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Highlights from “The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else”

Think about how you hire talent. You are likely looking for someone who meets 11 out of 10 criteria. Yes, 11 out of 10. That criteria is often focused on previous experience; we trust those who have “done the job before.” However, previous experience only partly correlates with future success. It’s character, not experience, that is more predictive of success.

Recently I read the book The Rare Find, which discusses this in a more well-written and compelling way than I ever could. I then had the treat of seeing the author, George Anders, speak at the Recruiting Innovation Summit. I wrote up my favorite anecdotes and takeaways from the book for some clients; here they are. May they inspire your hiring practices and lead to successful results.

Anecdotes from the book:

Basketball: The best basketball scouts are not as enamored of who jumps the highest or makes the most baskets. Instead, they’re watching to see who runs to a huddle at timeout and who walks, who pats a teammate on the shoulder and who doesn’t, who shows up on time to practice and who doesn’t, who asks for feedback from the coach afterwards and who doesn’t. They look at intensity, preparation, and judgment. Someone who anticipates the action and gets to the right place on the court can in the long run outperform someone who is only high-scoring. The scouts are observing the reason for the result, and not just the result. Curiously, even with really competent and professional candidates, you can’t take motivation for granted.

Teach For America: Teach For America used to ask candidates “What is wind?” This approach tested for charisma and spontaneous thinking, which TFA realized were not the traits that predict success as a teacher. Now, they make candidates teach a five-minute lesson. The assessors pretend to be students doing everything they can to throw the aspiring teacher off-course, since what’s really important for good teaching is how you hold up when things go wrong.

Facebook: Facebook found a way to explore the long tail of talent by introducing a low-cost way of starting conversations with prospective employees. They posted programming puzzles on their website. It helped them find some long tail candidates  — such as those who dropped out of college but have great programming skill — with reasonably low effort. They found a way to open their doors wide and only then get picky as candidates reveal their strengths and limits. The idea is to be open-minded enough to see the faint possibilities at first, and then methodical enough to keep coming back for more impressions.

Military Special Forces: Special Forces in the military will evaluate candidates by giving a group of them an impossible task, like moving a heavy tank two miles in the mud. They are looking at who pushes the hardest and who merely makes a show of working hard, who can come up with a plan and who flails under pressure, whose eyes scan the horizon while walking and whose eyes glaze over.

Linear Technologies: Linear Technologies, a microchip company, champions ‘small engineering ‘  — craftsman-like chip design that requires persistent tinkering.  To find employees who have the patience and the interest to tinker, Linear’s booths at career fairs look like home-grown electronics clubs rather than polished setups. The ‘right’ candidates are the ones who are drawn to those booths and who immediately start tinkering.

Overall takeaways from the book:

  1. The gap between good and great is huge. Instead of worrying what can go wrong, think about what could go right. It’s not just about what an employee can do today, but what she or he might be able to do years from now.
  2.  It’s better to spend $100k to procure $1M worth of talent than $1M to find $100k of talent. Create a frugal, streamlined system to find many candidates; identify potential with low-cost assessments.
  3. Compromise on experience, not character. Lou Gerstner didn’t have computer industry experience when he joined IBM but he was able to produce excellent results and growth. Experience and competencies still matter, but they are not the whole show. This is especially true in industries that are new or move fast. For instance, very few candidates will have 15 years of experience in social media. Interviewers should ask why and how more than what and when.
  4. To decide what character elements to test for, think, “What is this job and corporate culture all about?” Teach For America is about resilience, Goldman Sachs is about striving.  Important character elements to test for could include: resilience, perseverance, motivation, striving, judgment, capacity to take feedback.  Auditions will demonstrate character more than indirect methods of resumes, references, and interviews. Resilience is important for success in almost anything, but it’s hard to spot it on a resume. Each job has its own important character traits and a different definition of work ethic. The work ethic for a banker who needs stamina and ingenuity in a crisis is different than the work ethic needed for a researcher who needs to tinker consistently for a potential payoff that could be years away.
  5. Often, great people have jagged resumes – the ones that show teetering between success and failure, with “a tantalizing combination of promise and pitfalls.” It’s important to identify what kind of jagged resumes are right for your company and assess them via auditions.
  6. Auditions will help surface the good jagged resume candidates. Auditions can reveal who has the habits you’re looking for: who tries hard, who prepares well, who recovers quickly from a setback, who sizes up a turbulent situation and comes up with a plan, who’s clueless about group dynamics, who turns brittle under intellectual or emotional pressure. It’s important to create situations to observe these habits, because paths to results are built on durable habits.
  7. Using experienced talent to size up raw candidates saves money in the long-term, provided those senior people “embrace the hard work of extracting truths from the zigzags of their own careers.” These assessors will often do the best job of sizing up candidates and identifying the ones with traits that match the traits that make them successful.
  8. Challenge, don’t coddle, your best candidates. Motivation will reveal itself as the challenging selection process plays out.
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