Spotting Exceptional Talent

If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like.
Soichiro Honda

Over the last few months, I spent a fair amount of time looking for people to add to my team. Actually, that’s not quite right – other people spent time recruiting. I thought I didn’t have to do the work myself. After all, the positions didn’t report directly to me.

I was wrong.

Recruiting is hard and most of us aren’t very good at it. We don’t know how to differentiate outstanding candidates from ones who have a great résumé and interview well but don’t pan out on the job. In these days of hyper competition for talent, we also don’t know how to spot candidates who might don’t look that good on paper but are exceptional talents.

One technique I’ve used effectively is to ask candidates about their current team. Diminishers might start by talking about their team but the conversation will quickly shift back to themselves. Multipliers, on the other hand, will extol the contributions of the people on their team, often providing details on individual employees. Multipliers are usually worth hiring, regardless of their résumé.

In the book “The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else” George Anders interviews ‘the world’s savviest talent judges’ and comes to similar conclusions. His advice to spotting exceptional talent:

Be careful with “talent that shouts”; the spectacular but brash candidates who might have trouble with loyalty, motivation, and team spirit.

Instead, we should try to find “talent that whispers”. These are rare candidates overlooked by most recruiting systems because they have so-called jagged résumés; unusual, almost erratic backgrounds, littered with both successes and failures. In the right settings, these candidates can do spectacular work.

So how do decide whether to hire someone with a jagged résumé? Anders provides three rules:

  1. Compromise on experience; don’t compromise on character.
    You can teach people to do a job but you can’t teach them to be hungry for knowledge.
  2. Use your own career as a template.
    Ignore the commonly-held beliefs on what’s required for success and concentrate on what you’ve seen work.
  3. Rely on auditions to see why people achieve the results they do.
    Exceptional talents recovery quickly from setbacks. They are passionate, sometimes irrationally so.

The book has lots of great advice for everyone who is passionate about attracting and developing exceptional talent. But don’t forget the title – exceptional candidates are a rare find.

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6 Responses to Spotting Exceptional Talent

  1. Gaurav October 6, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    A good and timely reminder! Thanks Jonathan.

  2. Author: Cheryl Allison October 6, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Amazing read

  3. Aniko Hanke October 12, 2015 at 8:23 am #

    Well, back in my time as “enfant terrible” within HR I have always asked myself how all those “off the rack” candidates with their perfect CVs should drive innovation in a high-tech environment but also in society in general. While I cannot empirically prove my assumption that e.g. college dropouts could be a promising pool of corporate avantgarde, innovation research shows all those examples from “on the edge”. Therefore, I really think you are on track and I hope you find all that whispering talent. 🙂

  4. David H Deans October 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Jonathan, I believe that one of the common roadblocks to finding exceptional talent is a result of myopically limiting the notion of team ‘diversity’ to the common demographic filters (gender, race, age, etc) — yet otherwise ignoring people who *think* differently.

    Why do hiring managers that only recruit clones of themselves find it so hard to have meaningful and substantive debates within their team? Perhaps it’s because there’s an apparent lack of alternative points of view, or the dissenting individual may lack confidence.

    I’m curious, when you interview candidates, do you try to establish how they might insert a somewhat different marketing perspective or view of the world into your current talent mix? Or, in contrast, is a perfect fit with the current overall team dynamic considered a higher priority?


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