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How and why great talent "isn't hard to find if you know how [and where] to look"
on 3 December 2011
As George Anders explains in the Introduction, he spent two and a half years conducting research to determine the answer to this question: "How and where to find great talent?" He focused on expert talent spotters in three broad sets: the public performance worlds (e.g. sports, arts, and entertainment), high stakes aspects of business (especially finance and the information economy), and "heroic professionals" of public service (e.g. teaching, government, and medicine). "It's easy to see [begin italics] how [end italics] they operated, but it took a while to understand [begin italics] why [end italics]. What he learned is shared in this book. For example, with people as with organizations, "the gap between good and great turns out to be huge," perhaps as much as a 500% difference. The financial implications are vast and substantial.
Of special interest to me is what Anders learned about what he characterizes as "the jagged résumé" (i.e. people whose background to date appears to teeter on the edge between success and failure), "talent that whispers" (i.e. the proverbial "diamonds in the rough"), and "talent that shouts" (i.e. spectacular but brash candidates "that can make or destroy a program"). As I reflect back over NBA and NFL drafts during the past 12-15 years, I can easily recall dozens of examples of players who exemplify one of these three.
Anders spent a great deal of time examining how talent is evaluated in several less publicized organizations. They include Sergeant Dan Fagan and Army Special Services, Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, David C. Evans and the University of Utah, Bob Gibbons (an independent high school basketball scout), Adam D'Angelo and Facebook, Daniel Walker and Apple, Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records, and Dr. John Cameron and his "boot camp for America's most ambitious surgeons" at the medical school at Johns Hopkins as well as Brad Smart and Randy Street and ghSMART & Company. However different these expert talent evaluators may be in most respects, there are three basic principles on which all agree:
1. Widen your view of talent: Compromise on experience but never in character, seek out "talent that whispers," on the fringes of talent ask "What can go right?" and take tiny chances so that you can take more of them.
2. Find inspirations that are hidden in plain sight: Draw out the "hidden truths" of each job, be willing to use your own career as a template, rely on auditions to see how and why people achieve as they do, and master the art of aggressive listening.
3. Simplify your search for talent: Be alert to other invisible virtues, insist on the right talent (i.e. don't lose track of what is needed), challenge your best candidates to push themselves even harder, and "become a citadel of achievement" (i.e. embrace extraordinary effort as a way of life).
By nature, greatness creates a legacy that endures long after specific achievements have occurred. As George Anders makes crystal clear throughout his lively as well as informative narrative, "People with great reputations for attracting and developing talent regard the search for brilliance as their calling. They see themselves as discoverers, protectors, and builders of an entire discipline." Yes, they possess skills and capacities (especially enlightened intuition) that enable them to spot exceptional talent - albeit under-developed talent -- before everyone else does. The "rare find" is their objective as well as evidence of their own exceptional talent but do not ignore or underestimate the significance of the word "rare."
For many leaders, especially those centrally involved in attracting and then developing talent, this may well be the most valuable business book they could read.