Brands and companies that were only a few years ago “best in class” are now bankrupt, sold or progressively downsizing, because they were no longer innovative or just slower than competitors. Just take a look at your smart phone and think back ten years. Innovation cycles are further accelerating; markets are becoming more and more hypercompetitive. Ongoing or disruptive innovation is crucial for tomorrow’s success, and innovative people are crucial for tomorrow’s revenues. This fact must change the way in which we attract, assess, and support talent. Steve Jobs stated once that “innovation is not about the amount of R & D dollars you spend, but it is about the people you have”.

Star Performers

Star performers are individuals that are outliers on the performance distribution, whose innovative power can make a start-up company become a successful corporation, instead of going broke. Researchers that have an idea that becomes a blockbuster, those who manage to turn a brand into a cult through an ingenious marketing strategy. Star performers are crucial for tomorrow’s organizations (Aguinis & O’Boyle).

Performance, Potentials and Innovation

Referring to an old formula introduced by Campbell (e.g., 1993), performance consists of knowledge, motivation, abilities, skills and other characteristic traits, excluding situational constraints. For recruiting and staffing practitioners, this formula has two consequences. First, constraints should be eliminated. For example, leadership structures that hinder innovative employees from coming up with new ideas. Secondly, assess the other terms of the equation adequately.

  1. Knowledge is a necessary condition for innovation in a particular field. As it is not possible to write an opera without playing an instrument or being able to read notes, it is not possible to write an app without knowing a single computer, and none inexperienced in biotechnology will make the next breakthrough in the field. Expertise will remain the foundation of innovation. It is not the point, if it needs 10,000 hours, less or more. Expertise is important, but people with comparable experience still vary in their innovative power.
  2. Abilities refer mostly to general mental ability and specific ability domains. For abilities, there is also a threshold assumption in the way that a minimum level of mental abilities is necessary for innovations. However, intelligence alone is not a guarantee for new ideas. Being smart means understanding how things are related to each other and the competence to solve problems (convergent thinking). Innovation also requires divergent thinking, which is called creativity. Next, there are some other characteristics that are associated with creativity, such as being open for new experiences or having positive core self evaluations to defend own ideas against skeptics.
  3. Having a great idea is not the same as persuading others about the idea, overcoming objections, and actually implementing new ideas. For that, a variety of skills are required that are also measurable. These can be varied among organizations and be taken into account when competency models are developed.
  4. Possessing all knowledge, skills and abilities in a perfect organization with inspiring leaders and a support environment is still not enough. Organizational culture and the motivation and fit of candidates’ needs is essential.

What does this mean for Talent Assessment

For talent assessment professionals there are several implications, if they want to hire potential star performers. People who have full potential have to be in the right place at the right time, to become a star performer. Hiring managers cannot influence this, but they can influence the following:

  • Expertise is still a “must have” in complex fields, especially STEM fields
  • Broad necessary ability dimensions can already be screened with online assessments on early selection steps
  • Creativity is essential but not easy to catch in assessments. The combination of different approaches (observer-based, psychometrics) will always be better than isolated approaches
  • Competencies that enable employees with good ideas to succeed can be company specific and should be part of the selection process
  • Be innovative to find innovative individuals: try out new or innovative recruitment assessment technology (pre-recorded video interviews, serious gaming, go mobile etc.) in your hiring processes. This is the first part of a cultural fit.
  • Hiring potential star performers is one thing. The other is making them stay. There should be a consistent strategy beyond Talent Acquisition that applies to Reward & Benefit, Leadership etc.


Aguinis, H., & O’Boyle Jr., E. (2014). Star performers in twenty-first century organizations. Personnel Psychology, 67, 313-350.

Campbell, J.P., McCloy, R.A., Oppler, S.H., & Sager, C.E. (1993). A theory of performance. In N. Schmitt & W.C. Borman (Eds.), Personnel selection in organizations (pp. 35 -70). San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.