Spotting Talent…

So how does an organization effectively spot talent?

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

Corporate culture and leadership style are two illustrative elements of organizational context for which talent must be fitted. CEOs often hire for the culture they aspire to have 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’ risks hiring talent misaligned to his company. Similarly, the volatile, explosive leader who describes her leadership style as ‘passionate’ does no favors to anyone when new employees are befuddled by her leadership style. Spotting talent requires an understanding of the types of people who will thrive in a given organization. The easiest way to undertake that is to look at an organization’s ‘best’ people and ask what makes them successful. Then look for those attributes.

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 on similar journeys 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 your context. This is not to say that these executives will fail, but rather that they have a higher risk of failing than the person who has experienced your present …. and future. If you are an owner, that ideal talent has also worked successfully with other owners in the past.

Third, look for individuals who are self-aware, who can describe their strengths and the areas 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 covet. Drive, passion and motivation fuels performance as does single mindedness and the willingness to pay the price (effort and time) 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 proudly assemble, develop and hold onto high performing teams as this builds on itself over time. And a track record of executing on commitments is always important.

Finally, adaptability is an under-appreciated quality. Companies don’t usually change for individuals, individuals change for companies. Every company is idiosyncratic in some way, and the right person figures this out and adapts to work within it, 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. Ask them what they were hired to accomplish in previous companies, what they encountered when they joined, how they developed a plan, how they executed, what they learned, what worked and didn’t work, how they adjusted, and how they would do it differently going forward…talent answers those questions very well.

About the author

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group ( He can be reached [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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