The Talent Hunt: I’ll Take “Kate”

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“Kate Badler” (not their real name) is the type of person the Carol Dwecks and Angela Duckworths of the world love.

Working at separate universities (Columbia and Stanford, and Penn) and doing separate research, the studies that Dr. Dweck and Dr. Duckworth have done suggest that performance and achievement is less about “innate” intelligence and smarts and more about perseverance, using multiple strategies, and grit. Add in Wendy Mogel‘s observation that research with MRI technology indicates that women’s brains are not most formed until 24 years old and males not until around 29 years old and you have a broader picture of development and performance than most people understand.

So what – to crib a line from Tina Turner – does Kate got to do with it?

The short answer is that performance and achievement is not linear. Some people perform well early, some perform well later. Some are bright stars briefly, and flame out fast. Some burn brightly for long periods of time. Performance can also be like a mild roller coaster – some ups and downs. It’s simply not generally predictable. Suggestive perhaps; but not predictable.

The problem is that much of a career and job tracking system presumes that people are peaked and ready at certain defined points; right after college, or right after grad school – but nothing before, after or in between. Turns out that if your interested in finding “the best talent” things just don’t work that way.

“Kate Badler” is my case in point, and not just because my family has been going to a holiday open house hosted by her parents John and Mary Margaret for 15 years. It has given me the chance to observe Kate in once-a-year-snapshots, and get a sense of the arc her development has traveled. And Kate’s story is the narrative that many, many talented people have – and why you should pay attention to it.

Kate schooled at a place called University High, a highly competitive private four year high school in San Francisco. It has somewhat of a current reputation as being a pressure cooker (“academic challenging“) with a great faculty. Good students from University go to places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Brown. Kate went to Hamilton College.

Hamilton College, by the way, is no slouch; it is ranked by the 18th best liberal arts college in the United States by that paragon of university ratings, US News & World Report. The problem is that the marque employers like Goldman Sachs or McKinsey don’t have a reputation as recruiting much out of places like Hamilton. Their eyes are perceived (incorrectly I’ll note; Goldman this past year extended offers to undergraduates from 164 schools) , and the eyes of all the wannabee employers who want to be like Goldman and McKinsey are on places like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford or Brown.

When I ran recruiting for Barclays Global Investors, the college recruiting side of the house headed by Vincent Thomas and Rosie Sotillo were adamant in targeting the usual B-school suspects (Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Wharton, etc.) because “that’s where the best talent was.” What Vincent and Rosie didn’t factor in was where senior Barclays talent attended school; CEO Bob Diamond went to Colby College (US News & World Report #21), and Barclays Capital CEO Rich Ricci graduated from Creighton College. Both Creighton and Colby College are good schools; they are just not Harvard, Princeton, Stanford or Brown.

Kate Badler’s career post-Hamilton, as she eyes a likely career in global affairs / international relations has been Harvard and Princeton as she works toward graduate degrees in both schools. Some people take a while to find their better selves. While I have executive coaching clients who I think probably bounced out of the womb fully formed (e.g. “I want to be an engineer and go to MIT.”), many people aren’t like that. Life experiences form them, and they figure out their sweet spot later, not earlier.

What’s the cut-to-the-chase thought?

People in the talent acquisition and performance business should cast a wide net, and realize that many times the 40 year-old off their radar may be a better, readier talent than the newly minted 25-year-old in their sights.

My hunch is that Kate is going to be one of those adults who has a path of high achievement before her. Going to a school like Hamilton (or Colby, Creighton, Whitman, Reed, or one of the Claremont Schools as examples) lets people work out the kinks in their game before they’re under the brightest of spotlights. The Harvard-Brown-Stanford-Yale’s of the world don’t always create a situation to let that happen; high expectations, and not much slack can mean that careers are underwhelming in retrospect.

MCDS’ Robert Greene sometimes notes something to the effect that it’s better to take a top-ten kid from an OK school than a kid ranked #75 from a great school. Some employers – GE comes to mind – have for years gotten great talent with exactly that sort of recruiting strategy.

I think Robert’s on to something, and it’s the reason why people like Kate (as well as people like Rich Ricci or Bob Diamond) Badler turn out to be successful; lots of hard work, grit, and perseverance, and a chance to more fully develop their skills and experiences.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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