Why You Can’t Find Talent

Why You Can’t Find Talent

By Orin Davis

She could probably get a Bengal tiger to Mars if you asked her to*.  Give her five people’s calendars to manage, and she’ll ask you what she should do with her other hand.  Are your company procedures messed up?  She’ll have them straightened out in a week.  Ticked off a client?  She’ll smooth it over.  This sounds like the executive assistant of your dreams, and she’s pulled off wonders after miracles in almost every job she’s held.

She’s also been fired from almost every job she’s held.

And, for that reason, you will toss her resume the instant you find it and end up with a run-of-the-mill executive assistant who does an OK job and doesn’t mess anything up too badly.

The part you probably can’t fathom is why anyone with that kind of talent would get fired from any job, never mind every job.  You might guess that she keeps engaging in deviant/illegal behavior, or that she violates company policy, but she never does.  You might assume that she is arrogant, but she doesn’t come close.  Maybe she’s lazy…nah, not with those kinds of miracles.  The problem, as it turns out, is her boss.  That is, you.

You don’t actually want talent in your company

Talent will not tolerate any policies that it finds to be silly or idiotic.  Talent will not lower its capabilities to whatever passes for competence in your company.  Talent will not lick your boots when it can find a polishing cloth.  And, talent will not do things your way when your way makes no sense.

Before your dander rises on that declaration of independence, allow me to point out that those four refusals are basically what make them talented in the first place! They are not the sheep that just do what they are told.  Instead, they find the best way to get things done and make them happen. Talented people refuse to do a bad or mediocre job, like others might, when they can do a good job.  But that can mean showing people up, bruising egos, challenging authorities, and being “insubordinate.”  Each of those four things could lead to termination so easily that most managers wouldn’t think twice about it.

In some other cases, talented people can do some of the hardest tasks around, but aren’t always so good at some of the easy ones.  I recall an acquaintance of mine who worked as a consultant, and pulled off ridiculously impressive results that left both the clients and the fellow consultants wowed.  To read her reviews, however, she was a mediocre consultant, at best.  Know why?  She never managed to get her internal paperwork done correctly or on time!  She was let go within months, and her so-so write-up dogged her until she left the field about a year later.  Maybe her bosses and coworkers felt threatened — no one really knows.  What is known is that almost nobody could pull off results like that, and the field lost a wizard when she left it.  All because this wizard wasn’t good at doing internal paperwork.

This sort of thing happens all the time: talented people who do great work that fulfills and/or enhances the primary value propositions of the company, and demonstrate that they can do a great job, and they are fired because of little things like clerical errors and bruised egos.

In still other situations, the talent quits in frustration because they are not allowed to do their jobs.  I know a crackerjack programmer (and that’s putting it mildly!) who was asked to meet with the clients, figure out what they want, and code it.  Sounded simple enough to him, except that his company’s VP kept demanding that the programmer put in “company-representing” features that conflicted with the specs provided by the clients.  When the programmer tried explaining the discrepancy to the VP, the VP effectively ignored the programmer and demanded that things be done her way.  The programmer’s team leader was unable to run interference, and the programmer found himself deliberately coding things that would frustrate the clients, and for which he would end up bearing the brunt of the clients’ frustration.  After about six rounds of this happening, the programmer quit, utterly frustrated that he couldn’t do the job that his company hired him to do because someone who knew nothing about coding (that is, the VP) was insisting that the programmer not do his job.

Imagine this programmer on the interview trail looking for another job — there is no way to describe why he is looking for another job that doesn’t reflect badly on him.  If he says he wanted a change, or is excited by the new job, you are left wondering how long you will keep him.  If he says that his boss wouldn’t let him do his job, you will wonder about the rest of the story (and likely blame him, instead of his boss, or at least wonder why he couldn’t get along with his boss) and pass on hiring him.  Even if you do get the whole story out of him, you are going to realize either that he failed to put the client first and didn’t find a way to do so (which doesn’t fit with your company) or that he will quit if he doesn’t agree with you (so why hire him?).

Notice that, in all three of these cases, you have a person with an incredible skill set who can do great things, but will not be able to get a job in your company!  For that matter, you would probably fire Steve Jobs if he were working for you!  Don’t worry too much about that, though, because:

You don’t know how to recognize talent!

As the New York Times recently discussed, there is a huge reliance upon high-stakes testing to identify talented people.  While some companies, like Google, have started noticing that this is a bad idea, there are a number of flaws in Google’s logic, not the least of which is that these companies use college rankings as a proxy for SAT scores (for instance, if you recruit from Pomona College, which has some of the highest SAT scores).  If you buy Google’s logic, you may still use other proxies like Raven’s Matrices (a sort of IQ test), personality tests (which typically have zero to do with job success, if they’re valid at all), emotional intelligence (not proven valid), and meaningless interview questions, all so that you can eliminate people who won’t be “a fit” and find the people who have a passion for doing the work your company does (which may be a bad idea!).

As noted in some of the aforementioned articles, a far more useful metric is accomplishments, but that means digging through scores of resumes (assuming they’re useful?), LinkedIn profiles, and GitHub repositories (or their field-related equivalents).  In order to do that, however, you need people who are talented, knowledgeable, and competent enough to recognized good field-related work when they see it, and those people likely don’t work in HR! Consequently, it’s going to take your already-squeezed managerial time, and/or your team’s, to engage in the hiring process, and you just don’t have time for that.  Even if you did, you are going to knock out some of the most spectacular candidates because they haven’t found a company that can handle their talent, and you don’t want to run the risk of these people being problem hires.  After all, turnover is expensive and the last thing you need is to go through another hiring process within six months of ending one.

All of this, however, is assuming that the evidence of the talent you seek will show up on a resume, cover letter, or portfolio, and it usually doesn’t!  Most of the time, it’s hidden inside a story that you are going to hear only if you have a conversation with the candidate, and only if you can get them to talk about it without them feeling like they are bragging (an important detail). The only reason I know about the accomplishments of the people I mentioned is that they came up as asides while these people were complaining about their bosses/jobs, and I recognize how good they are only because I have professional experience in the relevant fields. In other cases, there are confidentiality constraints, such as NDAs or professional codes, that prevent you from getting stories that explain the awesomeness of your potential hires (I’ve been unable to give a detailed answer the interview question “tell me about the best advice you’ve given” because the stories behind my all of my best answers are confidential!).

How to get the talent in the door

I have written about how to hire talented people at length , but here are the five main ideas:

  1. Describe the position using goals, not skills
  2. Create a realistic vision of whom to hire
  3. Make sure that the person you hire has room to thrive in your company
  4. Select for factors that cannot be acquired on the job
  5. Use an open and communicative hiring process

Once you are able to identify and hire talent, the next challenge becomes managing talent (here are a few pointers).

The bottom line is that having talent in your company is really good for business, but talent is hard to identify, and hard to keep, and there are always startups that are looking for people who are prepared to break all of the rules and do something extraordinary.  So, the trick is to focus on the mission and value proposition(s) of the company, and on the strengths of the employee.  It is hard, and requires swallowing both pride and a bit of time, but that is a small price to pay for having a team that thrives on accomplishing “mission impossible”!

*Throughout this article, some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes.


Image Courtesy of www.pixabay.com

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