Outliers and the True Secret to Success

Apr 17, 2009

For a number of reasons, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, is a good read for recruiters and managers, in fact, for anyone who wants to get ahead in life.

The basic premise is that circumstances are far more critical to ultimate success than any other factor. For example, he cites the fact that Gates, Jobs, and comparable computer all-stars were born in the mid-1950s as being a critical factor leading to their industry success. When the PC revolution started they were just the right age — old enough to participate, but not yet established on a career path that prevented them from taking risks.

For another example, Gladwell points out that most professional athletic stars are born in the first quarter of the year they were first allowed to participate in their sport. The idea here is that whether it’s youth hockey, baseball, or any sport for that matter, the best players at this early age are more mature since they’re 3-9 months older than their competition. This difference means a lot when you’re five or six. The chosen ones are then given more opportunities to be trained and play more often. Overall, the best of this group put in thousands of hours more honing their skills, in comparison to those of equal talent who didn’t make the team just because they were too young at the time.

Of course, opportunity is just one factor involved in success. Talent is still critical and essential, but according to Gladwell, not as important as hard work. This is where the extra thousands of hours of effort comes into play.

To become a master at any craft requires plenty of hard work, at least 10,000 hours, according to Gladwell. As an example, he cites Mozart who didn’t write any worthwhile music until he was in his mid-20s, after about 10,000 hours. The Beatles are another example cited, who worked 10 long years perfecting their craft at all-night clubs in Germany.

Now what does all of this have to do with recruiting and hiring top talent? The answer started back in 1978 when I first became a third-party recruiter.

After a few years of dealing with top people, it became clear that the best of the bunch had a number of core traits in common, specifically talent, hard work, and strong team skills.

This eventually became the Formula for Hiring Success described in my book, Hire With Your Head (Wiley, 2007, 3rd edition).

Here’s the abbreviated formula for hiring success:

Adler’s Formula for Hiring Success = Talent X Energy2 plus Team Skills

Translation: Enough talent to do the work times motivation to do the work squared plus comparable team skills.

The reason motivation to do the work is squared is because it’s the driving force behind talent, and without it, strong team skills don’t really matter. This pretty much parallels Gladwell’s observations.

The point is that circumstances and talent can take you only so far, but without hard work, 10,000 hours in Gladwell’s assessment, you won’t go too far. Of course, without the right set of circumstances, you won’t go as far as possible, even if you work extremely hard.

With the Gladwell insight, I’ve modified the success formula slightly, as shown below:

The Adler/Gladwell Formula for Hiring Success = Appropriate Job Circumstances plus Talent X Energy2 plus Team Skills

Although I didn’t use this exact formula, the simple concept allowed me to become a more effective recruiter. You might find it useful as well, whether you are a recruiter or a hiring manager facing a tough selection decision.

Here’s how:

Consider the formula from two perspectives, one from an assessment standpoint and the other from a career-counseling point of view.

Obviously, whether you’re a recruiter or hiring manager you only want to hire people who are highly motivated to do the actual work required and have the appropriate level of talent and team skills. On the flip side, if the job can be clearly presented as a worthy career move, the candidate will value it more highly than a job of lesser opportunity, even one paying more.

None of this matters much if you don’t define the actual work required. This is the core problem with vague or generic job descriptions. They don’t define the work in enough depth to allow the interviewer to accurately assess motivation to do it. Instead, motivation to get the job and the degree of extroversion is used to assess motivation to do the work. Making matters worse is the use of generic skills and competencies to assess talent and the degree of affability used to assess team skills.

The result? Once the probation period ends, many new employees settle in to a routine of average effort, average performance, and satisfactory team skills, despite so much promise during the interview.

Recruiting and closing are made more difficult without a meaningful job description, since it’s more difficult to prove that vagueness and an employer brand represent career opportunity. Under this situation, every job looks like every other one, with compensation the only differentiator.

If compensation is the primary reason a candidate is taking one job over another, the job shouldn’t be offered or taken. This results in the worst of all possible situations — a person who is overpaid while not learning or growing.

This is a pretty powerful case for the idea that job descriptions need to be defined in enough detail to more accurately assess motivation and better present the true career opportunity. In our company, we use performance profiles to describe actual job needs.

Here’s the quick description from Hire With Your Head:

“A performance profile describes the six to eight performance objectives a person taking the job needs to do in order to be considered successful. It differs from a job description in that it doesn’t describe skills or traits, but rather what the person needs to accomplish with his or her skills and traits.”

For example, rather than say a software developer must have 3-5 years of C++ and Java background, it’s more relevant to say the person will lead the development of a robust online search query system for a new eCommerce site.

This type of clarity allows an interviewer to determine direct competency and motivation by getting examples of recent accomplishments doing comparable work. (Here’s an article on using just one question demonstrating how to do this.)

From a recruiting standpoint, it’s also easier to position your opening as a good career move if the candidate finds the work itself meaningful while providing a strong learning opportunity.

The right circumstances lay the foundation for personal success. Of course, it takes enough talent to take advantage of the situation and strong degree of self-motivation to maximize the opportunity.

Whether you’re a recruiter or hiring manager, you’ll need to convert your job descriptions into challenges, projects, and performance expectations. Then use the interview to determine whether these represent a growth and learning opportunity for the candidate. During the interview, find six or more examples of where the candidate exceeded expectations or pushed herself to excel.

If these are comparable to the work you need done, you have found a star, and your star has found a true opportunity to take advantage of her talent.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!