Seek Out the Rare Find

A journalist offers advice on spotting exceptional talent ahead of your peers.

By Adam Van Brimmer Sep 1, 2012
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September CoverJournalist and best-selling author George Anders set out four years ago to learn the secrets to finding the hidden superstars of the American workplace. He shared his discoveries in The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). The book instructs recruiters and hiring managers to look beyond resumes and offers advice on how to spot potential in candidates whose "jagged resumes" show promise and peril. Anders says employers willing to seek out rare finds, particularly during the economic recovery, should prosper.

How has high unemployment complicated the ability to identify the rare find?

Employers that are hiring don't have many slots to fill. When business leaders hunt for talent, they look for transformative employees—people who can build business, take a company digital or lead growth.

But the recession created more jagged resume candidates. They have high levels of achievement, but they've been out of work for a year. Often, they'll turn out to be great hires. They are motivated and bring incredible energy.

Go into the hiring process looking for people with an unending desire to succeed and to make your company better.

How can hiring managers find the balance between potential and guaranteed productivity in candidates?

First, ask, "Am I looking for immediate perfection or someone promotable, with a lot to offer?" Managers who want to teach skills don't run as great a risk of hiring someone who can do the job but is disengaged or is not devoted to meeting the company's goals. Unfortunately, during recessions employers fear betting on potential at a time when they should be upping the ante.

How can hiring managers look at jagged resume candidates and tell the difference between those with potential and those who simply lack discipline?

Look for gaps that matter. Someone who worked as a store manager for 30 hours a week and has a 3.2 grade point average and a couple of Cs on the transcript can be more attractive than someone with a 3.5 average who went to school on a trust fund. There often are circumstances that reveal more about a candidate. Ask people about the rough patches; the answers often impress rather than repulse.

What techniques can HR professionals use to unearth candidates who show valuable but hard-to-discern traits such as resiliency?

Take a detailed run through a person's previous work experience during the interview. Look for situations when they worked out of tough spots. Ask them what didn't go well, how they responded and what they learned.

Amazon managers practice this. They ask applicants for a brand manager position what he would do to sell something he's never sold before. The candidate will answer, "Launch a market research study." The interviewer will tell them, "You have no budget for that. Now what do you do?"

Amazon managers are looking for a candidate who, when faced with limited or no resources, can persevere.

How can HR professionals guard against falling for great talent, or the candidate that blows them away in the interview, vs. the right talent?

Think through what the job requires. Many candidates can charm a board. But do they have the discipline and focus to lead people? Do they have the compassion to inspire people? Or are they leaders without followers? Look for well-organized people with a proven record of executing.

One recruiter you quote talked about looking for executives with "weight," or the ability to get people to follow them. How do you hire for "weight"?

Look for candidates with the ability to influence people. Can he or she connect with people outside the chain of command and get them to buy into the vision?

Good leaders convince others their ways are the right ways, without issuing threats or posturing. They get people to want to get on board.

Sometimes, it's as simple to spot as watching a candidate's body language. Is there a presence?

Do you have any tips for hiring managers who want to become "aggressive listeners"?

Listen to the words, how those words are delivered and what's not being said. Listen for the cadence. Pick up on the people who use "I" and "me" a lot. Sometimes, it's a sign of self-absorption. But sometimes, it can mean something else, like a sense of accountability.

One chief executive officer will ask sales job candidates about a failure. He's listening for the candidate's use of "I" and "me" in the explanation for what went wrong. The answer usually reveals if someone has the self-awareness to see what he could have done differently rather than projecting the failure on others.

The interviewer is a business reporter for the Savannah Morning News and a freelance writer based in Georgia.

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