By: George Anders, author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else
Whenever a resume search for talent begins, it’s customary to draw up a list of all the desired traits that a winning candidate should have. As candidates come in, standard protocol calls for dividing resumes into two piles as part of a resume review. People whose background and credentials largely fit expectations become serious contenders for the job. People who come up short are shunted aside.
That’s a perfectly logical system, with a grievous ﬂaw. The most intriguing job candidates often don’t ﬁt into either resume pile. Parts of their resumes sparkle with fascinating strengths. There’s something about their drive, their ingenuity, or their unusual background that hints at one-in-a-million promise.
And yet, run these candidates through the master checklist, and there will be embarrassing blank spots for some of the seemingly crucial requirements. They are the jagged résumés.
The cautious answer in such situations is to shunt such candidacies into a third pile: the “maybes.” That way, no one needs to make a decision for a while. Such candidates aren’t instantly rejected. But too often they aren’t ever seriously considered, either.
Only later do some of those evasive judgments demand a second look -- when last year’s “maybes” become someone else’s superstars. That’s when there’s no escaping the uncomfortable question: “What did we miss?”
The best resume assessors thrive on analyzing the middle of the pile. Even if there’s just one overlooked winner in each stack of ﬁfty “maybes,” they ﬁnd him or her. They widen the talent pool without ever lowering their standards to the point that they tarnish their reputations with a flurry of poor hires.
In their hands, the jagged résumés aren’t so hard to decode after all, and there are three principles to keep in mind:
Compromise on experience; don’t compromise on character. At the University of Utah, David Evans succeeded by opening the doors to people whose bright minds and constant hunger to be working on the frontiers of knowledge made them standouts, regardless of their erratic transcripts and work history. His method focused on people’s potential to rise beyond that they have done to date.
Other great assessors in high tech, ﬁnance, sports, and commerce achieve breakthroughs with similar methods. The key requirement: being willing to embrace unconventional views of what job skills are truly needed in each speciﬁc ﬁeld.
Your own career is a template; use it. For an eerie set of reasons, many leaders treat their own life experiences as off - limits when it comes time to evaluate candidates.
There’s a school of thought that calls for assessments to be as neutral as possible. Wrong! The best insights into candidates’ potential come from leaders whose own life experiences speak to the traits they are seeking. That’s how venture capitalists score some of their biggest coups; it’s how discoveries are made in ﬁelds ranging from music to medicine.
Rely on auditions to see why people achieve the results they do. Who tries hard? Who works well with others? Who recovers quickly from a setback? Conversely, who cuts corners? Who turns brittle under pressure? Who ultimately doesn’t care?
When great assessors watch a candidate in action, they aren’t just looking for a momentary ﬂash of brilliance. They are hunting for dozens of small clues that show how and why someone succeeds. That’s where character is revealed.
These principles clear the way for efficient, accurate assessment of candidates who seem baffling to anyone else. Everything learned about a newcomer is matched against deeply held knowledge of what strengths are crucial for the job at hand -- and what deﬁcits don’t matter. After all, these leaders aren’t hunting for an all-purpose manager, athlete, author, or inventor. Their quests are far more speciﬁc.
A basketball coach may hunt for a backcourt dynamo who can energize a team of slow-moving shooters. A theater director may want someone who can play Hamlet’s father with a sense of impotent rage.
Corporate board directors may want a hard-nosed CEO who can revive a dying business even if it means harsh measures along the way. In all these cases, leaders are looking for people uniquely right for the job at hand. It doesn’t matter how ill-suited such a person might be for something else.
When experts decode jagged résumés, they start by tightening up their “must-have” lists to a few crucial criteria. Often these factors barely register in competitors’ minds. The process of getting to know candidates is defined far more by questions involving “why” and “how” -- and less about “what” or “when.” The payoff: the mysteries of motivation, fit, and potential become much clearer.
Excerpted from The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else by George Anders by arrangement with Portfolio / Penguin, Copyright (c) George Anders, 2011.
George Anders is author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else. He was one of the founding writers at Bloomberg View, specializing in opinion pieces about the US economy, financial markets, and innovation. He spent two decades as a top feature writer for The Wall Street Journal; he has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times and Harvard Business Review.
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