A recruiter’s job description can be narrowed down pretty simply: find the very best talent. And that’s what we all aim to do. We experiment with different search tools, search strings and partners day in and day out. And while technologies have changed, our methods really haven’t. We want that perfect fit.But what is perfect fit? And is it even the best goal to have? Is there a better way? George Anders, a New York Times-bestselling author and a journalist thinks there is. His book, The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else addresses the key talent questions we all crave answers to: what defines exceptional and how do we find it? I have the honor of joining George this week to talk about The Rare Find at the sold out RecruitDC conference. We sat down ahead of the conference to find out why he’s so intrigued with the talent question.
Susan Strayer LaMotte (SSL): I’m looking forward to our conversation later this week, but I wanted to take a few minutes to introduce you to the recruiting community. We’re used to the battle scars here, but talent is a newer topic for you. What was the impetus for writing The Rare Find?
George Anders (GA): I'd been intrigued for many years by how the best organizations pick talent. It seemed as if there must be some common language that helped define success, and when I set out to create this book, I wanted to discover as much that commonality as possible.
SSL: How do you describe the book to readers? Is it simply a primer on finding talent?
GA: There are three key insights that define the book. First, that there are some universal truths about hiring and we can learn a lot by exploring talent systems in all kinds of places. Second, there's far more talent out there than most bosses realize. Two of the great hiding spots can be described as "talent that whispers" and people with "jagged resumes." And finally organizations with an especially good eye for talent are uniquely demanding about specific character traits and success factors.
SSL: We’ll certainly talk more about those insights later this week. With the numerous examples you cover in the book from the Army’s Special Forces to Facebook to the University of Utah, you probably had a number of surprising insights along the way. What was the most surprising thing you learned?
GA: Funny you should ask. I was part of a private school's search committee for a new head of school during the time that the book was under construction. The jagged resume candidates did intrigue us. We did a lot of hard thinking about our two or three most essential traits, eventually reaching the point where we felt confident picking a maverick who could do the most crucial elements extremely well, rather than getting distracted by trying to match everyone against a long list of 20 "nice to have" elements.
SSL: On the flip side, what was the most frustrating theme for you--something you saw happening over and over that made you react: "I can't believe so many organizations are doing..."
GA: The most jarring experience for me is coming across bosses who don't [care] about hiring. Even otherwise brilliant executives suffer from this. They're always too busy to spend much time with candidates, let alone get immersed in the hard work of defining a job. Then they complain a year later that they have to keep firing people. I'm astonished that such cycles persist. But they do.
SSL: After all of the learnings from writing this book, what's the most important piece of advice you'd give CEOs and HR/talent leaders moving forward?
GA: Be bold. Be willing to compromise on experience, but don't compromise on character. Have the courage to hire people whose potential fascinates you, rather than settling for the safest resume every time.
SSL: The Rare Find is your fourth book in addition to your admirable journalistic career. Why does journalism and writing in general, excite/engage/intrigue you so much?
GA: I'm endlessly curious. Both book contracts and journalism jobs provide a great calling card for meeting fascinating people and finding out what makes them tick. Fitting together the research and insights into a coherent piece is hard work, but it's very satisfying when it's done.
SSL: Like any good recruiter, I have to ask, how did you get your start in journalism?
GA: Talk about the power of accidental discoveries. I was on the math/science track in high school, until stumbling into a journalism elective junior year. Everything about finding stories, interviewing people, getting in print, etc. was thrilling. In college, business intrigued me, too. That led to a long career at The Wall Street Journal, where I could write about business and many other matters as well.
SSL: And now your career has evolved into a writing business, if you will.
GA: I'm the world's smallest multi-media conglomerate these days. In the journalism world, I've recently written cover stories for Forbes magazine about LinkedIn and Amazon, with more projects coming in 2013. On the speaking circuit, I'm appreciating the chance to share The Rare Find’s messages with business and academic groups in the U.S., Britain and Latin America.
SSL: We’re glad you’re making time to stop here in DC. It’s actually an old stomping ground for you?
GA: Yes. I actually lived in Washington from 1994 to 1997 and my first son was born in Sibley Hospital.
SSL: DC is such a political town, what's your take on the role politics does/should play in an organization?
GA: In the corporate world, when things are going well for us, we hardly notice internal politics at all. We form alliances, negotiate compromises, swap favors and coolly keep track of who's gaining or losing power. It's all part of getting things done -- whether we're on K Street or out marketing Special K. It's only when our faction is struggling that we start sputtering about how much "politics" are ruining everything. Sometimes it's easier to grumble about politics than to accept the fact that our cause is a loser, this time around.
SSL: When you’re not talking talent what’s taking your time these days?
GA: Outside of writing I'm a slow but stubborn hiker, having made it to the top of Mt. Fuji, Mt. Whitney and in Nepal over the years and I'm a cook too. My wife, Elizabeth Corcoran, is a recovering journalist who is now CEO of EdSurge Inc., a fast-growing startup specializing in education technology. We live on the edge of Silicon Valley, sharing our house with two teenage sons whose everyday conversation is a mashup of Starcraft, Shakespeare and Tony Stark movies. At some point in 2013, it will [also] be time to start another book. I'm intrigued by how companies run their pipelines for high-potential employees (for good and bad), and whether there's something to be said about how all of us can make the most of our own potential.
SSL: It helps to have a journalist dig into these questions with a fresh, curious perspective, and that’s surely a topic we can relate to. In the interim, we’ll have plenty of time to dig more deeply into your lessons from The Rare Find at RecruitDC on December 6.
GA: Thanks for having me!
George Anders is a New York Times-bestselling author and a 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 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for national reporting. 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, including The New York Times, BusinessWeek, The Guardian and the Harvard Business Review. In January 2012, he joined Forbes as a contributing writer. George is the author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Anyone Else (2011), as well as three previous nonfiction books including Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard (2003), a New York Times bestseller. Find George online at www.georgeanders.com and follow him on Twitter @GeorgeAnders.