Every human activity – whether individual or group, small-scale or large-scale – essentially comes to the people who participate in it. In most cases, they do so not for the process’s sake, but to attain a specific goal, and, if they have to operate in a competitive environment, to do it as efficiently as possible. As a result, choosing the right people for the right job is essential for success in any target-oriented activity, even more so when conditions are harsh and competitors fierce. Finding these people, identifying their realized or hidden virtues, and foreseeing the benefits to the performance they may bring is, without a doubt, a crucial task in any organization.
Anders’s The Rare Find explores the issues of talent management in different fields from military to commodity trading and outlines several approaches to aid those who seek the best people for any given job (2011). The book offers numerous strategies for HR practitioners, such as focusing on the character over experience and evaluating the ability to follow simple rules under complex circumstances, but not all its recipes are equally applicable.
The major premise of Anders’s book is that, when interviewing and evaluating candidates for any given position, one may compromise to a degree on the individual’s credentials, but not personal qualities. At one point in Chapter 3, the author literally formulates it as one of the essential rules to follow and cautions talent managers to never compromise on character as opposed to the experience (Anders, 2011).
To substantiate this point, he gives the example of the University of Utah that proved able to look past erratic work history and transcripts of its candidates. This approach composed a team that, as far as the credentials go, looked poorly on paper, but was united by a common passion for being on the frontier of knowledge (Anders, 2011). According to Anders (2011), limiting the assessment to the candidate’s past performance as outlined in the resume obscures a more important aspect, namely, what this candidate is able to achieve in the future. The focus on character rather than experience and credentials allows finding the people with considerable potential for development and rising beyond what they have achieved up to this day.
Yet while the experience of a given candidate is secondary to the qualities of character he or she possesses, the experience of the recruiter is all the more essential for effective talent management. In Chapter 5, the author provides a telling example of how experience in a given field or lack thereof causes people to pay attention to profoundly different indicators of potential success. If tasked with evaluating e prospective basketball players, a casual fan will likely look at obvious and easy-to-register attributes, such as scoring a lot of points or demonstrating better speed and agility (Anders, 2011).
Yet an experienced scout will look at the subtle clues allowing them to assess the athletes’ preparation, sound judgment, and the ability not to crumble under pressure (Anders, 2011). These elements may not convent directly to high scores – not in the short run of a given game – but they ultimately separate successful players from disappointments. Thus, while advising not to focus too heavily on the candidate’s experience, the author points out that the recruiter’s experience in the particular field is still immensely important.
It is also worth noting that Anders (2011) does not limit himself to the abstract advice to focus on the candidates’ character, but elaborates on the qualities to look for. One of such essentials is the ability to try hard and work hard with the constant aim to become better. While it may seem an uncontroversial platitude at first sight, Anders (2011) offers enough examples of how even the high-ranking recruiters in competitive fields, such as professional sports, may forget to look at this criterion.
For instance, when evaluating Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning, two promising football players drafted in 1998, the high-ranking managers studied the athletes’ physical performance extensively but only assessed their motivation and dedication in the last moment to find that Manning was a preferable choice (Anders, 2011). A simple analysis of motivation proved more fruitful than a thorough technical evaluation – yet this assessment, soon to be proved right, was not on top of the manager’s list. However obvious it may seem, the advice to focus on the willingness to work hard is not a truism, but a sensible tip.
Another essential quality that Anders (2011) advises looking for is adaptability – or, more precisely, the ability to adapt general principles to specific situations. He develops this idea when discussing an experiment conducted by commodity trader Richard Dennis in the early 1980s. Dennis hired several people with no experience in trading whatsoever, gave them some basic instructions and training, and offered an opportunity to invest up to $1 million (Anders, 2011). Surprisingly enough, most of Dennis’s protégés demonstrated stunning results and generated more than $150 million in profits by the end of the decade (Anders, 2011).
At first, Dennis interpreted the results of his experiment as a testimony that the rules of successful trading were very simple, but it was only half of the answer. While the rules themselves might have been elementary, applying them under complex and ever-changing circumstances was anything but simple (Anders, 2011). It is this ability to implement general guidelines and apply them to specific situations that the author advises to search for when assessing the candidates’ key qualities.
The strength of the book mainly lies in the fact that it addresses an acute and well-known problem among contemporary HR practitioners. As the author rightfully notes, contemporary technologies and, in particular, the digital revolution made it much easier to operate massive amounts of information. However, implementing this information effectively and making the right conclusions from it becomes harder precisely because of the amount of data used.
In Anders’s (2011) own words, people have created so much data that now they are drowning in it. The author is not alone in this assessment: Levenson and Fink (2017) also point out that contemporary analysis of human capital suffers from the abundance of data combined with the lack of practically applicable models. Anders (2011) attempts to provide the sorely needed guidelines for the talent managers to be able to spot exceptional candidates by paying attention to the relevant clues in the vast amounts of data. Thus, the book offers a potential answer to the influx of information that threatens the efficiency of talent management due to its sheer scale and, by doing so, addresses an issue of current interest.
The thing that deserves special appreciation about the book is that it does not concentrate on any single industry but aims to cover a broad range of fields. For instance, Chapter 1 covers how non-commissioned officers evaluate candidates for service in the US Special Forces without even testing their combat skills (Anders, 2011). Chapter 3 takes a different turn and explores the search for talented prodigies in commodity training, listing a number of interesting and telling experiments (Anders, 2011).
Chapter 4 changes the setting once more and discusses how the best medical schools of the United States evaluate their potential students – as it turns out, it is not necessarily about better grades (Anders, 2011). Finally, Chapter 8 acquaints the reader with the world of show business and sheds some light on how managers find future pop stars (Anders, 2011). While every method described in every chapter is industry-specific, they come from multiple fields and differ in many aspects. Thus, the range of approaches that Anders (2011) offers to those interested in HR management is quite extensive, making it more likely to find something that suits one’s particular predicament.
Another important strength of the book is that it addresses the best ways to select and train different types of promising candidates. The majority of chapters cover looking for, identifying, hiring, and managing the hidden talents – either among those who demonstrate stunning achievements and notable pitfalls alike or those who do not seem to have anything extraordinary about them. This is natural, since picking these not-so-subtle talents is generally much harder than identifying the candidates with perfect resumes and corresponding work histories.
Yet, to his credit, Anders (2011) does not devote the entire book to the hidden talents and also outlines how one should train, groom, and manage people with obviously exceptional potential – those displaying what he calls talent that shouts. As the author points out in Chapter 9, the key to managing such talents is the tough-love approach combining challenging tasks, strict and progressively rising demands, and genuine appreciation of success when it is due (Anders, 2011). Thus, one more positive feature of the book is that, despite its obvious emphasis on hidden talents, it aims to cover all types of candidates one is likely to encounter.
However, this broad range also constitutes the major weakness of the book, as many of the industry-specific solutions described in its pages are ill-suited for most contexts of HR management. As mentioned above, the book’s first chapter describes how the US Special Forces evaluate those willing to serve in their ranks. While the tests do not require the soldiers to fire a single bullet, they put the candidates through arduous and unpredictable exercises to see how they respond to extreme stress (Anders, 2011).
There is no doubt that an adequate response to stressors is one of the most valuable qualities in a candidate, but not every field has the luxury of doing it as thoroughly as the military. Whatever its benefits, testing the body, spirit, and mind of the candidates under extreme conditions is out of the question in most fields except for military and law enforcement. Hence, while undoubtedly interesting from a theoretical perspective, the examples Anders (2011) takes from the military do not have much practical value for those HR managers who operate in civilian settings.
A similar weakness manifests in Chapter 5 titled “Auditions that Work,” where the author discusses what constitutes an effective audition that helps the hirer to assess and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. It is hardly arguable that analyzing resumes can only get a talent manager so far, and the next logical step is an audition that allows evaluating what a potential employee can actually do. While the chapter offers different examples, they all tend toward one conclusion: a successful audition requires time. Some of the most effective ones, such as those employed in the FBI training program, take weeks (Anders, 2011).
Such time spans, however, are rarely applicable in commercial companies where hirers what results as quickly as possible. This is especially true for the financial industry: Ferguson et al. (2018) are right to note that it takes an “impractically long time to differentiate talented from untalented managers” in this field (p. 54). Thus, devoting weeks of time to the auditions may indeed be a superb way to access candidates, but, just as with the rigorous training regimens, it is only applicable in a few fields.
Finally, the most significant weakness of the book is the survivorship bias inherent in its very concept. Each chapter starts with a story of a stunning success enjoyed by the daring talent managers who proved able to make risky decisions and achieved astounding results as a consequence. A notable example is the story of Franz König, an Austrian cardinal who failed in his assigned mission to represent the Catholic Church in the burial of the Cardinal of Yugoslavia (Anders, 2011). Despite this setback, König ended up discovering Karol Wojtyła – a promising Polish clergyman who soon became the first non-Italian Pope since 1522 (Anders, 2011).
While such an extraordinary example is awe-inspiring, the book does not account for the multitudes of cardinals who all worked behind the Iron Curtain but failed to see a rising Polish talent. This focus on success stories foregoing more numerous failures is what constitutes a survivorship bias: a statistical sample that only includes positive outcomes while largely ignoring the negative ones (Startza, 2019). The book’s preference for astounding success stories may easily distort the reader’s perception, which is why the awareness of this survivorship bias is essential.
The book also contains several insights that are valuable to me as a person specializing in financial industry services. In particular, the author’s remarks on how American corporations approach the hunt for the top executive talent were particularly interesting. If Anders (2011) is to be believed, many American companies, including those in the financial industry, are prone to choosing CEOs who can talk convincingly to the boardroom selectors. This ability, however, does not correlate too well with the actual capability of running a given enterprise. As a future professional in the field and a potential practitioner of talent manager, I should be aware of this pitfall and circumvent or overcome it, should I ever encounter it in the future.
The author’s advice to concentrate on the character is also fairly applicable – though, admittedly, it is general enough to apply to any field that involves choosing personnel for doing responsible jobs in complex environments. If I were to apply this approach in practice, I would attempt to identify not only those contenders who fit the checklist of desired qualities the best but also those who show the greatest promise. Anders (2011) advises paying special attention to what he calls jagged resumes – the ones that come not with perfect credentials, but with a combination of successes and pitfalls.
Thus, when analyzing resumes, I would measure the candidates not only by their credentials and performance in general but also by the extremities of their achievement and failure. I would pay the closest attention to those who achieved the most notable results, even if these did not come with a perfect service record. Thus, I would make it a rule to put the candidates with a mixture of outstanding and outright bad results into a separate group and consider them seriously along with the more traditionally suitable contenders.
As one can see, The Rare Find by Anders (2011) offers numerous and generally valuable insights into talent management, although not all of the tips offered by the author are equally applicable and plausible in practice. The core premise of the book is that a recruiter should focus on character over experience and services record. In particular, the author recommends searching for those capable of applying simple rules under complex circumstances and willing to work hard regardless of the pressure the situation puts upon them.
The major strength of the book is that it addresses a current issue of seeing through the overwhelming amounts of data while also giving examples from varying fields. This broad scope is also a weakness: some recommendations, such as rigorous stress tests of prolonged auditions, are implausible in many fields except for the military, law enforcement, and some types of competitive sports. Additionally, one should be aware of the survivorship bias inherent in the book’s concept. These downsides notwithstanding, the book still offers useful insights for practitioners of talent management in different fields, including the financial industry.
Anders, G. (2011). The rare find: Spotting exceptional talent before everyone else. Penguin.
Ferguson, R., Agapova, A., Leistikow, D., & Rentzler, J. (2018). Chasing performance and identifying talented investment managers. The Journal of Investing, 27(1), 52-64.
Levenson, A., & Fink, A. (2017). Human capital analytics: Too much data and analysis, not enough models and business insights. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, 4(2), 145-156.
Starty, R. (2019). How research goes astray: Paths and equilibria. SSRN. Web.