Bench-strength: A vital concept for uncertain times

In uncertain times, organizations need to make sure that they have the right talent on board. Whether it is to guarantee that the most effective people are deployed in the most critical roles, or whether strategic decisions have to be made about organizational sizing, managers need to have accurate and scientific data available to them about the organizational talent pool.

To accomplish that objective, talent professionals are often asked to identify high potential employees. The most obvious question is, of course, how to do that?

In today’s article, we take a look at the question of bench-strength: why it is a vital concept in high-potential identification, and how to accurately determine your organization’s talent bench-strength.

What is bench strength?

In terms of talent, bench-strength refers to the degree to which organizations have the right kind of talent on board to accomplish their tactical and strategic objectives. The stronger the bench strength, the more likely it is that the organization will outperform its competitors and succeed in uncertain times.

In addition to the ability to deliver on objectives, bench strength also refers to the capacity of an organization’s employees to fulfil more senior or complex roles in the near to mid-future, or to achieve stretch-goals within their current roles.

An important distinction to keep in mind is that bench-strength references fit-to-objective or fit-to-role. It is therefore not a generic concept, but highly specific.

Put differently, bench-strength is based on a highly contextualized understanding of the organizational and team environment that employees will have to perform in. This understanding also assumes a detailed insight into the requirements of the specific roles that talented employees are expected to fulfil.

Why bench-strength is vital to high-potential identification

When companies have to identify their best talent during restructuring or uncertainty, there is a danger of viewing high potential as overly generic or universalized. The reasoning is that all high-potential talent are the same, and will be suited to any role.

However, research on this question does not support such generalizations.

While there are at least some commonalities among high potential employees across roles (e.g. they tend to have better than average problem-solving abilities, certain foundational success factors are common across talented individuals, etc), the reality is that fit-to-role is an equal if not more important component in the high potential debate.

So, instead of just asking, “Who are our high-potential employees?” a more productive question is rather, “High-potential for what?”

Therefore, measuring bench-strength accurately requires us to truly understand the various elements of performance and how they interact with specific contextual factors like organizational culture and vitally, the requirements of the intended role.

Not being specific enough in one’s definition of what high-potential really means can often result in under or over-estimating an individual’s true likelihood to succeed.

In addition, if potential is simplistically defined as the intersection of past performance and future potential, there is a danger of relying on dubious and often unreliable performance metrics when identifying high-potential employees.

TTS’s three-tiered approach to measuring bench-strength

So, what is the alternative?

In trying to find scientifically defensible answers to the question, “High-potential for what?” we have worked with hundreds of managers and talented employees from across the gamut of industries to develop a holistic, contextual solution to the problem of identifying high-potential talent.

At its core, our approach to measuring bench-strength examines three critical elements that determine an individual’s likelihood to perform at a high-performance level:

  • Foundational success factors
  • Backward-looking success factors
  • Forward-looking success factors

Foundational success factors, as mentioned earlier, are common elements that predict success in most roles, and are independent of the specific requirements of a given job. Such factors include emotional intelligence, career aspirations and engagement, and attributes like cultural agility or safety orientation.

But, foundational factors offer only one lens for answering the question of high-potential identification. An additional consideration is a person’s experience and past achievements.

Ignoring such critical elements can often result in over-estimating potential, especially in critical roles where success is partly a function of the candidate’s formative work experiences and track-record.

Finally, forward-looking success factors examine a person’s fit to specific role requirements, in other words, their likelihood of succeeding at intended role they have to fulfill.

And although this element is highly indicative of future job performance, in a robust search for high-potential talent, it cannot be singled out without incorporating foundational and backward-looking success factors as well.

Once all three success factors are combined in a holistic, contextual process, the liklihood of correctly identifying high-potential candidates who will be suited to specific roles or functions in the future structure of the organization is massively increased.

Conversely, ignoring any one factor to the exclusion of all others will almost certainly lead to an under or over-estimation of bench-strength.

Best practices in measuring bench-strength

TTS’s approach to measuring bench-strength is based on the fundamental insights discussed above:  

  • High-potential is always applied to a specific purpose (i.e. “High-potential for what?”) and,
  • it can only be accurately measured by understanding all three success factors that are required for high performance.

Fortunately, there are several best-of-breed products and approaches available in the market for scientifically measuring each of the three success factors:

  • Foundational factors can be measured by specific instruments. (e.g. Cultural agility measures, safety orientation questionnaires), or highly structured motivational and career engagement surveys or live video interviews conducted by trained behavioral observers.
  • Backward-looking factors are measured by structured interviews such as critical incident / experiences, or 360-like surveys that capture the perceptions of a candidate’s manager and colleagues about past performance.
  • Forward-looking success factors are measured by objective psychometric instruments such as behavioral styles measures or ability and aptitude assessments. In this regard, such instruments’ findings will be related back to role requirements and company objectives.

Ultimately, the end-product of the above appraoch is to arrive at a comprehensive, yet easy-to-apply report that managers and talent professionals can use in making better talent decisions about high-potential candidates and organizational bench-strength.

Final thoughts

In this article, we discussed best practices in measuring bench-strength, a vital concept in the search for and identification of high-potential employees.

By using a contextual, flexible, and holistic approach to defining what we mean by high-potential, TTS has been helped countless clients to accurately and productively identify high-potential candidates that future-proof their organizations.

By taking into account the three key success factors that predict workplace success, along with robust and best-of-breed measurement of those factors, we have been able to reduce the risk of over- and under-estimation of potential within our clients’ talent pools.

This translates into clear reporting and feedback that help managers and talent professionals make responsible and scientifically defensible decisions about talent during uncertain or tumultuous times.

If you would like to know more about TTS’s solutions for identifying high-potential candidates and measuring your organization’s talent bench-strength, connect with us at: For more on our solutions during uncertain times, why not read our recent article on virtual interviewing?