Desperately seeking talent
Employers worry more about the effects of a bad hire than about the problems of hiring someone who is competent but not exceptional.

Article Highlights

  • Exceptional talent doesn't always come in neat packages—and wise leaders don't expect it to.

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  • Employers worry more a bad hire than about the problems of hiring someone who is competent but not exceptional.

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  • HR departments extol off-the-chart talent yet often seem uneasy when it comes knocking.

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When Joanne Rowling, an unemployed single mother, showed her first fanciful manuscript to a dozen British publishing houses, all quickly passed on it. Eventually a single bid emerged--for about $2,500--from Bloomsbury, then a small London publisher. Wise move: Ms. Rowling's "Harry Potter" franchise is now worth billions.

Another $2,500 investment, by the New York Yankees on the advice of a scout who had seen a lanky former shortstop from Panama trying his hand at pitching, brought the team Mariano Rivera, who turned out to be the greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen.

"Human resources departments extol off-the-chart talent yet often seem uneasy when it comes knocking." --David Shaywitz, M.D.The question driving journalist George Anders in "The Rare Find" is how can we do a better job of recognizing exceptional talent--what can we do to identify and bring onboard the next Rowling or Rivera, the next Steve Jobs or Andy Grove.

Finding exceptional talent, Mr. Anders contends, is now more important than ever: In our hyper-competitive global economy, business urgently needs "game-changers," "impact players," men and women who are "five times better" than everyone else. The problem, he astutely observes, is that most organizations rely on a fairly conservative selection process that focuses on narrow abilities and gives short shrift to broader or unusual potential, excluding some of the most promising candidates. How to avoid slipping into that constricted approach? Mr. Anders devotes the balance of "The Rare Find" to seeking answers from those who seem to know.

He takes us to try-outs for the U.S. Army Special Forces, where the arduous selection process now considers not only raw strength and physical endurance but also resilience, tenacity and mental agility. How do the aspiring Green Berets respond when faced with a series of difficult-to-impossible tasks, such as pushing a decrepit truck trailer along a muddy forest road? Do they improvise or doggedly follow established procedures?

We also visit Teach for America and learn that the organization once asked precious questions in search of clever answers from applicants ("What is wind?" was a favorite) but now focuses more on discovering character traits—persistence, determination, serenity in the face of adversity—considered to be more practical indicators of future teaching success. Realistic auditions are used to provide insights into these elusive qualities.

Mr. Anders reminds us that exceptional talent doesn't always come in neat packages—and wise leaders don't expect it to. Consider computer scientist David Evans, who in the 1960s began to build a department from scratch at the University of Utah. Mr. Evans's gift was his uncanny ability to pick out researchers who were exceedingly smart but also unfocused and restless and thus had never been able to find a comfortable home. High-school failures, itinerant musicians, unemployed engineers—all were welcome if they seemed to have the right stuff. The results were extraordinary: His early recruits included John Warnock, who went on to co-found Adobe Systems, Ed Catmull (co-founder of Pixar) and Jim Clark (founder of Netscape).

The book also introduces us to the problem of "silent talent," ability that is easily overlooked. To tap into this under-exploited long tail of talent, Facebook uses puzzles—developed by an official "puzzle master"—to attract and ensnare savvy programmers who might otherwise be missed. A "high-swagger" West Coast ad agency, meanwhile, deliberately searches for new talent from unexpected sources, seeking out stand-up comics ("marvelous storytellers") and college debaters ("really smart, passionate people").

While Mr. Anders convinces us early on that businesses need to do a better job identifying exceptional talent, some of his suggestions seem generic and even contradictory. For example, he urges us to be bold and recognize opportunities—the way IBM did, to brilliant effect, when the company selected Louis Gerstner as CEO despite his lack of computer experience. Yet a few chapters later, Mr. Anders criticizes the Albertsons grocery-store chain for rashly hiring Larry Johnston, a longtime General Electric executive with no experience in retailing. Mr. Johnston's tenure began in 2001 and ended after five years as the company's faltering finances led to its sale and break-up. There's a conspicuous sense of Monday-morning quarterbacking in Mr. Anders's assessments.

Many of the exemplars the author cites may also warrant more critical evaluation. What's the evidence that these organizations are unusually skillful in discerning talent? True, Facebook, Teach for America and the Special Forces are renowned, but it's unclear whether they gained their vaunted reputations because of or in spite of their idiosyncratic approaches to recruiting and admission.

Mr. Anders may also place excessive faith in the ability of interviews and auditions to reveal subtle character traits. "Details count," he writes. "Many small impressions"—demeanor, neatness and attentiveness, for instance—"add up to a decisive, accurate judgment." Maybe not: If extensive studies of job interviews are any guide, we often place too much confidence in our ability to make rapid character assessments.

The real challenge may not be so much identifying talent as getting serious about seeking it. Most employers worry far more about the devastating effects of making a bad hire than about selecting someone who is competent but not exceptional—good, not great. Add to this the tendency (well-documented by Mr. Anders) to overvalue discrete competencies—facility with spreadsheets, say—and to discount the importance of less quantifiable traits such as temperament and persistence. Little wonder that human-resources departments extol off-the-chart talent yet often seem uneasy when it comes knocking. In many cases, it's precisely the potential of exceptionally talented applicants to disrupt an organization that prevents their hiring—even when such disruption is precisely what a company might need.

David Shaywitz, M.D., is an adjunct scholar at AEI

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