Don’t Pass on Game-changer Candidates Who Are Still Rookies

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Aug 3, 2015
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

Don’t Pass On Game-changer Candidates Who Are Still Rookies

Professional sports lead the way in recruiting “game-changer” candidates who are only rookies, while in the corporate world, most of them are simply passed over. If you’re not familiar with the term “game changer,” they are high-impact hires who soon after joining a team, end up completely transforming it. They move beyond being just top performers because they can be further described using words like stunning, remarkable, exceptional, or extraordinary.

There are two types of game changers: experienced ones, and rookies. Experienced game-changers are relatively easy to find because they have work experience and have a proven track record. But there are also “rookie game changers,” the subject of this article. Rookie game-changers are individuals who are just entering a new field and who are so extraordinary that you are stunned when you meet them or read about their amazing accomplishments. LeBron James, for example, was identified as a rookie game changer while in high school, even though he never played a single game in college or the NBA. In the business world, the youthful Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg were all rookie game changers.

The sad fact is that most corporate recruiters and hiring managers completely miss out on these rookie game changers. College hiring programs usually miss them because they don’t always have excellent academic credentials. Experienced hire programs miss them because they lack experience and haven’t officially held a paid corporate position in their field.

It’s Unfortunate but Most Hiring Managers Pass on Rookie Game-changers

Unfortunately, I frequently see recruiters and hiring managers in recruiting pass over these extraordinary rookies, even though they are destined to change the recruiting industry. For example, as a college professor, each year I select one of these extraordinary students to be my research assistant and TA. And after a year of intense development in recruiting, I am routinely surprised when these breathtaking individuals still encounter job rejection simply because they’ve never held the formal title of recruiter. Last year it was Trena (who after a few rejections eventually ended up at Google); this year it has recently happened to Kim; next year I expect it will happen again to Ted. Because I’ve had so many wildly successful TAs, I shake my head when firms — that actually admit how exceptional these individuals are — still pass on them simply because they have never had a formal corporate recruiting title.

It’s Not Difficult to Identify Rookie Game-changers

Obviously you can’t hire them if you can’t find them. So be aware that you can’t always identify rookie game changers through their resumes or LinkedIn profile because both are often weak. This is because they are generally busy producing solutions, so they don’t have time to update their job search materials. In my experience, the four best ways to identify rookie (or experienced) game changers include:

  1. Ask references to identify them — most reference checks are designed primarily to find any major faults that the regular candidate might have. But you can’t find a game changer by looking for negatives. Instead, when you think you have a game changer, specifically ask each of their references, “Would you, without hesitation, classify this individual as a game changer, who is an extraordinary individual who stands out because of their stunning capabilities?” Next ask the job reference to go further, “Would you help us? Do you know anyone else in this field who you would classify as an extraordinary game changing individual?” And finally, ask them, “If you run across a game changer in the future, will you please refer them to us?”
  2. Ask your employee referral sources — game changers tend to know other game changers. So when you are seeking one to fill a particular job, ask your own game-changer employees in the field to seek out and to refer other extraordinary individuals and game changers that they now. Also when an employee makes a referral who turned out to be a game changer, complement them and then ask them personally to continually refer any additional game changers who they come across. Also ask your new hires who have become game changers to actively be on the lookout for other rookie game changers.
  3. Find their work on the Internet — if your employees are continually learning, during that process they are likely to spot the work of rookie game changers online and on social media. You can find the game changers in other ways because they also often write blogs and articles that are passed around and commented on. Game changers also frequently answer technical questions on “answer sites” like Quora or on professional discussion forums.
  4. Ask grad assistants and professors — on college campuses, grad assistants and TAs either know or they are themselves game changers. Officers of professional fraternities and clubs are also likely to know them. Professors may know them, but they may also be reluctant to reveal the names.

What Makes These Rookie Game-changers Extraordinary?

These rookie game changers may be college students, college dropouts, or they may simply be individuals trying to enter a new career field. But if you expect to accurately identify them, note the factors they have in common that give them their extraordinary potential. In my 35+ years of mentoring, helping interns, and helping corporations assess talent, I have found that rookie game changers share these characteristics:

  • They are accomplishers — their most important characteristic is that they have a proven track record of accomplishing everything they set out to do. They will have already accomplished difficult things that most experienced professionals have not. They also always find a way to meet their promises and goals and they love to “own” problems and to manage projects.
  • Learning — they are learning machines. They focus on learning about emerging problems and the best practice solutions to those problems that are used by top firms.
  • Passionate — they have a passion and a laser focus on excellence in recruiting and talent management. They don’t see recruiting as a steppingstone but as a career destination.
  • Innovation — they’re not satisfied with the status quo. They push not only for incremental improvement but also for game-changing innovations.
  • Adaptable — they embrace change and don’t get flustered in a volatile work environment.
  • Extraordinary habits — they have extraordinary work habits, which gives them discipline and consistency.
  • The glass is half-full and leaking — they see everything as needing continuous improvement and assume that even successful programs will eventually become obsolete.
  • They have manageable egos — even though the work that they have accomplished is stunning, these rookies have manageable egos. They don’t seek credit; they merely strive to be part of a significant change.
  • Their limited experience may be an asset — the new hire’s lack of direct experience may actually serve as an asset. Because with less history to cloud their vision, they may see problems in a new way and from a fresh perspective. This fresh perspective may result in them generating many new ideas and innovations.

Final Thoughts

In my experience, among all recruiting mistakes, missing out on rookie game changers is near the top because 1) of their immediate business impacts, 2) the career trajectory of these individuals will one day make them VPs, and 3) once they get even a little experience under their belt, you will likely no longer be able to land or afford them. Most college recruiters look for grades, awards, or for perfect CV’s. But I have found that that narrow approach will lead you in the wrong direction because real rookie game changers focus on projects rather than grades.

Also, it is rare that a dean or department chair would know the name a rookie game changer. Instead, identify everyone who has a track record of successfully identifying extraordinary rookie talent. These “talent scouts” have probably already sought them out and they likely also went the next step and mentored them.


image from Shutterstock

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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