Have you ever hired what you were sure was the perfect person for a job—only to have that new employee turn into a mediocre or subpar performer?
Often when I’m creating a profile for a job search assignment, a client will describe their ideal candidate in terms of the best-performing person in their organization with the same title. For instance, for a sales manager position, they only want to interview someone with previous experience as a sales manager in the company’s industry niche, with the “right” network in place, and an established list of contacts in a specific territory–someone who can “hit the ground running.” In other words, they believe that if they can hire someone who is as similar as possible to their most successful sales manager, they will mitigate their risks of a bad hire.
Intuitively, this is an appealing strategy, but the list of criteria leaves out what is sometimes the most important criterion for success, and that is talent. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup organization conducted a multi-decade study involving over a million employees and found that talent, rather than skills or experience, was by far the best predictor of success.
The personalities of successful people and the methodologies they use to reach their goals and objectives vary significantly, but what all successful people have is the determination to achieve. This is why an introvert with a low-key approach can be just as successful as an extroverted hard driver. Unfortunately, stereotypes are often self-fulfilling prophecies. The bias for extroverted, expressive sales people is perpetuated and institutionalized by personality assessments, which reflect the instinctive hiring biases of previous generations. If very few introverted sales people are hired, then the average successful sales person is going to be extroverted.
Lucky for me, when I was right out of engineering school with a BSEE degree, personality assessments weren’t in vogue. No one asked me if I liked to sell or if I could sell. I was accepted into General Electric’s management program and started a long and very successful career in sales. Good thing they believed in training and didn’t care that I’m an introvert—as are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many other CEOs, who of course have spent their entire careers selling their visions, products, and services at the highest levels of industry. Most of them made mistakes during their careers, but they were quick learners and bounced back twice as smart—“street smart.”
But how do we determine if a candidate has the talent to succeed? The old adage “The best predictor of future success is past success” is certainly a good starting screen, but the interview process needs to focus on motivation and determination. References need to be queried about the reasons for past successes and/or failures of the candidate, keeping in mind that thinking out of the box sometimes results in failure, but can also be the ultimate learning experience.
The ideal candidate not only fits the job description well, but also has the talent and desire to become a peak performer. Unfortunately, the ideal candidate is almost always on the endangered species list. The solution is to prioritize your requirements in sync with proven determinants of success, understanding what can be taught and what is innate to the individual. You’ll find that investments in training always have a greater payback than attempts at human re-engineering.