When was the last time your talent-hungry organization hired the equivalent of Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie who came out of the University of West Alabama, a Division II school many football fans had never even heard of? When was the last time you even considered someone with unlikely credentials for a critical position?
The “war for talent” has been a business watchword for almost two decades. The imperative to hire the very best is used to justify paying big bucks to top executives. It’s an argument for offering more visas to highly educated immigrants. It explains why technology company recruiters swarm schools such as Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. Nothing is more important than attracting and retaining the right personnel. And we’re told that it’s getting harder to do so.
“Talent shortages are fast going from bad to worse,” wrote George Klemp, a partner at Cambria Consulting, for Fast Company. “As companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple make a modern-day land grab for talent, it leaves the ‘little guy' fighting for whatever scraps fall from the talent table of the ‘big boys,’” recruiting executive Josh Bear warned in a medley of metaphors on Tech Crunch.
One response is to simply try to out-bid the competition. Offer more money, a lavish array of perks or, if you can’t afford those, provide more satisfying work or more interesting colleagues.
This strategy assumes that everyone is going after the same small group of well-known, pre-qualified candidates — the equivalent of first-round draft picks. It’s a reasonable approach if you’re trying to economize on recruiters’ time and attention. But it won’t necessarily bring in the best.
And some employers don’t even bother with the full draft. They imagine they can get to the Super Bowl by taking their rookies only from the top five teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Elite investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms often hire almost exclusively from a handful of schools, according to research by Lauren Rivera, a sociologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “So-called ‘public Ivies’ such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious,” she wrote in a 2011 article in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.
Rivera also found that recruiters made offers based on “cultural fit,” which “typically referred to individuals’ play styles — how applicants preferred to conduct themselves outside the office — rather than their work styles.” Firms looked for “surface-level (i.e., demographic) diversity in applicant pools but deep-level (i.e., cultural) homogeneity in new hires,” Rivera wrote in a 2012 article in The American Sociological Review. To give employees the perk of working with people just like themselves, they leave talent untapped.
By contrast, consider Sunday’s Super Bowl teams. The New England Patriots are famous for seeking out overlooked talent, including players such as Butler who may not look great on paper. The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, are equally well-known for accepting the eccentricities of players such as Marshawn Lynch. At the top level of professional team sports, where countless players would love a job, scouting systems are highly developed, and competition is intense. Simply paying a lot to hire the obvious candidates isn’t good enough. The best teams look for hidden talent, don’t expect everyone to be the same and figure out how individuals can complement one another.
If everyone you interview comes from the same few schools, the same social networks, the same previous employers or the same geographic regions, you aren’t really fighting for talent. And if talent matters as much as everyone seems to think it does, you probably won’t make it to the big game.
Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics, and public policy.
© 2015, Bloomberg News