November 25, 2022

A fresh look at Talent and how to be wiser in your recruitment

By Paul Laughlin

A regular challenge that data leaders share with me is the hunt for talent. Being able to recruit the skills they need, let alone candidates with the attitude & aptitude to flourish is proving tough. It seems we are still living through Talent Wars & wise leaders don’t just rely on paying more.

So, I was intrigued to see that one of the business books recently recommended by the Financial Times was Talent by Dr. Tyler Cowen & Daniel Gross. It has been well worth a read, even though (perhaps because) I found myself disagreeing with the authors from time to time. When that happens you know you are benefiting from widening your perspective.

Tyler & Daniel come from the world of startups & innovation in two different guises. Tyler hold the chair in economics at George Mason University & is a successful author on this topic. Daniel is an entrepreneur & investor, the youngest founder ever accepted onto Y Combinator, who went on to found Cue and other successes. Given their background, they approach the topic of recruitment from the tech start-up perspective but 90% of the lessons you’ll learn from this book also apply for data leaders.

What’s there to say about talent that hasn’t been said?

A good question. One of the themes you’ll learn in this book is that conventional wisdom can be wrong. You’ll also find plenty of research evidence for not just following mainstream practices or interview approaches. If for no other reason than to slay some sacred cows & to get you to think again about how to spot talent – this book is worth reading for that experience. But there is much more in here. Let me layout what this book covers & then I’ll share my learning and recommendation.

This book is made up of 10 chapters. Each cover important topics themselves but to me they thematically group into these 4 parts:

  • Review of current need & practices (chapters 1-3)
  • Assessment of research evidence for importance of intelligence & personality (4-6)
  • How to avoid bias and not miss out on good candidates (7-9)
  • How to convince the best candidate to join “your cause” (10)

What amongst that content struck me as new? Well, I’ve not previously read such a well researched deconstruction of the value of intelligence or personality in predicting success. There are also some interesting, if controversial ideas for interview questions or techniques. The sections on what might be called diversity are also better done than many. Avoiding the risk of platitudes or virtue signalling, chapters 7-9 help you see how you might not be seeing the best of candidates. I now understand better what I as a white middle-aged man might miss when interviewing a disabled, female or ethnic minority candidate. Plus, the research is convincing about why you should care.

New ideas for data leaders from the world of talent hunters

It becomes clear through the narrative & focus of this book that talent spotting is a passion for both authors. Although there is plenty of research evidence shared (especially from Scandinavian studies), this is not just an academic exercise. Like becomes clear in the last chapter of this book, this is a cause for Tyler & Daniel.

What have I taken from this book that I think could be useful for other data leaders? First, that we should not be lazy about recruitment. Evidence shared in this book will convince you to not rely on popular interview questions or just supplementing that with tests & a presentation. More care is needed. For those who are still persuaded that an interview can work (perhaps in a non work location), the book also ends with some great new interview questions. In short get them to tell you stories that reveal what they are really like outside office norms.

But I think the most important parts of this book for data & analytics leaders are the chapters on bias & why you are missing good candidates. The authors really help you notice why a neurodiverse person or a woman or someone from a different culture might not appear as strong if you aren’t more careful. There are useful techniques to try in both adjusting your manner & asking different questions. I would also recommend the penultimate chapter of scouting. They bring to life what we can learn from the world’s of fashion, sports & gambling. Data leaders will be encouraged to invest in their networks & communities to help discover & nurture talent.

What did you disagree with & do you still recommend this?

The diligent reader will recall that I mentioned near the beginning that I disagreed with the authors at times. When was this? Broadly around the topic of boundaries, work life balance & healthy use of digital communication. On these topics the preferences of the authors make clear their Silicon Valley mindset. Their search for talent prioritises people who respond quickly online, have lots of browser tabs open & let their passion to constantly improve take up lost of their personal time. I’m not saying the authors are definitely wrong. I am saying there is a need for balance & the consideration of wellbeing to avoid burnout too. I recommend they read some Cal Newport and reconsider.

But, even with that caveat, yes I would recommend this book. HR and recruitment can be dull subject full of too many trite answers and mindless processes. This book does the whole leadership community a service by getting us to think more carefully. I challenge you to try reading this book & not to spot a mistake that you are currently making. I think all data leaders could be wiser in their talent hunts as a result of these perspectives.

So, thank you Daniel & Tyler. I might favour a more balanced life & attitude from my candidates, but you are evidenced based and have helped me think more carefully about this topic. What greater commendation could a business book get. I hope it helps you win in your Talent Wars.