Kitty Harris
Monday, July 24, 2017
6 min read

How to hire on potential rather than experience

If you are hiring for your fairly early stage startup, then you are probably looking to keep costs as minimal as possible. Hiring graduates at the start of their career is going to be cheaper than bringing someone with loads of experience, but this can cause some reservations amongst hiring managers. Some graduates have almost no experience, due to focusing on their studies fulltime at university and without the funds to do an internship during the holidays so it can be diffcult to know where to recruit the best graduates from.


Lots of job specifications will ask for a few years’ experience, forgetting that some of the best graduates (often the ones with the highest grades) were camped out in the library rather than doing shadowing work schemes. The truth is that often students forget about the value of work experience during the stress of attaining that degree.


As an employer, you should bear this in mind and not immediately dismiss graduates with no experience on their CV. If you have the time and the resources to put some training in place, then within months, if not weeks, many candidates are completely at ease and eager to prove that they are well-worth the investment.


It’s not always easy to tell which graduates are loaded with potential and which are simply blagging their way into the job, so using your instinct to discern the real gems is vital.


ZeShaan Shamsi is the Head of Talent Acquisition at the innovative background-checking startup Onfido, which won Startup of the Year in 2016. He 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 straight forward 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 your 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 someone is a great resource-in-the-making you should question them carefully and watch their responses in the interview stage. During interviews, you have the candidate’s anecdotes to go on, so formulate questions that will unpack how they respond to scenarios likely to crop up in your business. Ask them how they have dealt with problems in the past that relate to things you consider important in your company’s day-to-day activities. Whether they draw on experiences from a part-time job or a project they worked on at university, it will 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 can be useful in locking down potential.


Annie Jackson, 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 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 experience 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.


girl reading


Intelligence and emotional intelligence are traits that you cannot gain experience in, and therefore are also indicative of potential. A person with genuine brains and a capacity for empathy will always go further in any role than someone with a few years’ experience under their belt.


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 is the People Manager at Sovrn, a startup that helps publishers grow their business across the web using cutting-edge advertising technoology. She 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: 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 to find someone fresh out of university who knows exactly what they want to do, but if you do find that person, then they are gold dust. They 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.  

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