Finding hidden talent

Jan 20 2013 09:26
* Ian Mann
The Rare Find: spotting exceptional talent before everyone else by George Anders

GREAT talent isn’t hard to find, if you know how to look for it.

The ability to pick the right people and not to miss great ones has long been the bane of employers' lives. A wrong hire is not only costly directly through search expenses and salaries paid with no return, but there are always collateral costs in the form of staff, customer or supplier disruption.

Worse still is to miss seeing great talent, like the four book publishers who failed to secure the rights to J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book.

In his book The Rare Find: spotting exceptional talent before everyone else, George Anders takes his lessons from the best recruiters in their categories. He has lessons learned from the way the US Army finds soldiers good enough to be in the Special Forces.

He shows how top coaches and scouts view elite basketball tournaments for prospective players. He describes how famous physicians at top teaching hospitals size up young doctors, and how great venture capitalist identify opportunities.

In many cases, Anders was able to watch the experts in action.   

The obviously exceptionally talented are always in short supply, and therefore demand and attract exceptional reward.

They always come, however, with the risk that past performance may not translate in a new context. What Anders successfully demonstrates is how to find the rare talent that is not the obvious choice, but delivers exceptional results.

Recruitment interviews in some prestigious organisations take as their starting point odd questions to eliminate candidates. An example is the question Teach for America, the volunteer teacher corps, used to ask recruits: “What is wind?”

The presumption, one may guess, is that it would reveal a quick-witted mind. While the answers may have delighted interviewers, one has to wonder what this has to do with classroom skills. Experience and research proved that having clear goals and being able to motivate pupils and their parents towards them were critical skills.

It also revealed that constantly assessing their own effectiveness and improving on this were far more important to teachers' success than a quick-witted mind.

Peter Drucker, the management guru, stressed starting the recruitment process with “thinking through the assignment”. What exactly do we want in these jobs? The long and lofty lists so many recruiters compile will more likely mislead the search than aid it.

The traditional exhortation in many books on recruitment is to avoid intuition, hunches and impressions, and to focus on the facts. “This is a great way to choose a lawnmower,” explains Anders, “but not a great way to choose people.”

To find stars that others don’t notice one has to acknowledge that there is “talent that shouts”, “talent that whispers” and “talent with a jaggered resume”.

Talent that shouts are the spectacular but brash candidates that can make or destroy the unit. To be able to employ “talent that shouts” requires an understanding of how you will ensure the candidates’ loyalty, how you will keep them motivated, and how you will ensure that they will sacrifice for the greater good.

If the context can contain such people, you probably have talents rejected by others only because they could not manage them.

In the movie industry, Brad Bird is known for his enormous abilities but exasperating personality. Eventually he found his home at Pixar where he was understood and allowed to make a movie about ageing superheroes in a witness-protection programme, The Incredibles.

Pixar gave him wide artistic control and a huge budget. The movie grossed $624m, won two Oscars and was followed by Ratatouille and Toy Story 3.

To find “talent that whispers” requires three techniques. The first is to go beyond the barriers that restrict where you usually look for candidates. The best universities are the usual spots, but what of the less prestigious? When everyone else is hiring women for a post, what about a man, or vice versa?

The second is to ask: “What can go right?” rather than to focus on the deficits the candidate has. Finding all the flaws is what you need to do later in the recruitment process so that you don’t reject talent that only whispers in the first round.

Starting with an open mind and curiosity can lead to major talent discoveries in unexpected places.

My favourite example of the third category of talent, “talent with a jaggered resume”, is the account of hugely successful commodity trader Richard Dennis’ recruitment experiment.

Denis advertised for “traders” and recruited a group that he believed had the temperament to follow his method faithfully. They included a bartender, a backgammon champion, a pianist and an air force pilot, and not one traditional trader.

They were given the freedom to invest as much as $1m of Denis’ companies' money in the futures market. They generated more than $150m in profits by the time the experiment was disbanded.

This last example summarises some of the best advice in the book. It starts with knowing exactly what the task really requires and what is secondary to it. In this case what was required was a temperament, not knowledge.

Knowledge can be learned relatively easily after employment, but temperament cannot. One can compromise on experience, but never on character. Then the search was wide and open-minded.   

Everyone who recruits people faces the same set of problems: how to be sure the talent you find will fit your context, and how to find exceptional talent without paying the surcharge usually demanded. Anders' book is a rare find in this field.

Readability:  Light ---+- Serious
Insights:      High +----- Low
Practical:      High +---- Low

 - Fin24

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. Views expressed are his own.

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