How to Hire Talent

Every growing business needs smart people. They often have innovative ideas. And smart people attract other smart people, so hiring the best and the brightest tends to form a virtuous circle. And while hiring smart people is not the only factor in a company’s success, it definitely is important.

The general trend over the past twenty or thirty years has been to automate hiring as much as possible. Most large companies use software to scan applications and resumes, weed out candidates who don’t meet minimum requirements, and flag candidates who stand out above the rest. The problem with this approach is that it often accomplishes the opposite: it selects mediocre candidates and screens out the best.

The field of information technology provides a perfect example, since many of the best IT people have few certifications or degrees, whereas mediocre candidates often have an alphabet soup of them.  That’s not always the case, but the point is that an IT degree or certification has a low correlation with talent.

And while IT is the poster child for this sort of dysfunction, it happens elsewhere too. One of the most common assumptions in our over-credentialed culture is that education and talent are one and the same. If you went to Princeton, you must be good, whereas if you just graduated from a state school you obviously can’t make the grade. But if you really want talent, you can often find it in the most unusual places — in the inner cities, at community colleges, at state universities, at non-profit organizations, in the military, etc.

Six Keys to Hiring Talent and Avoiding Drones

Use technology wisely. There is nothing wrong with using software to attract and screen applicants. In fact, to not use it would be silly. But don’t set the filters too tight, and don’t be afraid to override the software if it makes sense.

Think big. One of the most counterproductive things I see in the corporate world is that they often hire people based on extremely narrow job descriptions. That might have worked in the 1950s, but the world has changed. Whatever social media, software, or “new thing” is in vogue now, it will probably be replaced by something different or better within a few years. Instead of hiring based on narrow skillsets, look for more general characteristics that will outlast the latest trend, such as curiosity, strategic thinking, or management skills.

Test for what matters. Another hiring practice that makes no sense is the tendency to over-screen during the interview stage (after the candidate has passed the application screens). Large corporations, in particular, are now requiring candidates to go through batteries of tests. They ask interview questions that never would even have been considered thirty years ago. If these questions and tests are closely related to actual job function, then that is OK. But often they are simply used to reduce the pool of candidates, just for the sake of reducing the pool of candidates.

Be honest. Another trend is creating fancy job descriptions and titles that make the job sound much more involved than it really is. I assume the intent is to increase the pool of applicants. But if the job title is Chief Cleanliness Officer, and the job basically amounts to sweeping floors, you will get lots of applicants, but very few hires will stick around.

Work with HR, but don’t let them run the show. Human resource professionals are necessary and valuable in any mid-sized or large organization. Use them wisely. But don’t hand off all hiring decisions to human resources. If they don’t really understand what separates talented people from the rest, they will simply screen candidates based on keywords. That rarely works. I have hired dozens of people in my career, and the most talented people would never have been hired if I had left everything to HR. The best approach is to work closely with HR, but make the final decision yourself.

Take some risk. Finally, recognize that no matter how careful you are, and how rigorous your hiring process is, you are going to make some mistakes. Listen to your heart and your gut as much as your head. Talented people often have a tough time fitting into round or square holes. They often have a few sharp edges. If they fit your company culture, meet your minimum job requirements, and show signs of great talent or creativity, consider hiring them, at least in a trial capacity. Also recognize that some people are very good at gaming the system — they know exactly how to act and what to say to get hired — but they may not the best employees. Others who are less skilled at getting through the hiring funnel often end up being much better employees.

Hiring good people is never easy, and “talent” is a pretty subjective term. But these simple tips should help you identify and hire the best.