What HR Can Learn From American Idol

May 27, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

I’m not a big fan of American Idol, but like a lot of people, I get sucked into the competitive aspects of taking a group of talented people and publicly narrowing it down until you have a single “winner.”

This got me to thinking: what can we take away from this kind of competition? Have we learned anything after nine seasons of watching a singing champion chosen this way?

Well yes, there are some pretty big lessons we can take away from American Idol — especially if you’re in human resources.

At its core, American Idol is all about finding and promoting the very best talent — something that HR leaders do for their organizations every single day. But, how the show ultimately goes about finding and promoting the best talent leaves a lot to be desired, and it raises some issues that every HR person should think about in their own talent development process.

So, here are three talent management takeaways I gleaned from American Idol:

The highly-competent-but-safe candidate doesn’t always make the best hire.

This year’s American Idol winner — Chicago’s Lee DeWyze — is a solid and competent singer, but he’s not very exciting. Lisa de Moraes in the Washington Post described him as “the franchise’s third consecutive Super-Safe Kinda Beige Rocker Boy winner,” and she’s right. DeWyze is the kind of hire you make when you’re afraid of making a mistake.

And that raises a good question: are you satisfied choosing someone who is “safe” and won’t get you into trouble, or, do you go with the flashier choice who may have not only more upside, but perhaps some downside too? This year’s Idol runner-up, Crystal Bowersox, has over-the-top talent and style to burn, but she’s also is a single mom with dreadlocks and numerous tattoos who doesn’t really “look” the part of an American Idol. People like her can make you look really good, but, not everyone else may agree.

This points to an management truism worth remembering: safe but unexciting choices yield safe but unexciting results. If that’s what you are looking for in your organization, then go to it. But, if you want to push the envelope and stretch for something better, you need to work on overlooking the flaws and quirks that many highly talented people bring to the table. If you don’t, you end up with someone like Taylor Hicks — the safest and most forgettable American Idol winner ever . How hot has his career been lately?

A committee approach to hiring doesn’t always yield the best candidate.

Lots of organizations like to have candidates get interviewed and evaluated by a slew of different managers before everyone weighs in with their opinion. It’s a “safe” talent acquisition approach.

American Idol works this way, too, with the judges and nationwide voters all weighing in on who they believe is best. It’s a time-honored approach, of course, but hiring by committee rarely yields the best candidate. For every superstar like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, you get a slew of middle-of-the-road winners like Ruben Studdard, Chris Allen, David Cook, and Hicks.

Idol would do well to limit the nationwide voting until late in the season, letting a smaller group of smart and insightful talent managers — the judges –whittle down the group until the final four or five are left. Doing this would surely help keep more of the highly talented but less traditional candidates in the candidate pool longer, and maybe, give one of them a chance to win.

Your company would also be better served by limiting the vetting of candidates to a smaller group of four to five key decision-makers rather than running potential hires through a gauntlet of managers up and down the food chain. I bet you’ll find this approach not only leads to making better decisions about talent, but is less stressful on the candidates and your organization.

You need to ask yourself — do I hire for competence now or for growth potential down the road?

In most seasons, the American Idol winner reflects someone chosen for solid competence right now over someone who may have more upside in the years to come. That’s why last year’s most talented and colorful Idol finalist (Adam Lambert) was passed over for someone with a lot less potential (winner Kris Allen). Other highly talented but less polished Idol candidates, like Chris Daughtry and this year’s Siobham Magnus, seemed to suffer from this, too.

Except in very rare cases, high potential tomorrow is always preferable to solid competence today, but many HR leaders and talent managers don’t agree. Making the safe choice won’t get you in trouble and may help the organization immediately, but going with the high-potential candidate is likely to yield a lot more if you can afford to be patient. In other words, you won’t build superstars taking the safe road, and isn’t building an organization of superstars what it is all about?

Yes, American Idol is all about top talent winning out, but like a lot of things in life, it’s less about finding the very best talent and more about finding someone who is highly talented and acceptable to a large group of constituents. It leads, in the end, to all-too-many vanilla choices, and while that may be acceptable for American Idol, it’s not the optimum way for you to get the very best talent into your organization.

In other words, you need to hire like Simon Cowell. That’s a tougher way to go, but in the end, you’ll have a lot better talent — and bottom-line results — to show for it.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.