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George Anders: There's a lot more talent out there

What’s the secret to hiring the right people for your organization? Character, says the author of “The Rare Find.”

May 22, 2012

George Anders spent years as a reporter, writing for The Wall Street Journal and other publications. After a while, he noticed a common theme among successful organizations: they were good at hiring the right people.

In his book “The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else,” Anders examined organizations from the military to Teach for America and found some common factors in successful hiring.

AndersThe key, he discovered, isn’t hiring the person with the most spectacular résumé but rather someone with resilience, self-reliance and good judgment, among other traits.

That means hiring managers sometimes have to be willing to compromise on experience and take a chance on what Anders calls “talent that whispers” -- candidates who might have some blemishes on their résumés but nonetheless will persevere.

Anders spoke with Faith & Leadership about how to tell if a job candidate is the right fit for your organization. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you write a book about spotting exceptional talent?

Well, in a way I’ve been devoting years and years to this, even before the book happened. I’ve been writing primarily for The Wall Street Journal, but also for Fast Company magazine and other publications.

I would go into different fields, and no matter who I was interviewing, it became clear that getting the right people in their organization was a make-or-break decision.

This seemed to be a towering theme. Even the people who were good at it sometimes weren’t quite sure what they were doing. There were a couple of them that said, “Come spend some time with me. I’m not even sure how I do it.”

Q: What surprised you as you did your research?

I’d gone in expecting there was some sort of test of valor that I could generalize about.

You go back to the days of King Arthur and pulling the sword out of the rock -- some sort of mighty accomplishment that identified the top achievers from the not-so-top ones.

Instead, the key was really an ability to work through trouble. When people could salvage tough situations, that ended up being what pulled them ahead as much as anything else. I think resilience was really the biggest surprise.

You don’t want to end up with the Gen. Custers who are marvelous commanders until they end up in that one battle when they’re outnumbered and then it all comes to a tragic and crashing end.

I found it on Wall Street; I found it in the military; I found it in teaching; I found it in engineering. It was a universal constant, and it’s one that I think our current hiring system isn’t really set up very well for.

When we ask people about setbacks, we’re looking for ways to disqualify them, [but] we should be looking for ways to bring people into the system, to give them a thumbs-up for their candidacy, because they’ve shown an ability to work through tough times.

Q: Talk a little bit about the “jagged résumé.”

What I found when I looked at world-class organizations and how they find talent was they weren’t looking for people who were better at every single thing than the competition. They had the ability to make the most of people who had some great strengths but also some apparent weaknesses.

If they were hiring people soon out of college, these might be people whose transcripts were a mix of A’s and C’s. These organizations had the ability to say, “You know what, what you got an A or an A+ in was an extraordinary skill; what you got a C in actually really isn’t that important for the job we have. We don’t need the straight-A student. We need the person who excels in a few areas that are crucial to us.”

And you’ll see this in other areas, too. Some of the most successful overachievers were the ones who had a setback or a stumble that changed their internal motivation. They say, “You know what, I will never fall that low again. I will never end up in that kind of predicament.”

A smart, progressive employer opens their eyes and says, “The fact that this person had a misstep, a stumble, actually doesn’t make them a worse candidate; it might make them a better one.”

It is important to define the two or three key things that will make or break that job and to be uncompromising about those. Those often tend to be elements of character.

But you can be more flexible about other areas of experience or credentials. The elements on the edge may not matter so much, and you can open your eyes to a whole broader pool of candidates, including some very good ones that your competitors may not see.

Q: What’s the danger of not appreciating the jagged résumé?

If you insist that people be perfect in every imaginable dimension, you have a very, very small number of candidates.

I’ve done some informal consulting in organizations where they say, “You know, we have seven different specifications, and we’ve realized that there are only two people in the United States that meet the requirement, and one of them is Warren Buffett.”

The other issue is if you’re looking for people who excel in every direction, you have to ask, “Are they going to be fully satisfied with what we have, or are we just a brief steppingstone in their ascent?”

Q: You talk about two kinds of talent: talent that whispers and talent that shouts. What are they, and how are they related to this notion of seeking out the right person for your organization?

Let’s start with talent that whispers. I’m always struck that you can look in unexpected places and still find really interesting people.

I did a chart once of where all of the Rhodes Scholar candidates come from, and the top schools are just as you’d expect. But the list goes on and on.

You get to small schools in Arkansas, you get to the junior parts of the state college system in the thinly populated states, but they’ve all sent one person there.

I took all of the single-nominee schools and added them up and said, “Where would they be?” The answer is they’d be fourth on the list; they would be right up there with all the big-name schools.

So that ability to look in the unexpected places starts to add up. Talent that whispers is really a way of saying, “Don’t just stop your search at a certain point and say, ‘We’ve been to all the usual places; we don’t need to look any further.’”

Talent that shouts are the people who come in with extraordinary credentials. You’ve got to make sure that these people are really motivated to work at your organization.

Q: You talk about being willing to compromise on experience but not on character. What character traits should employers be looking for?

There’s a variety of traits that are pretty universal. I’ve gone into organizations ranging from Johns Hopkins Medicine to the FBI, and it’s surprising how similar the lists are.

One of the key character traits is resilience, an ability to bounce back from tough situations. These are going to be your people who can break through walls, who can work around obstacles. In almost any organization things happen that we didn’t expect, and that’s when you find out who’s really good and who throws up their hands and says, “Well, I wasn’t provided all the tools I need. I don’t know what to do.”

Being a fast learner becomes more and more important as we’re in this exciting age of technology and organizational transformation. You should be looking for people who like to learn, who like to take on new things, and who are just quick at mastering them.

Another trait is efficiency -- people who can get a lot done. People who are organized, plan their day well, know how to delegate, know when to take charge.

Self-reliance is important. We end up often needing to draw on our own resources to succeed at something. If we’re always looking for organizational approval and the next thing to do, one would become hard to manage, because it takes a lot of management time, but also there’s just less of a sense of drive there.

Judgment, I think, is an all-purpose one, but there are a lot of fields where you’re really looking for someone who doesn’t just gather the facts but can figure out what the right thing to do is.

Q: Are there any other key things that you think hiring managers or search committees could do differently?

Turn the clock back to the very first question, which is, “What’s this job all about?”

An awful lot of the job hunts that go badly off course fail at this very first stage.

Q: How do you do the self-analysis required to start off a successful search?

You need to take the stress and the posturing out of it, because a lot of times we carry around slightly unrealistic slogans in our head about what we are.

Ask yourselves, “Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we do? What don’t we do?” Give everyone a chance to write down a list of the 10 things that define who we are and what don’t we do. Then compare lists.

If you’re starting to see things come up on three or four lists, you’ve probably got something that’s pretty central. If you’ve got something that only one person identifies, talk it over a bit and see if maybe they’ve got a unique insight.

Give each person a chance to express themselves in a safe setting rather than getting trapped in committee-think, where people are in such a hurry to come up with something that doesn’t offend anyone that they lose sight of the key values.

Q: How do you know, though? You give an example in the book of a tryout for Green Berets in which they have to push an old trailer, and the officers watch to see how every member of the team responds to this seemingly impossible job. But most search teams can’t do that.

There’s a level of in-depth interviewing that makes a huge difference.

We can become very senior managers and never really get much instruction in how to do interviews. So we’ve got two mental models in our mind, neither of which is very good.

The first is chatting with someone in the next airplane seat, and we just look for affinity. Did we go to the same school? Do we listen to the same music, the same movies?

But we’re not looking for a new friend. We’re looking for someone who can succeed in our organization.

The other model in our mind is the deposition or the Mike Wallace “60 Minutes” grilling. That’s not very helpful.

Once you identify the values that are important to you, look for the key moments in people’s careers in the past where that’s been revealed. Be willing to probe a bit to ask what I call “the third question.” When you’re on a topic, don’t just ask the first question; ask a follow-up question and then follow up to the follow-up. That’s when you’re going to get a sense of whether there’s real substance there.

And then the other thing is reference checks. Interview as if your company’s destiny depended on it. Because, guess what? It does.

A 10-minute reference check is not really a reference check at all; it’s an exchange of clichés. Spend some time on the phone. A question that sometimes helps is, “What do I need to know to manage this person effectively?”

A lot of times you’ll get references to people’s shortcomings there, because that’s a safer way to put it: “You can’t ever say anything critical to them, because they have a temper, they blow up, they get very angry.” Well, now you know something that you might not have known before.

Q: If you had to name a couple of organizations that you think are doing an exceptional job at this, what would you say? What examples would you give?

Teach for America really impressed me, because they do it on the large scale, they do it systematically, and they’ve corrected some of their mistakes.

When they evaluate people’s transcripts, they’re more impressed by the person who had a tough time freshman year and got better and better in sophomore and junior year. A lot of times that includes people who came from underprivileged backgrounds and really had a little bit of a bumpy time settling into that first year of college, but they’ll go for those, rather than people who are so exquisitely well-prepared that their freshman year was easy.

They spend a lot of time looking for people who’ve got staying power in what are very tough teaching jobs -- they want people who can prevail, even if there aren’t enough desks or enough textbooks or there are budget problems or lack of heating.

Q: What if you’re not a hiring manager but an individual trying to chart your own career?

We have a small e-book sequel to the book, called “Becoming a Rare Find.” In it, I talk about the hidden job market -- how some of the most interesting jobs never get posted -- and what you need to do to get connected with the people who are doing the hiring before the job even formally takes shape, how you introduce yourself to people who matter.

Even someone who doesn’t feel very networked and doesn’t feel they have connections can do that.

It’s important to establish yourself as a quick learner and to demonstrate that, especially if you’re early in your career.

You’re being hired for potential, and I talk about ways that in an interview you can show that you’re a quick learner and come in with the kinds of examples and stories that people go, “You know what, I like that person. I’m willing to take a chance on them.”