Top Talent Needed: 5 Steps to Identify Star Candidates in the 21st Century

5 Steps to Identify Star Candidates

Top Talent Needed: 5 Steps to Identify Star Candidates in the 21st Century

It’s no secret that Ed Tech is booming. Investments reached a historic high in 2015, rocketing through a massive $6 billion industry threshold. In applying technological solutions to learning, Ed Tech breaks new ground and offers tremendous new opportunities. But with new opportunities come new challenges. Money alone will not solve these challenges. Neither will strategy, no matter how sound. At the end of the day, people solve challenges, and exceptional people not only solve exceptional challenges but turn them into powerful opportunities. A company’s ability to thrive and succeed in a rapidly-changing industry like Ed Tech ultimately boils down to one key factor: quality of talent.

Given that talent fuels success, how do we find high performers in the 21st century? Our understanding of talent has evolved over time, and yesterday’s definition of “talent” doesn’t hold up today. Having spent over two decades working in Ed Tech and education as both an executive and a recruiter, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of how businesses can identify top performers who will grow with companies over time. Here are five key steps businesses should take when looking for stars:

1. Understand What Makes Talent

Nowadays, talent must be more adaptable than ever. Modern positions change quickly, have a diverse range of demands, and require a highly flexible skillset. Today we are seeing the rise of so-called “hybrid jobs”—jobs growing to incorporate responsibilities that would previously have been divided among multiple positions. Marketers may need to learn how to work with big data, and engineers may need to learn how to make sales calls. In dynamic industries like Ed Tech, hybrid jobs are quickly becoming the norm. What this means for companies is that critical thinking abilities and high learning agility trumps specific skills—that what someone’s learned isn’t as important as their potential to learn. In other words, being highly talented means being highly adaptable.

A recent HBR article identifies four key characteristics of adaptable candidates with high potential: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. Here, curiosity refers to a candidate’s openness to learn. Insight refers to a candidate’s ability to analyze and reason through information. Engagement refers to a candidate’s ability to communicate and connect effectively, and determination refers to a candidate’s ability to face challenges and bounce back from failure.

Employees exemplifying these four skills play crucial roles in any company looking to succeed. As hybrid roles continue emerging and positions change rapidly, hiring managers must plan how to assess candidates based on a clear set of criteria for future success. The next two sections of this article will discuss how to identify and evaluate top talent.

2. Avoid Unconscious Biases

Gut feeling is a powerful thing. I’ve found that most recruiters and interviewers naturally look to their instincts when making hiring decisions. But it’s important not to rely on the gut completely, because we are often influenced by unconscious biases. While unstructured interviews often shape hiring decisions, a heavily-cited study by leading organizational psychologists Frank Schmidt and John Hunter found these interviews explain only 14% of wide variation in job performance.

Why are interviews not as helpful as they seem? In the book Work Rules, Google’s HR leader Laszlo Bock cautions that interviewers are subconsciously biased towards people like themselves. Even the most careful and seasoned recruiters have unconscious assumptions leading them to lean towards “mirror image” candidates.

Hiring mirror image candidates leads to a suboptimal cycle in which highly similar people continue to hire similar people. By creating a homogenous work force, a company loses out on the opportunity to benefit from diversity—diversity in ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives—which is critical to developing well-rounded creative solutions and transforming challenges into opportunities.

3. Combine Art & Science to Identify Talent

To move beyond unconscious biases and the pitfalls they present in the hiring process, it’s important to go above and beyond the linear understanding of a candidate’s past work experience and education. Personally, I’ve found success building “talent graphs”— systematic reports combining industry insights, skill matrices, and strategic assessments to evaluate candidates in context. In the process I incorporate candidate data ranging from their track record to their values, day-to-day work styles, and blind spots. This holistic approach enables me to see where a candidate is now and to predict how that candidate will grow in the future, both of which are crucial factors to consider in the hiring process.

Using a data-driven search approach builds a pool of candidates with high potential. But to be successful, candidates must be able to apply their potential to a given position. Therefore, once top candidates have been identified, the next step is to test them strategically.

4. Create Strategic Tests of Candidate Potential

To evaluate whether candidates can succeed, companies should first identify what success looks like twelve months down the line. After identifying the core skills necessary to achieve success, companies should evaluate whether a candidate has the potential to master that set of skills.

As discussed, interviews are limited in their ability to predict job performance. However, one of the best ways to evaluate a candidate’s future performance is to see how the candidate reacts in a simulated future context. The previously discussed Schmidt/Hunter study found that work simulations explained 27% of variation in job performance, with a predictive power almost double that of unstructured interviews (14%).

For an example of an organization with a well-constructed candidate test, look no further than the National Football League. The NFL Combine is a week-long annual event that tests college football players across the nation. Through a barrage of physical and mental tests, the Combine evaluates a player’s ability to succeed in NFL games. Results from the Combine demonstrate that traditional markers of skill, such as school prestige, do not predict actual skill. This year, only 2 out of the 10 top candidates at the Combine came from nationally ranked schools.

Without a test as well-constructed as the Combine, NFL teams might end up drafting players with high prestige but low skill. In the same way, a company lacking a well-constructed candidate evaluation process may end up hiring candidates who are expert at behavioral interviews but mediocre at the job.

In my experience, I’ve had candidates analyze case studies and produce customer journey maps with successful results. Tests can range from the simple to the complex, from a sample spreadsheet to a sample marketing plan. Having candidates conduct client pitches with a newly formed team of top candidates, for instance, shows their ability to collaborate with others, think quickly on their feet, and adapt to new sets of data in a way that can’t be demonstrated through a resume or behavioral interview.

5. Maintain Transparency to Ensure Long-term Fit

While transparency is important throughout the entire recruiting process, it becomes especially crucial in the stage before an actual hire. It’s important to note that transparency goes both ways.

In working with candidates, I’ve found that they want to know the “feel” of a company before signing on. In asking about company aspects like culture, challenges, and opportunities, they want to know what a company currently is rather than what a company aspires to be. As a result, it’s important to present the facts of where your company is today, where you want to be in the future, and how a candidate fits into the process. Full transparency is crucial to retention. There’s little use in hiring star candidates who leave in 3-6 months because reality didn’t align with their expectations.

Following these five steps isn’t easy. But making a hiring decision shouldn’t be. At the end of the day, a company’s success hinges on the people who fuel it. Exceptional challenges demand exceptional talent, and in rapidly-changing industries like Ed Tech, choosing the right talent is the most important decision a business can make.

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