The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
The article, “21st Century Talent Spotting—Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies,” in the June, 2014 issue of HBR by Claudio Fernandez-Araz, is must reading for every manager concerned about putting the right management and leadership talent in place to grow his/her organization. (And yes, every manager should be concerned about this significant challenge.)
The author builds a case for shifting away from the competency model (core skills and experiences) that has dominated hiring practices for the recent past, to one that emphasizes assessing a candidate’s potential in the form of, “the ability to adapt to ever-changing business environments and grow into challenging new roles.”
Raised Eyebrows and Victories:
I’ve long been a fan of build versus buy or, hire the best athletes when it comes to talent acquisition, although admittedly, my selections have raised some eyebrows in the more traditional HR environments. One hire to help build out a new initiative had no experience whatsoever in the function I was hiring her for, yet she brought a deep understanding of the customers we were pursuing. In this case, the HR executive who not so politely wondered whether I had lost my mind, was professional enough to loop back after I invited him to the interview process, to offer, “Now I get it.” The outcome was excellent, as she quickly provided much needed customer context for our strategy work, while learning the ins and outs of a new discipline.
Another hire that proved to be remarkably valuable was the recruit from the retail world for a technology sales role. There’s not a hiring model in existence that would have led anyone to this individual, however, the attributes he displayed in winning for his firm, team and store in his retail role were so powerful, I had to give him a shot in my world. He is now a Senior Director in one of the world’s largest and most successful software firms.
The Big Five Indicators (Plus Some):
The focus of the author’s model is on assessing five key indicators: the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. (He also appropriately highlights need to gauge intelligence, values and leadership abilities as part of the process.) The emphasis on the five indicators shifts the weighting away from prior experience in the job and places a tremendous emphasis on the ability of the individual to both learn and adapt. The oft-cited assessment philosophy of, the best predictor of future success is prior performance, is significantly diluted in this approach.
Of Risk and Return:
In addition to a number of noteworthy successes in my own too ad-hoc approach to this style of talent assessment, I’ve also misfired on several occasions. In one case, I failed to recognize the true complexities of quickly learning the new role, and the individual struggled to win the confidence and respect of his colleagues. In another, the individual failed to gravitate to the new role at all, preferring to avoid situations where her expertise was less important than her ability to execute on her core position responsibilities. Both were frustrating situations for all parties, and I learned to avoid future gaffes (like these) through better pre-hiring dialogue over a longer time frame and significantly increased exposure to the demands of the very new role for the candidates.
Invest in Potential and Then Push to Stretch:
Fernandes-Araz concludes the article with an emphasis on “Stretch Development” for the high potential hires. In his words, “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens.” The stretch work is also where you find out whether your initial assessment of potential was on or off the mark.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Talent is the difference-maker in this world, and identifying, securing and developing the right talent is arguably the most important task of managers in the enterprise. You don’t fulfill on mission, effectively serve customers or appropriately reward stakeholders without the right people on board…all learning, growing and adapting to market conditions. If shifting your viewpoint and recruiting approaches off of the like-kind prior experience model will give you a potential boost, it’s worth the risk. Your batting average on hires that stick might slip a bit, but the upside is worth the cost of the experimentation.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.