Book review: The Rare Find

George Anders's latest book looks at talent hunting and how some recruiters have spotted better job candidates than the competition.


Photo: Anna Lisa Sang

In Nashville, Tenn., where aspiring country-music singers get off the bus every day, big labels tend to shy away from signing teenage songbirds and look for more predictable adult artists. Scott Borchetta thought he was hardened against ingenues from 20 years of experience as a music promoter and artist developer for big-name country labels such as DreamWorks Nashville and Universal Music Nashville. But he was also a newly minted entrepreneur rolling out his own label, Big Machine Records, with limited resources and a talent roster of just four artists. So he decided to take a chance on a sprite-like 15-year-old whose songs delighted him with their intensity and earnestness. Would the public warm to her? He wasn’t sure. He was playing the lottery.

Fortunately for Borchetta, the winning ticket was Taylor Swift. The singer now earns more than $45 million a year and holds the 2012 Guinness world record for fastest-selling digital album by a female artist. Billboard named her woman of the year in 2011.

For RCA Records, where she’d briefly had an “artistic development” deal that paid a measly $15,000, Borchetta’s later success represented a missed opportunity to recognize rare talent.

Recruiters and talent scouts make these mistakes every day. Nearly two centuries ago, a publishing house turned down the chance to publish Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Equally unfortunate are the four publishers who took a pass on J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript, and the Microsoft executives who didn’t want anything to do with a small tech startup called Amazon. The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else (Penguin) offers tips on avoiding these sorts of missteps. The book counsels readers on how to spot raw talent, confirm it’s real and retain these exceptional individuals. While writing for The Wall Street Journal and other U.S. publications, author George Anders spent 30 years considering how a variety of industries hunt for genius. He notes that while the tools available for identifying raw talent made gains with performance-measuring software and online recruitment tools, the results of these searches has hardly improved. To better understand why, Anders took 2½ years to interweave stories of talent hunters from the arts, sports, finance and military. They have wildly different needs and expectations for their recruits, but they all share the ability, and indeed the courage, to take a different approach to sourcing talent.

Rare Find wasn’t written for the HR recruiter looking for mere warm-bodied competence, but for those hunters who seek the next, great “impact player.” The difference in the selection process has a lot to do with attitude. “Instead of worrying about what can go wrong, talent-spotting specialists often need to think about what could go right,” says Anders.

One of the quickest takeaways from The Rare Find comes on page 3, with the explanation of the “upside-down resumé.” This strategy of working your way up from the bottom of a resumé was the product of a curious HR representative from Google named Todd Carlisle. Carlisle hypothesized that there was more to finding the best computer engineers than looking at their Ivy League PhDs and high IQs. After some research, he concluded that dedication to high-level athletics or civic leadership shouted louder about how a candidate would fit within the organization. These tend to be skills and accomplishments people tuck in a personal interest note at the bottom of their CV, so Carlisle now hits the Page Down key on his computer and works his way up. “I want to know what these people are all about,” he tells Anders.

And there are other surprises. Conventional business wisdom suggests that a recruiter or manager should not use her own life or career experiences as a measure to judge a candidate for the team and instead favour neutrality and impartiality. “Wrong!” proclaims Anders. “The best insight into a candidate’s potential come from leaders whose own experiences speak to the traits they are seeking.” The author also suggests that when forced to choose between experience and character, those seeking talent would do better to look for defining virtues like confidence, patience and the ability to stay calm. In sectors from finance to sports, it has proven better to hire individuals with those traits than those with good transcripts and a solid work history.

But after deploying these talent filters and straining the pool for great people, how do you make certain they don’t march right back out the door? Anders argues harnessing an abundance of talent before it becomes “a minefield of petulance, frustration and selfishness” is even more challenging than spotting skill and character in the first place.

He recommends that companies follow the lead of medical schools and the military to tame big personalities by recruiting them through gruelling auditions that would deter all but those with a lust for success, and then challenging the successful applicants to meet nearly impossible goals. Exceptional talent expects success and runs, as dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once described it, on “divine dissatisfaction.” That is the “blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” Once the talent nests, it’s important not to coddle it, but to create a work environment that thrives on a competition.

Some companies like Pixar, GE and Facebook do this well, but courting this kind of high-performance talent isn’t for everyone or for every situation. As Anders points out, “Great talent is no substitute for the right talent.” It’s possible to become so caught up in abilities of a candidate that a recruiter forgets what is needed.

The most resounding mistakes happen right at the beginning of a talent search when recruiters fail to clearly identify what they’re seeking. What is the job about, really? Too often, desperation or the excitement of the mission obscures the real needs of the company. Recruiters become smitten with a talented candidate who doesn’t align with the priories, vision or culture of an organization. The know-it-when-I-see-it vision of spotting talent is romantic, but it just doesn’t yield good results.