[Land O’Spin] How to Find Great Talent: Susan Boyle and Other Discoveries

I got a chance to catch up with my friend CB yesterday. Bright, hardworking, smart as a whip, and results driven, she’s one of about five people in my life who I would both hire AND work for. Like a lot of others in the bumpy economy, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time recently  – is between roles – and is now looking for her next opportunity.

CB expressed what many people feel: people say the “right thing”, they just don’t do what they say. And in that sentiment is your key to finding great talent.

I have heard well regarded and prominent people in biotech say that you can’t find great African-American scientists (George Washington Carver ring any bells?) or senior execs in financial services say that women don’t make great CEOs (apparently forgetting Patty Dunn’s track record ). And I recall a former HR Head at Genentech describing Art Levinson to me as "some bench scientist who got put in charge of the company." While stereotypes exist, they are never fully accurate.

The key to assessing talent is to suspend judgment and belief, and closely observe what people do – not what they say they’re going to do, what they said they did, or the packaging or wrapper on how they present what they do / did / or will do. It is a hard thing to do for some at first, but surprisingly easy as you practice it. When you get to the point where – like a sing-a-long ball on a sing-a-long musical, you can strip away all the façade and assess talent for what it really is.

In our household I do sports, not the arts. Once a year I agree to something like “The Nutcracker” or a trip to SFMOMA to get my culture ticket punched. But I was stunned at the grace and beauty listening to Susan Boyle, an instant success as Britain’s Talent Wonder. The packaging is “all wrong” – not what you would expect and what would normally get quickly dismissed. When asked why she had not reached her dream of being a singer, she responded "I’ve never been given the chance before but here’s hoping it will change." But the voice – and the judges and audience reaction is telling – as well as the over 19,000,000 25,000,000 YouTube viewings of her performance .

There are Susan Boyles everywhere, and perhaps parts of Susan Boyle in all of us. My friend CB is deceiving in that her many talents are not always observed and valued. In a world that gets more competitive day by day, the winners will be companies and people who are open to finding those Susan Boyles, rather than just passing them by. So instead of being seduced by the stereotype, perhaps play it by my 80-20 rule: anticipate the 80% but keep your eyes fully open and alert – and appreciative – for the remaining 20%. And as you might do with Susan Boyle, give folks from that 20% side "a chance."

One more thing: I compared Susan Boyle’s version of Les Miserables “I Dream the Dream” from the Britain Talent contest with the original. I like her rendition better.

Land O’Spin is an occasional set of writings focused on best practices in coaching and assessment: how do take what you observe, know what it means, and draw conclusions about what outcomes will occur in the future.