Spotting Exceptional Talent

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

George Anders is a New York Times bestselling author and journalist with three decades of experience writing for national publications. He started his career at the Wall Street Journal, where he became a top feature writer specializing in in-depth profiles and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. He also has served as West Coast bureau chief for Fast Company magazine and as a founding member of the Bloomberg View board of editors. His work has appeared in leading publications worldwide.

Mr. Anders participated in a recent AMA Edgewise podcast about his new book The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else, based on 2-½ years of research on America's constant hunt for greatness. The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: Is finding rare talent more of an art than a science?
Anders: Like so many things, when you look at it from a distance, it is all art and mystery, and the closer you get, the more craft there is. So, perspective matters enormously, having your feet pointed in the right direction. But once you do that, there are a lot of things that will improve your odds and will also reduce the penalties for getting it wrong. I think part of the reason that hiring decisions sometimes get very constricted and become very cautious is the feeling that if we get it wrong, we’re going to be in trouble.

A lot of the organizations that impress me that do take chances, are very good at taking small chances. Whether it’s a university with a Ph.D. program, where there is a master’s track that kind of shoots people out after a year or two and they are gone, or General Electric’s corporate audit program, where you can take four or five years to get to the top, but there is an exit path—a gentle well-constructed exit path—that will get the less successful people doing something else after a year. When you do that, you can take more chances, you can be bolder, because you know that your successes are going to pay off in a big way and your mistakes aren’t really going to hurt you.

AMA: How do you respond to critics who might claim that if they were to be as super detailed-oriented as the companies you admire, they would never fill a job?
Anders: It depends on what kind of job you are trying to fill. If you are looking for toll takers, or people to move fork lifts around, you probably don’t need to stress about it to the same degree as if you were running a hospital and looking for someone to lead your cardiac surgery department.  What’s important is not just the income that you are paying—it is the amount of responsibility for the organization’s destiny. We have noticed that in a lot of organizations this make or break quality is now happening several layers farther down. The military talks about the strategic corporal. If you are in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is not just about what the generals and colonels are doing. There may be some guy commanding six people or eight people, and if he is the guy you are hoping will find Bin Laden, he is your most important soldier.

The same thing occurs in business. If you look at the impact of social media as it makes and breaks trends, where things spiral up into an incredibly big phenomenon, suddenly, quickly, without us expecting it. So you need to have talent at all levels of the organization. You can’t just have a few good people at the top and then a lot of drones at the bottom.

AMA: Let’s pursue the subject of social media. Can and should social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter play a role in the search for all stars?
Anders: Yes. A hundred years ago it would be like asking if we should use the telephone to help us, or should we use the mail? I am struck by some of the new techniques that are coming that integrate two different social media streams. Let me explain. We are all familiar with LinkedIn, where you have the classic line-by-line résumé: here is what I did from 2005 to 2008, here was my next job, here is where I went to school. A useful, straight, drill down, sedimentary core of someone’s life. Not a lot of detail on how well the person did it, or what his or her  projects were.

Concurrently, you have people’s Tweets. Or, in specialty fields, you have their postings in PR chat groups; you have their postings on some of the tech boards, very granular. If you read with a keen eye you can see who is taking command of one project after another, whose Tweets say we delivered it on time and under budget and whose Tweets say, you know what? I think I am about to get fired. Wouldn’t it be nice to match the two of those up? There are now companies that are setting out to do exactly that.  This becomes a very powerful way to identify interesting candidates and to do a first round of filtering, so that you are not talking to the people who have great résumés but no ability to execute.

AMA:  Talk a bit about the case of Larry Summers, which you discuss at length in the book.
Anders: Larry Summers is a well-known, extremely successful figure. He was Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, a top economic advisor to Barack Obama, and  the winner of the Fields Medal, which goes to the brightest economist under age 40. Open up your wallet and there is a chance you have a dollar bill with Larry Summer’s signature on it. Go to back copies of Time magazine and there he is on the cover.

Yet there is one job that never worked out well for him, and that he ultimately got pushed out of:  president of Harvard. I find the story fascinating, because the more you analyze it, the more you realize what a mismatch it was. When you think about what university presidents do, they diffuse tension. They are diplomats; they are conciliators. You have angry alumni, they are the ones who hear them out. You have tension within the faculty senate, they are the ones who make it all nice again. You have a Congressional committee that is maybe making something a little bit hard for you, they are the ones who go down to Washington and endure the ritual we all know as getting grilled by the committee.

When Harvard went looking for a president, diplomacy was number four on their list of specs for the job. The first thing they wanted was a brilliant researcher. Well, you know what? As university president, you must move your research to the sidelines. Summers had no time to write his papers or do his analysis. He was going to committee meetings the whole time. It was useless. They ended up getting someone who was aggressive, confrontational, and provocative. He lasted for less than five years there. The event that sent him to the exit was his presence at a conference about why there were so few women who were high achievers in science and technology.  He said in essence, “I am going to provoke you; I am going to say some things that are meant to startle you.” He said perhaps there aren’t that many women at the top because they just lack the ability to get there. Talk about a message that sent shockwaves through the entire faculty, student body, and particularly the handful of women who had made it to the top and felt that they had overcome a lot of prejudice and discrimination.  He lost the loyalty of the Harvard faculty and never got it back.

We spent a lot of time in the book on Summers’s example to make the point that if you write the wrong specs, you can hire someone who is brilliant, but who is not right for the job, and that is going to be a mismatch that will ultimately end in tears.

AMA: In the book you discuss how auditions can be a powerful tool for determining who may or may not be a surprise super star. Is it possible for companies to adopt this mentality?
Anders: In the course of researching the rare find, I was amazed at how many fields in which you can do auditions. You think of it as just for American Idol, but it is not. If you want good computer programmers, there are no end of clever pencil and paper tests and Jeopardy-style quiz questions, but all those really do is identify people who are good at answering quiz show questions. What you want to know is, can the person write code? Can they take on an assignment that may take 10 or 20 hours and deliver not just a program that works, but one that is clearly annotated, that someone else can integrate into a system, that is efficient, that is elegant? What better way than to ask them to write code? It is the old Peter Drucker idea: evaluate people for the job at hand.

Facebook is an example that I really like. They run people through these kinds of literal tests and they end up getting terrific coders. Some of them are highly curious people, but you are not hiring them to go and be part of your sales force; you are hiring them to solve a problem.

Sales is a field where you can see someone sell, and that is why programs often take in interns or trainees, a kind of audition. You are going to discover whether or not they connect in front of clients.

AMA: Some people may say that the thorough, in-depth searching that you recommend in the hiring process, is too time consuming for our speed-driven culture. How do you respond?
Anders: Ask any manager what the biggest drain on their time is and they will say it is dealing with the bottom third of their employees. The first time I came into management, I was running a newspaper bureau. The best advice I got, from an experienced bureau chief, was to hire right. If you do, within a year, you will have a blast. But if you don’t get your hiring right, you will always be fixing problems and patching mistakes and you will never get a chance to go and pursue greatness. I think that is true in any line of work. So, yes, you have to invest a little bit up front, but the payback on the other end is ten to one.

Listen to the complete podcast.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.