Hiring High Potential Talent?

Topics: Research

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the tension leaders confront when they think they’re putting their own performance results at stake because they have to send top members of their teams - their high potential talent - off for developmental assignments.

I shared the following 3 solutions that members of the CorpU Executive Council on Leadership are testing in an effort to assuage this tension:

  1. Treat high potential talent as a corporate asset
  2. Create talent review committees to monitor groups of employees and support managers’ efforts to identify and develop high potentials within those groups
  3. Assign talent management experts to work in partnership with business unit leaders to offload some of the leaders’ responsibilities to develop talent

Bob Gately, operator of the firm Gately Consulting, responded by asking,

“How do you identify high performers before they are hired?”  (I now realize Bob was prompting a debate.)

I replied that most organizations are:

  • Using leadership competency models to conduct behavioral interviews
  • Putting new hires through a barrage of assessments like those provided by Development Dimensions International (DDI) as part of their selection process
  • Seeking the “best and brightest” who’ve attended leading schools

It was that third answer about hiring the “best and brightest” that sent Bob into a writing frenzy.

He promptly replied,

“Would God or mother nature be so cruel as to limit high potentials to the best students from the best schools? How many seniors graduate each year from the best schools who also are the best students? How many jobs do employers need to fill each year? There is a significant shortfall if organizations only focus on the top students from the best schools.  And, hiring the best and the brightest is a sure fire way to hire the wrong people about 80% of the time.

WHAT?!  Organizations that focus on hiring the “best and brightest” students hire the wrong people about 80% of the time.  I know a few HR practitioners who would call Bob a heretic.

Telefónica sits down with the best business schools worldwide, providing them with essential information regarding what Telefónica needs and then the business school or university develops a program that would fit their needs.

Juan Rovira, Telefónica

I offered a brilliant comeback. “Well, since there’s a talent shortage, organizations do say they’re looking at people in tier 2 schools now.”

Bob was all over that.

“There is no talent shortage for employers who hire for talent. Hiring for talent requires more work up front for HR and recruiters.  It often takes 4 to 5 qualified applicants to fill a single position with a top performer, a person with high potential.”

Then I mentioned that I had read an interview with an expert on neurological science in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review in which the expert suggested there’s no scientific evidence to back up our beliefs that the assessments we hold dear (particularly MBTI) are actually good predictors of future behavior or the potential for success.

This comment hit Bob’s hot button and his answer was swift. 

“Too many people want to use assessment tools as a fast and free screening process. A major roadblock to hiring high potential employees (successful employees) is the failure of the MBTI and other Ipsative assessments to actually identify high potentials consistently. Risk averse managers use the MBTI and Ipsative assessments – which don’t work – as justification not to use assessments that do work, i.e., talent assessments.

Now, I felt I had to push back. “What do you mean by talent assessments?”

Bob was eager to back up his claims, offering the following explanation and guideline.

Hiring for talent increases the number of good hires and avoids the bad hires.  If we want to be sure that all our new hires and employees become long-term successful employees, we need to make sure that all employees are competent and have a talent for their jobs.

For employees to find job success...

talent is necessary, but not sufficient.
skills are necessary, but not sufficient.
training is necessary, but not sufficient.
orientation is necessary, but not sufficient.
knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient.
competency is necessary, but not sufficient.
qualifications are necessary, but not sufficient.
effective management is necessary, but not sufficient.
successful interviews may be necessary, but not sufficient.
exhibiting the appropriate behavior is necessary, but not sufficient.

Talent is the necessary condition for job success that employers cannot provide their employees and schools cannot provide their students.  Most employers don't measure talent so they can't hire for talent even if they do hire the best and the brightest.  Talent and competence are necessary but they are two different things. Selecting for competence and talent avoids most performance problems.

There are two conditions, see 3A and 3B below, when competent people should “not be” hired or selected for a position. (In using the guide below, you must define the talent requirements for each position.)

Job applicants can have
   1.  Excellent Talent ... greater than 85% job suitability
   2.  Adequate Talent ... 84% to 70% job suitability
   3.  Inadequate Talent ... less than 70% job suitability

Job applicants can also be
   A.  Highly Competent
   B.  Competent
   C.  Not Competent

The following is the order in which applicants and/or employees should be selected for positions.
  1A = Excellent Talent and Highly Competent
  1B = Excellent Talent and Competent
  2A = Adequate Talent and Highly Competent
  2B = Adequate Talent and Competent
The following should be selected if they can become competent.
  1C = Excellent Talent and Not Competent
  2C = Adequate Talent and Not Competent

The following “should not” be selected.
  3A = Inadequate Talent and Highly Competent
  3B = Inadequate Talent and Competent
  3C = Inadequate Talent and Not Competent

Talent must be hired since it cannot be imparted or acquired after the hire. If a company wants leaders they need to hire leaders. If they want managers they need to hire managers. The idea that organizations need to hire the “right” people, is one that Jim Collins stressed in his book “Good to Great”.

But MBA programs seem to give little attention to the concept of hiring successful employees, let alone teaching students how to identify those who are likely to be successful managers some time in the future. Therefore, a great number of managers just aren’t equipped with skills to select the best talent.  And this failure often leads to extreme frustration when the employees they’ve selected are not motivated and/or demonstrate low productivity, or when they promote people to leadership roles to find those people fail to make the transition.

Human Resource Management degrees likely offer more training on employee selection, but HR professionals typically report to people with MBA's, or worse, to managers with technical degrees.  So HR professionals often default to a safe position by hiring qualified people who have advanced degrees, i.e., MBA's, MSs, and Ph.D. s. The most/best qualified are always a safe hire because we have the mistaken notion that qualifications predict job success.

Bob continued to build his case by citing works from Dr. Abraham Zaleznik, author of "The Managerial Mystique”; Dr. Neil Thornberry, a Professor at Babson College and author of “Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle"; Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization and their book “First, Break All The Rules, What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" and other references from Harvard Business Review and Jim Collins.

Bob’s arguments began to make sense.  We’ve heard time and again that many highly successful people – Einstein and Bill Gates, to name two -- were not the top students from the best schools.  And as innovation becomes an increasingly critical aspect of reinventing our businesses, we’ll need new ways to find the radical thinkers, the visionaries, the tinkerers and the idealists.  Will future MBA curriculum include courses like “How to Find A Genius At Your Local Coffee Shop” or “Learn to Appreciate the Kid in Your Office Who Lives in Second Life”?

Sue Todd, CorpU President and CEO

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