How Can I Get Better at Spotting Talent?


How Can I Get Better at Spotting Talent?

And three other tricky workplace dilemmas

Photo: Getty Images columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to four questions from readers.

1. *How can I get better at spotting talent in people different from me?

I like to think I’m pretty good at judging technical abilities, but I’m wondering if I’m actually looking only for the cues that people like me (male/Western culture) show. If so, I’m wondering how I can get better.

Here’s the situation that makes me wonder: At a recent technical conference, we gave prizes to young engineers for the best contributions. When the prize committee met, all agreed that “Alice” deserved first prize.

However, when I had visited that group (I work with lots of groups in this field) last year, Alice asked me for advice. I recommended she not work initially on the hard problem she was successful at, but instead start on an easier problem before tackling the hard one. She ignored me, and did a fantastic job. I clearly didn’t spot how bright Alice was. She listened to my advice, but didn’t ask any of the questions I normally see as markers of really good technical abilities. My question, then, is how can I improve my “spot bright people” skills?

Green responds:

It’s definitely possible that the talent markers you look for, both consciously and unconsciously, are culturally biased. Most people have that kind of bias unless they make a deliberate effort to fight it, and even then it can be hard.

I’d start by actively interrogating the things you see as proxies for talent. You noted Alice didn’t ask the questions you normally see as markers of strong abilities. Are there any commonalities among the people who do ask those questions — race, age, educational background? What might lead someone to ask or not ask those questions, beyond raw talent? Look for patterns there. And when you think about what did Alice talk to you about, can you see signs in retrospect that you overlooked then? If you can’t, what could you still be missing?

But also, how much meaningful time do you spend with people who are demographically different from you — different races, different genders, different cultural backgrounds, different ages, different socioeconomic groups? Spending time with people who are different from you — and really listening and soaking in their perspectives — is likely to broaden your sense of what talent looks and sounds like. (Doing a lot of reading by authors who are different from you is another way to work on this. How often do you read books by women of color, for example? If rarely or never, that’s something to change too.)

2. My co-worker keeps texting me about non-emergencies

I work at a nonprofit that’s recently experienced a lot of staff turnover. When I was helping to onboard two new admins, I explained that my work email doesn’t forward to my phone once I’ve left the office, but that they can always call my cell number if there is an emergency after hours or on weekends.

One of them has texted only once, with something time-sensitive and important. The other texts me regularly on my day off, or early in the morning and late in the evening on work days, about things that are work-related but not even close to being emergencies. At first, I tried not responding to non-emergency texts that came on my day off, but got more texts and an in-person “Are you getting my texts? I’m not sure if they’re going through.” I explained that they’d come in while I was busy with other things, which took priority because it was my day off.

The last time I got a text before 7 a.m., I replied, “Let’s talk about what to do about the problem when I get to the office.” That worked for that day, but it hasn’t stopped the bigger issue of getting woken up by work texts. My colleague is retired and working for us part-time, while I’m newly married and work 50-hour weeks. I mention this not as a judgment or competition, but because I expect that she may have more mental/emotional space to devote to our organization outside of our set work hours.

Do I just ignore texts that come in at all odd hours? I’ve tried subtlety in explaining that any work that can wait for office hours will have to wait for office hours, but to no apparent success. If I have to have a more direct conversation about this, what do I say?

Green responds:

Stop with the subtlety and just tell her directly. You can be really matter-of-fact about it: “I apologize if I wasn’t clear when I gave you my cell number. It’s for emergencies only. Please always email me rather than texting, unless something is truly an emergency like (example) or (example).” That it! She might feel a little embarrassed to realize she’s been doing it wrong, but so be it — a little embarrassment isn’t the worst thing in the world, and there’s no getting around that if you want this to stop.

Then if you get another non-emergency text, ignore it until you’re back at work, at which point you can say, “Like I said, please do not text me unless it’s an emergency. Instead, please email me about things like (latest example).” And if it still continues: “For some reason we’re having trouble straightening this out. I really don’t want work texts unless it’s an emergency, so going forward I’m not going to respond to texts until I’m back at work.”

You’ve been expecting her to pick up on hints — which would work with many people. But it’s clearly not working with her, so you have to be more direct.

3. Why won’t anyone eat the last cookie?

I work at a small company and occasionally treats get left in the kitchen for everyone to enjoy. People will gladly eat the food all day until we get to the dreaded “last cookie.” No one will eat the last cookie and sometimes someone will even go so far as to cut the last cookie in half and leave the sad little half to languish away on the plate until someone has mercy on it and throws it out a day or two later. Why will no one eat the last cookie?

Green responds:

It happens with doughnuts too — someone will cut the last doughnut in half, and then someone will cut the half in half, and so forth.

It’s rooted in politeness — no one wants to take the last of something, in case someone else was hoping to have some and arrives to find none left. At some level, people worry that if they eat the last cookie/doughnut/piece of cake, they’ll be conveying, “I am more entitled to enjoy this cookie than whoever might come looking for it after me, and I do not care that I have created cookie scarcity for others.” They don’t necessarily worry they’ll be conveying this to other people, who may never know that they took the last cookie. It’s more of an internal guilt thing.

4. My CEO insists on advertising jobs we’re not hiring for

Our CEO insists on posting half a dozen roles that we aren’t actually hiring for. He says it makes us look like we’re growing, and that it’s always good to collect resumes.

While there’s definitely merit to passive recruiting, I don’t like people submitting their resumes into what is essentially a black hole, where nothing will likely happen and no one will ever reach out to them. This, to me, isn’t the way to build either a viable candidate pipeline — or a good impression of our company. How do I combat this misguided theory?

Green responds:

Yeah, that’s not a great practice. People are spending time crafting cover letters and possibly tailoring their resumes for jobs that don’t exist.

You can certainly suggest that there are more effective ways to build a pipeline, like building relationships with people in your industry, or at least being more transparent with a “we’re not actively hiring but we’re always interested in hearing from people with X background” type message. And you can point out that collecting resumes of people who are actively job searching now means you’re collecting a lot of resumes from people who may not be on the market by the time he decides to contact them. (Although I’m skeptical that anything is really going to happen with those collected resumes; often nothing does.) You can also point out that candidates who find out their time was wasted are less likely to be interested in applying in the future, especially if your company gets a reputation for doing this.

*Spotting talent from the customers perspective.

It’s not easy spotting genuine talent based on what you see as a supervisor or boss.  Associates can sometimes act very differently when the boss is around.  If you are in a business to customer Industry then we can help you to see the true picture.  Mystery shopping can give you insight as to weather you associates are advocates or assassins.  Were here to help and would love to talk with you.



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