No ‘Average’ Joe

Jayson Darby, Head of Psychology at Thomas International, the world’s leading provider of people and psychometric assessment tools, explains what high potential means for the ‘average’ employee.

The phrase ‘high potential’ is very loaded.  When you hear it, it’s easy to immediately think of an elite group – ‘Olympic hopefuls’ or perhaps people capable of one day leading a FTSE 500 company.

However, organisations do not rise and fall purely on the performance of their leaders or senior managers.  They rely on a whole host of people doing their jobs well – admin staff, salespeople, accounts, technical support, engineers, marketing and so forth. 

After all, when you’re waiting at the side of the road for your breakdown service to arrive, you’re not sitting there wondering whether the company’s CEO is operating at the top of his or her game.  No, you’re hoping that the call handler will have managed your call efficiently, and that the engineer will arrive promptly, fully briefed and able to resolve your problem so that you’re back on the road as soon as possible.  You want these front line staff to be the best they can be. 

So, while talented leadership gets a lot of attention, you can also have high potential for assembly workers, nurses, teachers, customer service staff, bus drivers, quality control executives, lab technicians – indeed for every role in any organisation.

The crucial question is not ‘can a typical worker have high potential’ but what does high potential look like for the average employee and what influences it?

What is Potential?

According to Ian MacRae – a Thomas International advisor, who together with Adrian Furnham has published a book entitled High Potential: How to Spot Manage and Develop Talented People – potential is not a guaranteed path, but really is a probability of reaching a certain level of performance.

He argues that to gauge whether someone has high potential for a position, you must first define the job, and its performance criteria.  These criteria will vary from role to role.  Companies also need to consider their cultural and organisational values and there will be some value judgements involved in this process. You may need to decide whether the most valuable employee in a role in your organisation the most competitive or the most collaborative?  Once you know the traits you are looking for they can be assessed using the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI).

Potential for a particular role will also be influenced by the way someone behaves at work. The person’s strengths and limitations, their communication style, what motivates them, their basic fears and how they behave under pressure.  For instance, someone may appear to have the right traits for a customer help desk role, but if they struggle under pressure, this will impact on their potential within that position. Or someone who requires a social environment in which to work will not flourish in a role where they are on their own the vast bulk of the time. An assessment, called the Personal Profile Analysis (PPA), will gauge such workplace behaviour.

Beyond these internal factors, potential will also depend on external things – office environment, the colleagues someone has to work with and the resources and training provided. Indeed, potential will depend on how these internal and external factors combine.

Trent Barton

Trent Barton, a bus operator based in Derbyshire, identified what it was looking for in its drivers, using assessments as part of this process.  The company operates a fleet of over 300 buses and 13 coaches, has a workforce of 1000 and is one of the most respected bus operators in the UK.

In the mid-80s, the bus industry in the UK was deregulated and privatised after decades of public ownership. This gave local management teams the opportunity to purchase their companies and have a real stake in the success of their own future. The industry had a poor record in terms of customer service, delivery of the routes operated, lack of investment in new buses and a stagnant trading position leading to years of declining passenger numbers.

At this point the company’s new owners embarked on a major research programme among customers and non-bus users to identify their wants and needs. The results highlighted that poor customer service was a major issue from the customer’s stand point; fares were rising due to inflation, but the service received was still comparatively poor. The research also showed that ‘value for money’ was far more important to the customer than price alone.

Based on this research, Trent Barton introduced improvements and significant investment, with one of the biggest focuses being on customer service.

As part of this, the company had a fresh look at how it recruited. It recognised that it needed employees with strong people skills and those who could use their initiative, especially drivers. To help identify and develop these drivers Thomas International recommended the bus operator use the PPA.

The PPA provides an accurate insight into how people behave at work.  Jeff Counsell, Managing Director of Trent Barton, comments: “I look upon our front-line team as our ‘get out of jail’ card when things go wrong (bus breakdown, delays through congestion/roadworks etc.). It’s the way our staff react and respond that matters and how they deal with the customers in live situations. The PPA is invaluable in giving us an indication of this.

“We no longer look to hire people just with a bus driving licence and instead look for those with the best people skills who we can train to drive, using the PPA as our guide.”

This approach has paid off as Jeff Counsell concludes: “Our drivers are routinely noted and recognised for their superb customer service and we have been named as having the friendliest drivers in the UK in the most recent, independent, UK Transport Focus Surveys. Also, our rating for value for money increased to 73%in the same survey – up from 58% the previous year.”


High potential isn’t confined to senior managers and business leaders. It’s possible to have high potential for every role. Indeed, as Trent Barton vividly illustrates, companies that meaningfully assess what they are looking for in their ‘everyday’ employees and then work hard to identify and nurture those staff, can achieve incredible results. 

For more information about how you can adopt this strategy within your organisation visit

Author: Editorial Team

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