Hiring Top Talent: Your Gut Check Needs a Fact Check

“I know it when I see it!” 


The next time you hear yourself utter this phrase during an interview, immediately stop. Before you trust your “gut” ask yourself this important question: 


“Am I on track to meet my numbers?”  


If the answer is no, I have some bad news.


You’re in denial, just like most of your colleagues and competition. Like so many others in your situation, you’ve overestimated your ability to attract and retain top talent.


As you interview your eager candidates, do you ever think, “If only I can get them talking?”


Of course, talking is valuable. But if you don’t know what the “it” factor is—that thing you say you’ll know when you see it, your vague initial assessment of the candidate won’t be useful in making a hiring decision.


Ouch. I know that sounds harsh. Know that you’re not alone so don’t beat yourself up for doing what just about every other hiring manager does. Simply stop doing the same thing you’ve always done and try something different.


Don’t abandon your gut.


That would be impossible, and it’s almost inconceivable to understand how to prioritize the factors that trigger your gut reactions. Which ones are most relevant to actual success on the job?


I hear this a lot from sales managers who are looking for sales people; “I want to hire someone who has fire in the belly.”


And this is great, then I ask, “What does someone who has fire in their belly do? How do you measure that fire?”


The responses are all over the map, but the most likely answer involves the idea of self-initiative or innate drive.


Digging deeper, I ask, “Taking initiative doing what? Driven in what way?”


That’s when the conversation usually breaks down. Most clients don’t have a good answer, and reiterate, “I’ll know it when I see it.”


In the book, Sway The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, the authors describe the spell of an irrational force they call “diagnosis bias.” Diagnosis bias occurs when we label a person or a situation according to our particular viewpoint. When this happens, we become blind to evidence that contradicts our labels—the authors describe this as a preconceived diagnosis. Diagnosis bias affects all of us, no matter how extensively we train against it.


Assumption: fighter pilots make great day traders


When I was the program manager for an entry-level market trading program, I had one leader who only sent me candidates that had previous experience as fighter pilots. The logic was that anyone who had what it took to make it through the tough training to be a fighter pilot would most certainly excel at any task assigned at a proprietary trading desk. 


The training to be a fighter pilot is impressive; Imagine flying a speeding plane straight into the ground until your terror forces you to pull up, over and over until you learn to maintain calm effectiveness as you near certain death. Having interviewed these candidates and learning about their first-hand accounts of life in the cockpit, I see the logic of thinking that this kind of cutting edge training would predict a high likelihood of success on a trading floor.


We assume that a pilot trained to avoid a crash at the last minute would know when to cut your losses before profits crashed. While the act of unwinding a bad trade might not be physically dangerous, the emotional terror can incapacitate most of us, especially with a looming potential for multi-million dollar losses.


The problem is that this seemingly sensible logic does not correlate to performance numbers. These fierce fighter pilots don’t outperform candidates with traditional finance backgrounds. And almost universally, the pilots found the role of desk trader unsatisfying, no matter how large the stakes. They missed being driven to succeed by a noble mission of all for one and one for all- Competing with team members for a number one spot was a foreign concept at best. 


This story brilliantly illustrates the irresistible sway of irrational choices despite clear evidence to the contrary. Our guts tell us that a fighter pilot would be a great trader. We’re heavily influenced by theories, fears, certainties and other illogical ideas in each and every moment of our lives.


Our guts are unreliable when it comes to talent attraction and management. 


When’s the last time you fact-checked your gut-check? What’s your version of the fighter pilot story? Don’t worry. There are stories the “it” factor in every organization on every team for every role.


Let’s face it. That amazing “it” factor most often ends up looking and sounding an awful lot like YOU and your preconceived notions about what makes a candidate great, which blind you to objective data and assign the most weight to characteristics and answers that are irrelevant to job performance.


You can learn to use evidence-based data to inform selection, development, retention, and succession.


Stop saying, “I know ‘it’ when I see it.”


Even if you’ve defined what you’re looking for, it’s difficult for others to know what you mean.


Instead, define in specific behaviors or activities what “good” looks like in the role. As an example, instead of telling your team, “I’m looking for someone detail-oriented,” try saying, “I’m looking for someone who tends to focus on what’s critical to the success of the project rather than irrelevant details.” 


See the difference? Try this on before your next phone or in-person interview with your next candidate and then notice how your results change. If you need help putting this into practice in your business, or you’re having trouble finding and keeping the right talent, get in touch.  

Erin Gibson