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Hein J.M. Knaapen September 6 2023 10 min read

3 Ideas to Make Talent Selection More Successful

We've been selecting talent for decades. Why is the process still fraught with indecision, difficulty, and disappointment?

I often wonder why so many of us in HR are content with being discontented. Maybe we like clinging to the familiar comfort of old approaches and practices. Perhaps we have become resigned to the status quo. Or maybe it's something best expressed in this nonsense dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's timeless Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

 

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where—" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"—so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

 

I've walked long and far enough in my career to know not to lose sight of the purpose of the HR function: to help the CEO get the company where it is going. I've also learned—the hard way—that success in talent selection comes down to focus, alignment, and evidence.

That is the way we ought to go from here.

 

FOCUS, ALIGNMENT & EVIDENCE

 

1. FOCUS on demand.

If you don't know exactly what you're looking for, whatever you find will be right.

We have not learned from Alice's adventures. We start looking at our supply of talent before we look at what is being demanded of the role in question. We don't go through the exercise of gaining clarity about the role's vital few deliverables, nor do we look at the risks inherent to the context in which they must be delivered.

That lack of clarity means the lens we use to look at potential candidates is, at best, blurred. And so we end up going very broad, considering all kinds of things that people have done or not done, many of which may be irrelevant to our search or, even worse, confusing or misleading to the candidates. All because we have not brought precision and focus to our selection process in the first place.

There is only so much that matters. This applies to almost every role in an organization, but particularly to roles that are critical to value delivery.

 

What I mean by this is there will only be a few things that anyone must deliver in a critical role to drive company performance. For any of these roles you are selecting talent for, that "few" will usually be between three to five. Overlook these truly distinctive critical deliverables at your peril.

 

2. ALIGN all relevant stakeholders.

If the key stakeholders in a critical role are not utterly aligned around its deliverables and inherent risks, then your search cannot be focused and precise.

It is difficult to imagine a critical role that doesn't have multiple stakeholders. Yet even if a role has only one or two stakeholders, it's worthwhile to invest time and energy in gaining their alignment. Without it, a clear focus on the "demand" (that is, on the key deliverables of the role) will be impossible.

Stakeholders will depict their own interests while graciously leaving room for the interests of others. Don't fool yourself. This broadens the role's scope of work and multiplies its inherent risks, making it difficult to precisely identify what is necessary for success. You will be tempted to go very broad in your process and look at features and characteristics of talented candidates that are plainly irrelevant. That reduces the probability of producing a "click" between the talent and the role.

As soon as you get precise about what matters and what doesn't, you make it possible to blissfully live with what a person is not good at—as long as it won't touch on the role's critical deliverables.

 

Force yourself to this precision, and you'll improve the probability of producing a great "click" when you put talent in the role. For example, if you are selecting for a weight lifter, then the fact that they have an appalling marathon run time will be irrelevant. Conversely, if you are selecting for a marathon runner, don't expect them to excel at lifting heavy weights. Select the muscle person for the role that requires heavy lifting and the road runner for the marathon—and the outcomes will be good for both the organization and the talent.

 

3. EVIDENCE over opinions.

If you select talent based on opinions, you have no guarantee that who you choose will be the right person to get you where you want to go.

We tend to think about people in very generic terms that are intuitively driven by our style preferences. A candidate for one of our critical roles may indeed be a "great person" (that is, they match our personal predilections) yet not have the capabilities to deliver the essential deliverables in context. Another candidate may "click" with the role requirements and risks yet not impress us during the interview because their style and idiosyncracies don't meet our expectations.

Don't go for people's views in interviews. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But when it comes to talent selection, opinions can bias our choices and jeopardize the role's intended outcomes.

 

It's wiser to look at the evidence for each candidate. Is the person ready, willing, and able to do what you need done? Do they have a winning track record of having done the same work in similar circumstances? Where have they proven they are up to that work and the challenges they will face? Do they have the right personality and the right superpowers for the situation? Answers to these and similar questions will tell you which candidate for your critical role has the highest probability of getting the organization where it wants to go.

Taking the demand side of talent selection into consideration, as well as the supply side is "new" work for many HR professionals. However, I know from experience that this balanced approach is more effective, easy, and satisfactory for all parties than relying on the supply side alone. As the Cheshire Cat said, "Some go this way, and some go that way. But as for me, myself, personally, I prefer the shortcut."

These three ideas—focus on demand, align all relevant stakeholders, and evidence over opinions—sound simple. In practice, of course, they will bump up against the old ways your people have of doing talent selection. Feel free to call on my experience to help them make that transition and improve your success rate. 

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Hein J.M. Knaapen

Hein is an internationally recognized expert on HR innovation, talent development, and organizational capability building. As an advisor and mentor, he aims to guide leaders toward maximizing the return on their talent investments.

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