startup, then you're probably looking to keep costs to a minimum. Hiring graduates at the start of their career is going to be cheaper than bringing on someone with loads of experience, but this can lead to reservations amongst hiring managers. Despite having a good head on their shoulders, some graduates may have limited experience due to focusing on their full-time studies and being without the funds to take on an internship during the holidays. This makes it difficult to know where to recruit the best graduates from, but not impossible.

A few tweaks to your hiring process may be needed to allow you to see the potential of graduate applicants, which is particularly important in a world slowly emerging from lockdown - where jobs and internships have been sparse, causing workplace-seasoned graduates to be even sparser.



1. Revise your job specifications

Even with the greater complications of COVID still fresh in people's minds, lots of job specifications still ask for a few years’ experience. Pandemic or otherwise, some of the best graduates - often the ones with the highest grades - were camped out in the library or makeshift home studies rather than doing physical or virtual shadowing work schemes. And a strong work ethic at uni no doubt is carried on once employed. As an employer, you should bear this in mind and not immediately dismiss graduates with little workplace experience on their CV. If you have the time and the resources to put some training in place, within months (if not weeks), many candidates could become your biggest asset and give back your original investment in them threefold.

Barak Obama looking in a mirror with sunglasses on, pointing gun fingers in the mirror. Caption says 'change'.



2. Utilise task-based assessments

ZeShaan Shamsi, the previous Director of Talent at the award-winning background-checking startup Onfido, reveals some techniques that they use:

"When hiring, especially with graduates/school leavers, the challenge is always to hire based on potential, as well as experience. Competency-based questions are a straightforward way of assessing experience because you talk about a time when you've done a particular thing. If you've not got the experience yet, then it's tough to answer and often leads to an unsuccessful interview.

At Onfido we mix up our interview process and use task-based assessments where candidates get to show their ability. We've also introducing psychometrics through gamification using mobile tech and big data analytics to help us better identify, select and nurture new hires as well as the current team."

So, to tell if a graduate is a great resource-in-the-making you should interview them carefully, using a mix of task-based and competency-based assessments. Formulate questions that will unpack how they'd respond to scenarios likely to crop up in your business. Ask them how they've dealt with problems in the past that relate to things you consider important in your company’s day-to-day workings. Whether they draw on experiences from a part-time job or a project they worked on at university, it'll be obvious if they have the ability to manoeuvre themselves through tricky situations. If you recognise that they don't have much experience, then task assessments are incredibly useful in locking down potential.

Great tasks can be anything from analysing your website and socials for improvements (for wannabe Marketers) to hypothetical shortlisting tasks (for up-and-coming recruiters).




3. Look for curiosity, commitment, and creativity

Annie Jackson, the previous Lead Talent Partner at successful and disruptive car-buying startup Carwow, gives some insight into what she looks for during the interview process:

“When screening CVs or interviewing potential interns/graduate employees, the 3 keys things I look for are curiosity, commitment and creativity, with curiosity being the most important trait.

The reason for that is that curiosity is one of our core company values at Carwow - we want to hire people who need to be constantly learning and developing their skills. These are crucial in any junior-level position. When interviewing graduates, we like to ask questions like 'What have you learnt recently?', 'What was the last book you read?', 'What do you want to learn from this position?'

I also try and look for someone who has demonstrated commitment and dedication, whether that's through volunteering, working in a part-time role over successive university holidays, playing in a sports team regularly, or awards like Duke of Edinburgh. This is an important trait as we want graduates who are going to stay with the company long-term, and who will invest as much of themselves in the company as we invest in them.

Creativity is another core skill I keep an eye out for when hiring graduates. When you’re working in an entrepreneurial environment like a startup, it's important to have people on the team who think outside of the box. You can look out for creativity in both the candidate's approach to the company and how they present their experiences in their CV and cover letter. I read through 100s of CVs a week so I love when a candidate has really made the effort to stand out.”

Another thing to pick up on during the interview stage is their motivation. What drives them to succeed? Does it strike you as a genuine desire to move forward, whatever it takes? Or do they seem lacklustre, aiming for any job that will stick, instead of one that they can excel at? From this, you can decide whether the offerings of your company will push them to fill any potential that you spot.

Women looking preppy in a yellow beret and green coat saying, 'I'm gonna give it my all'



4. Reconsider what you qualify as experience

The world has been at a standstill for the best part of 2 years. To expect fresh graduates to have an abundance of workplace experience to boast about might just be a tad bit unreasonable, all things considered. Instead, see how their extracurriculars could have supplemented their skillset. Any from being a brand ambassador, participating in sports, volunteering and more can lend itself to the abilities needed to succeed in the working world - they should not be overlooked. Additional courses and training programmes undertaken alongside their degree and during lockdown also illustrate graduates' dedication to improving and upskilling. With this in mind, there is so much on a grad's CV that can qualify as great experience and help you see them as less of a workplace novice and more like the bundle of potential they are.



5. Ensure there's a values match

Searching for an individual who has a real burning passion for the industry will get you a graduate willing to put their all into the role. Jessica Clarke, the previous People Manager at publishers growing startup Sovrn, understands the difficulties in finding the right candidate all too well:

"When we hire graduates at Sovrn, we look for candidates who share the values and visions of the company with the idea that they will all have the opportunity to grow and become our future leaders. We don't just look for those who have a top degree, we always value a candidate's ambitions and drive over their intellect in our search for well-rounded individuals. We are looking for candidates who have a genuine interest in the technology industry, have a drive to succeed and develop themselves, and closely match our company's core values of being: confident, inventive, scrappy, straight-talking, thoughtful, and accountable. We don't expect our graduates to know all the answers at interview, but we will provide them with all the materials to succeed."

It can be tricky finding someone fresh out of university who knows exactly what they want to do and have it align with your business, but if you do find that person you best believe they're gold dust. Grads like this are likely to work relentlessly to move upwards in that space and if you can support them on their way, then your business will reap the benefits. 

Two similarly dressed men high fiving



Now hire away!

You now have five great nuggets of information to chew on for when you're next hiring graduate talent. Spot their potential and take a chance on them! As where would we all be if no one did the same for us? 


*Editor's note: This blog was originally published in 2017 and has since been updated. 

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