Spotting Talent

By Davon Cook on January 31, 2018

Finding the right talent is a priority of most business people. There’s a typical list of attributes often
included in a job description: “We’re looking for hard-working, dedicated problem solvers…” After a while, those words become trite and overused. More meaningful to me are two vivid words that many people identify with at a deeper level: grit and potential.

Grit. Having lived in West Texas, I can tell you what grit is. It’s the sand in your teeth and ears after a
day working outside in a typical sandstorm…or your legs getting sandblasted running at a HS track meet!  That visceral memory of grit in its physical form has a parallel with the current usage in describing people. It’s someone who’s tough, can dig into difficult situations and not give up, and has staying power.

Angela Duckworth stressed the term in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which chronicles
her academic pursuit studying the success of those with high measures of grit. She defines grit as, “In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted…It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.” (p.219 Kindle edition) Her studies showed that grit was a predictor of success in a variety of settings from West Point cadets surviving the Beast training program, to sales personnel learning the ropes, to students graduating from the Chicago Public Schools.

She goes on to explain that we often focus too much on inherent talent and undervalue effort. Workers who put in unwavering effort to master a new skill or reach a specific goal—even if they are not talented at it from the beginning--are quite valuable. That’s grit.

Potential. Along a similar line, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article 21st Century Talent Spotting reflects on a long career of executive recruiting. Why did some candidates with resumes full of relevant experience not succeed while others with diverse backgrounds considered “unqualified” did? He realized that “potential”, defined as “the ability to adapt to and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments” was the difference. He now considers potential to be “the most important predictor of success.”

Obviously, the tricky part is how to identify potential. Look for these five indicators:

  • The right motivation: fierce commitment toward unselfish goals
  • Curiosity: track record of seeking new experiences and information; a life-long learner
  • Insight: ability to gather and make sense of information
  • Engagement: able to communicate and persuade others with facts and emotion
  • Determination: fight for difficult goals and bounce back (also known as…grit!)

It’s easy to consider tractor driving experience for a field operator position. But beyond that, query for experiences (which may be found in their personal pursuits as well as prior jobs) that demonstrate the curiosity to learn new things or ability to influence others. You’re looking for someone with potential to learn new technology as it comes along, to grow into a crew leader or executive someday, who’s motivated for the whole team’s success. When we open our minds to potential that looks a bit different than the traditional path, we open the recruiting window to a whole new set of people and skills. I’ve seen numerous examples of non-traditional recruits to production ag that are quite successful.

If either of these concepts—grit or potential—resonate with you, I encourage you pick up this literature and consider how it could be utilized in your talent recruiting and talent management efforts.