The Washington Post

Election 2012, education, unemployment and the secret to great talent

The year 2012 is nearly upon us and, with it, comes the presidential election, a still-sputtering economy and the cost of higher education going nowhere but up. But 2012 also brings a new set of New Year’s resolutions, which may include everything from getting better grades in school to getting a decent-paying job.

But the question of talent rests at the center of who we are and who we want to be in the coming year. If you’re an employer, how do you spot relevant talent that can get you on the innovation fast-track? If you’re a job applicant, how do you best highlight your talents? If you’re a teacher, how do you foster talent? And, if you’re a student, how do you identify your talents?

Washington Post Editor Emi Kolawole asked George Anders, reporter, editor and author of “The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else” five questions as part of our Five Questions series on innovation.

1) It’s often said America’s schools are failing the next generation of students. Is this indeed the case, or are we merely failing to spot talent correctly?

If there’s a major failure, it involves our definition of “school.” We’re asking teachers and principals to do something impossible: provide a K-12 population with the full set of skills needed for success over the next 50 years. That’s not how the world works anymore. Today, the definition of a well-prepared worker or citizen keeps evolving. Education needs to be spread out over much more of our lives and integrated more closely with the work we do.

I’m based in Silicon Valley, and some of the smartest executives in the region are fundamentally rethinking how computer coding should be taught. Programming, in all of its forms, is a career that can connect an individual with millions of others. But we don’t teach programming in detail until senior year of high school, with most formal education happening either in highly specialized college courses or in separate, costly technical institutes. Why can’t more of the subject matter be taught online? Why can’t students be empowered to self-teach the material, perhaps while living in a shared house with five other programmers?

Imaginative teachers are trying to introduce more project-based learning, so that students master the time management, sustained focus and presentation skills that are such a large part of succeeding in life. Unfortunately, we’ve placed an exaggerated emphasis on evaluating students based on their multiple choice-test performance. The tests may have been created to insure that reading and math skills are developed, but just because they are easy to grade and analyze doesn’t mean that they are the best measures of student learning.

2) Can you explain the myth of “maybe,” and how it keeps organizations from identifying the best talent?

The most important theme in my book is the importance of the jagged resume, which is the way to describe job candidates who present a puzzling mix of strengths and flaws. Too often, such candidates get cast aside into the “maybe” pile when they apply for jobs. These people are eventually weeded out in later selection rounds. That’s a mistake and managers deceive themselves when they regard “maybe” as an effective way of evaluating such people.

In reality, the most extraordinary candidates often do have jagged resumes. Consider Steve Jobs in his early 20s, trying to start a personal-computer company even though he was a college dropout with few proven accomplishments. He brought passion, ingenuity and drive to the task plus the programming skills of Steve Wozniak. But if he were judged by traditional norms, the venture capitalists hearing his pitch would have rated him as a “maybe” at best. The only people wise enough to back him were the ones who could decide that the apparent flaws didn’t matter, and that his strengths would carry the day.

3) Voters, in November 2012, will be asked to spot talent from among the individuals running for president. Given the gridlock in Washington and politics overall, what advice to have for voters looking for the most talented candidate.

This is an area of talent-hunting that can go spectacularly off course quite often. Companies and countries typically blunder by losing track of what the job really entails. As a result, they are dazzled by superficial strengths such as charisma, likability, boardroom presence or debating prowess. Then they end up picking someone with great talent but not the right talent. The mismatch is painful and leads to either a fired CEO or a one-term office holder.

What do presidents really do? They make a lot of appointments. So they need to have a sure hand in picking talent themselves. They maneuver with Congress to set domestic policy and government finances. So presidents need the ability to bring other powerful people around to their own point of view, and to strike pragmatic compromises as needed. And they are the face of America to the world, so they need coherent views on social norms and foreign policy.

Look at what’s making headlines these days as campaigns take shape, and we’re talking about almost everything except those three standards. We’ve got nearly a year to go, and as a voter myself, I’ll be trying to avoid getting distracted by momentary controversies so I can spend more time evaluating candidates on the yardsticks that matter.

4) When looking for CEOs and other top-ranking officials, what are major corporations doing wrong?

All the problems of picking a U.S. president are played out on a somewhat smaller scale when it comes to picking a CEO. I’d add one more, though. Corporate directors end up in the impossible double role of trying to be stern judges of candidates, while, at the same time, getting ready to be the welcoming committee and “closer” salespeople to help make sure that the best candidate, indeed, signs on. The need for scrutiny often gives way, too early, to a courtship that can turn into an indulgent embrace of everything about a candidate, good or bad.

I argue for separating these roles to a greater extent, relying on outside advisers to do some of the most intense scrutiny. That way, corporate boards can still play the sunny role of welcoming in the new boss and establishing board/CEO relations that, with luck, will be harmonious for years to come. Someone else becomes the “designated driver,” if you will, staying sober and making sure that everyone gets to the right place.

5) The unemployment rate is still relatively high, with the economy in a prolonged contraction. What is your advice for individuals looking for work who wish to stand out and be seen for their inherent talents?

Hunt for good openings where they actually occur, as opposed to the stylized but often futile world of mass resume submissions. Get to know employees, consultants and managers in the field that interests you. Mingle a lot. Take on civic projects that will get you introduced to the right people and give you a chance to make a positive impression about your work and skills. Then you’ll be in a much better position to hear about job possibilities before they are posted. A lot of positions are filled by word of mouth, not formal searches. Become the candidate that people are talking about.

Bring your energy and individuality to interviews. Being competent isn’t enough anymore. For many openings, there may be 20 other candidates who are competent, too. Interviewers meet a lot of people in the course of the week, and they are remembering people with some element of “wow!”

Make sure you connect your verve to what the organization actually does. Remember: both the Four Seasons hotels and the Navy SEALS are looking for high-energy recruits who can make a lasting impression on other people. You might be just right for one of those organizations. It’s highly unlikely you’re right for both.

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