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The Art of Spotting Talent

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You company is on the fast track to growth and you finally need to hire professional managers to help sustain the momentum. Management consultant Norberto Belen speaks out his mind.

In a conference of corporate executives on strategic human resource management, I opened my presentation with a question : “How many of you actually put up your company’s future at risk?” No hands went up in the room. I qualified my first question with two more:

  • “Do you agree that the lack of quality talents can actually limit a company’s growth ?” That got a positive response out of the audience.
  • “Do you agree that spotting talent is not easy. . . thereby limiting, if not putting at risk achievement of growth?” This time” “Yes, maybe.”

That appraisal was meant to highlight two key insights:

  • Spotting real talent is a key executive function-with strategic impact on corporate growth.
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, hiring good people is not that easy. (One study showed that a 30-50% batting average is very high!)

So how do you spot good talent? There is no single style. One woman executive observes how the candidate walks. “Purposeful gait and hurried pace is symptomatic of an achiever who gets things done,” she said. Others put a premium on the handshake, the shape of a face, the executive look.

Whatever your style, when selecting your talents you must:

Knowing What You Want

Seems easy enough. In truth, this requires some thinking through. Beyond the genuine factors like intelligence, people skills and functional skills- there are specific competencies critical to your company’s “way of doing things around here.”

The CONTEXT-“how we do things”- is critical. Take the case of Rick, a successful market research director. Rick understood the market and wrote incisive and insightful marketing studies. Promoted to vice president for marketing, he failed. My diagnosis; Someone forgot that given-the company’s “presentation culture”. Rick appeared ineffective to the Board. He was lousy at presentations. He was uninspiring and not persuasive.

A similar case was my own. I hired a general manager for a client, a high flying executive from a well-known and highly organized consumer goods company. I failed to take into account that my client was organized differently. In my client’s company, one had to “walk and chew gum” at the same time i.e. develop systems, customer databases etc. while formulating and executing a business plan. Lesson learned: There must be a fit between the skills and the culture or “how we do things here”.

Before beginning your search for a professional manager, recognize the skills and traits you want in the candidate as well as the context in which the person will work.

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Knowing the Right Questions

Once you have done that, you must know the right questions to pose to the candidate. The right questions must be able to zero in and reveal WHAT the candidate has done to demonstrate the required competency.

Ask questions that focus on the candidate’s past behavior and achievements. Behavior predicts behavior. Avoid hypothetical “what if” or “what would you do” questions: these just provide opportunity for politically correct answers. The answers are theoretical and do not give an insight of capabilities and results actually achieved.

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Gathering Supplemental Information

No matter how good you are, you cannot make conclusions from an interview about integrity, the ability to bounce back from failure, persistence or working style. Nor can one detect hidden motivations or tendencies and preferences.

This is when well designed and validated psychological and personality tests become helpful. The caveat: use these tests in conjunction with interview and background checks.

Information from former co-workers is valuable but the background information search must be systematic. Do not limit checks to co-workers listed as references. Use background information judiciously.

In validating conscious leadership qualities, I have learned that everyone does not always like the Real Leaders. It is easy to be liked by everyone. Do not take a touch stance on issues. To be a fence sitter is always to be loved. Real leaders are courageous: in tough situations they will make the right call and inevitably some will be hurt. But others will understand the reasons. Real leaders are controversial. But the measure is RESPECT not BEING LIKED.

Spotting talent is not easy. But an entrepreneur running a fast growing company will sooner or later have to face the decision of hiring professional managers. Your company’s growth depends on it.

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