Hiring the Best

How to land top talent from your pool of job candidates

A GMJ Q&A with Vandana Allman, coauthor of Animals, Inc. (Warner Books, 2004)
From Gallup Management Journal

For information on how you can place the right employee in the right position, learn about the Profile XT assessment.

Vandana Allman spends her days calibrating scientific instruments that measure the most human of all attributes: talent. As Gallup's global practice leader for talent-based hiring, Allman consults with senior executives on how to improve their hiring and development strategies -- from recruitment to selection to workplace management.

But when Allman talks about "talent," she doesn't just mean an ability to do something specific, like play the violin or shoot baskets, exceptionally well. Allman helps businesses find employees with the right talents for success in a role or position. This kind of talent is the principle behind "the right fit for the job," and its effects on employee engagement and productivity, customer engagement, and a business' financial success are profound.

While the return on investment from selecting employees with the right talents for the job can be exponential, so can the reverse, Allman says: Hiring employees with no talent for the job or who are not the right fit wastes recruiting dollars, time, and effort. Worse, employees with mismatched talents turn off customers, disrupt workgroups, and corrupt brands. In this interview, Allman, who coauthored the humorous business parable Animals, Inc., explains talent and how to find it and hire it, as well as the dollar value of catching the few "perfect fits" in your pool of applicants.

GMJ: When you talk about hiring for talent, what do you mean by talent?

Vandana Allman: Over the years, Gallup research has focused on a very specific definition of talent: It's a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. Talent is second nature -- the actions people take or the ways they think or behave as a matter of instinct. Some examples are the way someone focuses on details, or needs to have very precise directions, or can't help but make new friends in a roomful of strangers. Those are all indications of talent. Our decisions and reactions are functions of talent, and talent is hardwired into who we are.

GMJ: What does this definition of talent have to do with work?

Allman: Let's say you're leading a group of employees who have come together to work as a team, and you're focused on achieving an objective or goal. For the team to succeed, you need to think about the talents each team member brings to the table. You need people with the talents it will take to get the job done. Instead, most of us tend to recruit people who are very much like ourselves.

GMJ: Deliberately?

Allman: Not really. We tend to do it because there's something very safe and comfortable about someone who makes decisions in the same way we do, or reacts the same way, or has similar mannerisms. You think, "Oh, I like that. I can work with that."

GMJ: Is that so bad?

Allman: It may seem easier to work with someone who's like yourself, but most likely, that's not how you'll get real growth. Teams of people who are too alike can easily fall into "group-think" and approach every single problem the same way. For real productivity and innovation, teams need people who bring different perspectives and varying but effective talents. If they can collectively leverage those talents, they'll reach better solutions more quickly, more efficiently, and likely under budget.

Traditionally in human resources, we ask: "Have you done this work before? How long? Where did you do it? Where did you go to school?" But these questions just scratch the surface. They overlook talent. And people who lack the core talents needed for success in a role are never going to achieve and sustain superior levels of performance; they're never going to grow at an exponential rate. But if you're able to select someone who has the right talents, as well as useful experience and the right educational background, that would be the complete package.

Gallup's studies show that if you could select someone with talent, you could teach him or her the nuts and bolts of the position. Very soon, this person will start to outperform those who have tenure or experience in that industry but don't have the right talents, and after a while, you'll see that the person you hired just outperforms like crazy.

GMJ: Cutting to the chase, is there a dollar value to hiring for talent?

Allman: Yes. First, hiring is expensive. For example, it costs one company, a large sub- prime U.S. mortgage lender, about $40,000 to recruit, hire, and train one mortgage consultant. That's a direct cost, but there are indirect costs, too. Let's say you hire the wrong person -- someone who makes bad decisions, disrupts the workgroup, and corrupts your brand while he or she is working for you. You've just wasted the money it took to hire that person, and now your company is leaking money in lost productivity and lost customers.

GMJ: So you've hired a miserable employee who's making other people miserable, too.

Allman: Yes, and if they're that miserable, one of two things will happen. If you're lucky, they leave. They may go to your competition, which is often what happens.

The other option, which is even worse for your organization, is that they stay. Day after day, they'll neglect their responsibilities and your customers; they'll draw a crowd around them while complaining about the kind of work they have to do and what a bad place this is to work. Those kinds of indirect costs are hard to estimate, but they're probably much higher than the original hiring costs. Our talent inventory poll shows that 42% of working adults have basic psychological fit to their jobs, while only 16% have psychological fit to their jobs and are engaged in their workplaces.

But think about how much the outstanding employees in your organization -- the ones with the right talents for the job -- outperform those who are either average or below average. Supervisory ratings, absenteeism rates, productivity numbers -- all are significantly more positive with employees who are a better fit in their positions than with those who aren't. When you hire for talent, you avoid wasting money on bad hires, and you make more money because of the talent level of your good hires. Talented people can make enormous contributions to an organization.

GMJ: Is there one method of determining talent for every job role in a company?

Allman: No, because the best approach can vary depending on the kind of role and the number of employees needed to fill it. For example, think about a retailer who needs to hire hundreds of people as frontline salespeople for the holiday season. That retailer needs a selection instrument that's automated and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- one that can sort among hundreds of applicants to find the ones with the right talents for the role. And it needs to do it quickly so hiring managers can use that information, along with other information they gather from applicants, to make fast decisions about whom to hire or not. That's one approach.

On the other hand, think about a company that needs to hire a chief financial officer. That's a sophisticated leadership role -- one that's key to the future of the organization. In that case, we recommend a selection process that's very high-touch. It includes a structured interview that's administered by analysts who are trained to listen for responses that are similar to those given by the multitude of successful leaders we've studied over the past 35 years.

GMJ: What kind of questions do analysts ask?

Allman: It varies depending on the position and the organization. We study the best performers in an organization, ask them questions, and figure out which questions are the most predictive of successful job performance. All employees, not just those in leadership roles, who achieve great outcomes and have great fit for their jobs, tend to answer questions in a similar fashion.

GMJ: What about the legality of this? Fairness in recruiting and hiring?

Allman: When applicants are assessed for a position with a company, either through a selection instrument on the Web, on the phone with an automated system, or with an analyst, there's no possibility of visual discrimination. A focus on talent actually increases the diversity among the applicant pool because companies are looking at a person's hardwiring -- how these people will respond to a client, problem, or a situation -- and not the kind of schools that they've gone to or the kind of work experiences that they have had.

GMJ: It sounds like people with the talents for their jobs are happier.

Allman: Being in a role that's not a fit for your talents can be very, very depressing. If you come home beat up and demoralized, what good are you to your family, your friends, or your community? It's much different if you're in a role that matches your talents. Your day may have been frustrating, but knowing that you have the ability to fix the problems -- knowing that you can make a difference -- can have a big effect on how you react. You're much more positive, much more focused. You're much more engaged in your work and your life, and the world seems like a much better place.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison