How to Spot Talent

August 20, 2009

The CEO of a small firm asked me this week for tips on spotting talent. Here’s a quick take on a very generic question.

First, talent comes in a great many varieties, perhaps even more than the 31 flavors at your local Baskin-Robbins store. And this is fortunate for the organizational palate is individualistic, a function of blended factors such as company size, complexity, ownership, location, industry, financial resources, and challenges it faces. ‘Talent’ is not a generic label of excellence that can move effortlessly between any and all companies. If it were, the mandarin who thrives in government would also thrive in the early stage startup. Few would bet on that. Instead, ‘talent’ is the badge of excellence given to those whose personalities, skills, capabilities, motivations and experience align with the firms who employ them.

Corporate culture and leadership are but two ingredients of the organizational context that must be considered when looking for talent. It is a truism that CEOs hire for the culture they wish they had rather than the culture that actually defines their company. A highly controlling, ‘my way or the highway’ type CEO who describes his company’s culture as ‘participative and team-based’ is sure to hire people misaligned to his company. Similarly, the volatile, explosive leader who describes his leadership style as ‘passionate’ does no favors to anyone when new employees are befuddled by his leadership style. Spotting talent requires an understanding of the types of people who will thrive in your organization and the easiest way to grasp that is to look at your best people and ask what makes them successful. Then look for those types.

Next, talent must be able to add value today and for a period into the future. If you are a small $10mm per year food manufacturer with aspirations of growing to $50mm in the next five years, think seriously about that journey, the obstacles that await you, the skills and experience you need to overcome them, and how will you will measure success. Then look for talent that has been through similar situations in the past, individuals who have overcome similar challenges to yours and can tell you how they did it. DO NOT be seduced into hiring a career Kraft or Proctor and Gamble executive who has never been on this journey and as a result, impressive pedigree notwithstanding, are untested in their ability to succeed. This is not to say that these executives will fail, but rather that they are a higher risk of failing than the person who has lived your present and future.

Third, look for self-aware individuals who can describe their strengths and where they continue to develop. High performers can talk about the learning gaps and how they are bridging them. They solicit feedback, take courses, use coaches and tend to have mentors. They have a track record of continually improving. Self-awareness is a good predictor of future growth and you want people who will grow with your business.

There are a number of other qualities that one should be looking for. Drive, passion and motivation fuels performance as does single mindedness and the willingness to pay the price that success demands. Optimism and a positive attitude are infectious in the same manner that cynicism and negativity are infections. Pure intelligence is less useful than critical thinking, and good judgment. Know the difference. Look for executives who put together and hold on to high performing teams as this builds on itself over time. And a track record of executing on commitments is always unimportant.

Finally, adaptability is an unappreciated quality. Companies don’t change for individuals, individuals change for companies. Every company is idiosyncratic in some way, and the right person figures out the way things work in your company and then works within the system, even if hired to change it. Look for talent that has a track record of adapting and thriving across a range of situations and companies.

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group ( He can be reached @ or at 416.365.9494x777