Prior to the 1982 baseball season, the Philadelphia Phillies traded their shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus. To sweeten the deal, the Phillies threw in a rookie 3rd baseman named Ryne Sandberg into the deal. After the Cubs moved Sandberg to 2nd base, this “throw-in” went on to be a Hall of Famer. The Phillies just didn’t see the future talent they had on their hands.
Winning and losing at talent acquisition
In 1964, The Cubs’ traded a struggling Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio as part of a 6-player deal. Broglio went 4-7 with a 4.04 ERA and was disappointing the rest of his career. Brock helped the Cards win the World Series that year and ended up on the Hall of Fame.
We hear about lopsided trades like this in all major sports every once in a while. We also see people hired into positions in business that were simply hiring mistakes. Why do organizations of all kinds have so much trouble identifying good talent?
Talent acquisition is a critical task for any organization, whether it’s a major league baseball team or a sales organization. It is one of the most critical decisions for a consulting firm. The consultants that a firm hires are their client-facing product that they sell in every proposal. The people they select must have the knowledge and skills to do the job and have the personality that can deal with high stress situations while schmoozing the client, inspiring them to hire the firm for more projects.
The art and science of talent acquisition
Talent selection is as much an art as it is a science. A highly skilled person can turn off a hiring manager in the first ten seconds of the interview, destroying her chances. A good hire is usually not proven until that person has had a chance to learn the ropes and get settled into the job, allowing the person to prove him or herself.
While I was at one company, I hired two individuals where I was told by a high-level executive that I had made a hiring mistake in both instances. Although his comments gave me pause each time, I stuck with my gut. As it turned out, those two people turned out to be two of the best hires I’ve ever made. The people I hired were hard working, smart and – most importantly – liked by the clients. I concluded that the executive didn’t have a very good eye for talent. (Incidentally, he was not the one that hired me.)
When selecting for consulting, in addition to having the skills to perform the job, some additional aspects to look for are:
– Can she think on her feet? I try to ask questions that the candidate couldn’t prepare for. I’ll usually present a real client situation where an issue came up that needed to be resolved. Although their answer is important, I’m just as interested in how they approach it. Does she get nervous or stay calm, ask good questions and work towards a resolution?
– Does he speak with appropriate confidence? – Speaking with confidence is important, but it can be taken too far. If you don’t know the answer and bluff your way through your answer, it’s going to show. Confidence is a balance of not being too insecure, and not being too arrogant. If someone doesn’t know the answer and can explain what additional information they need in order to answer it, then ‘I don’t know’ can be a confident answer.
– Is she likable? Consulting is more than just knowing your stuff. You deal with clients every day throughout the day. If they don’t like you, it’s very hard to be successful. A good consultant needs to be able to be the bearer of bad news. If they’re not likable, it will hurt your credibility and limit the amount of success you have with that client.
– Does he understand consulting? The candidate may be smooth with his answers and speak with confidence. But does he understand that consultants are held to a higher standard. The client is paying a higher rate for a consultant’s services. Even though he may be doing the same work as a client employee, the quality needs to be better, their communication skills are expected to be better and they need to be prepared to work longer hours if needed.
Most executives will say that one of the critical keys to success is recognizing and hiring the right talent. Jim Collins calls it “getting the right people on the bus” in his book Good to Great. I believe it’s even more important in consulting since people are your primary product. You can have the greatest processes and methodologies in your industry, but if you hire unqualified people to implement them, you will still fail miserably.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.