Interview: George Anders

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George Anders is a New York Times-bestselling author and a journalist with three decades of experience writing for national publications. He started his career at The Wall Street Journal, where he became a top feature writer specializing in in-depth profiles. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for national reporting. He also has served as West Coast bureau chief for Fast Company magazine and as a founding member of the Bloomberg View board of editors. His work has appeared in leading publications worldwide, including The New York Times, BusinessWeek, The Guardian and the Harvard Business Review. In January 2012, he joined Forbes as a contributing writer.  A graduate of Stanford University, George lives in northern California.

If you want to know how to find rare talent, then you have to read his book The Rare Find. I loved it and have quoted from it in my forthcoming book on hiring. He has spoken about the jagged resume – a concept that I find extremely insightful as a HR person.

My book is also about how to hire people in senior leadership positions. It called DO NOT Hire The Best and should be in the stores by September 2012. I met George when I was in US last month.

Abhijit: How would you like to be introduced to my readers? A lot of them read your columns.  But beyond that what are you like as a person?

George Anders: Relentlessly curious, and generally cheerful. I always try to be sure that by the time I go to bed, I’ve learned something interesting that I didn’t know at daybreak. Often that’s business knowledge: how Amazon.com connects with customers … what made the Bloomberg terminal successful in its early years … how many properties in London are owned by Lakshmi Mittal … that sort of thing.) But I’m willing to explore (at least briefly) almost any new field that comes into view.

Abhijit: What are your early influences in writing?

George Anders: I’ve read a great deal from boyhood days onward. Not always wisely — but voraciously! I read a lot of Dostoevsky at university, as well as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” Milton Freedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom,” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.” (It was the 1970s, after all.) As an adult, my spare-time reading has included biographies of the great (Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Nikita Khrushchev) as well as the offbeat (chess player Viktor Korchnoi, pianist Glenn Gould, mathematician John Nash, mountaineer Maurice Herzog and teacher Wendy Kopp.) Among business books, my favorites have been Jim Collins’s “Good to Great,” Roger Lowenstein’s study of Warren Buffett, and Dan Pink’s “Drive.”

 

Abhijit: One book that you wish you had written.

George Anders: About 10 years ago, I sketched out a playful children’s book called “Good Night Modem,” in which two busy parents shut down their home office and finally put their children to bed. But I never made a serious effort to get it published. The moment has passed. Still, I wish I’d had the focus needed to get that one in print. In terms of pure admiration of another writer’s craft, I’d salute Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine.” It’s a 1982 book about pioneers building the most advanced computer of their time — and even though technology has raced ridiculously farther ahead since then, the way he captured the fundamental struggle to be creative on the frontier is a story that stands the test of time very, very well.

Abhijit: Now on to the book of yours that came across while researching the subject of hiring – The Rare Find. Why is hiring the right person so difficult?

George Anders: Good hiring shouldn’t be difficult — but human nature often tugs leaders and hiring managers in the wrong direction. The most common error is to look for candidates who sound impressive in the interview room, without making much of an effort to gauge the actual skills, motivation and character traits necessary to be successful on the job. Whether it’s in the United States or India, there’s a tendency to favor people who are smooth conversationalists, confident and neatly presented. There’s nothing wrong with those traits — but they aren’t the main event. To wit:

+ In technical fields, socially awkward people with great domain expertise and great motivation get short-changed. They don’t make it past early screening, in favor of someone who seems much more polished but may not be nearly as hard-working or savvy.

+ In sales jobs, you need to make sure that you’re hiring someone who will be willing to do the hard work to sell YOUR product — not someone whose greatest skill is selling himself or herself. This is a blunder that gets repeated somewhere in the world almost every time that a second hand ticks forward on a watch. Companies keep hiring supposed sales stars who don’t really want to do the hard work of learning the territory, treating customers well, getting up to speed on the products, building teams, etc.

+ In general management, team-building skills (or lack of them) can be completely overlooked. Great leaders are firm but fair. They rally subordinates, customers, regulators, etc. to their point of view without  using more force than necessary. A careful look at someone’s work history and references can establish who is good at this and who isn’t. In a social interview, though, it’s much harder to tell. That’s why companies end up hiring the infamous “leaders without any followers.”


Abhijit: Your book The Rare Find talks about reading the resume from the last page to the first to discover people who have a “Jagged Resume”.

George Anders: Yes. This is an intriguing technique popularized by Google. The idea is that often, the most important differences among candidates will not be at the top of the resume/CV. You’ll be looking at a large pool of people who went to good universities, got good marks, and have at least some amount of good experience. Trying to spot relatively small differences within these mainstream markers — and hire the candidates who appear 97% perfect instead of those who are 96% perfect — may not be a wise way of doing your final sorting.

Look at candidates’ peripheral experience, instead, to see who has great tenacity, ingenuity, creativity, etc. that has been expressed outside the workplace so far — but could be harnessed on the job. When I was at Google last year, they were intrigued by a resume from someone who had run the 1,000-mile Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska four times. That’s a very hard race. Very few people do it once. Someone who did it four times has a stubbornness and a focus that is quite remarkable. You wouldn’t hire such a person if they didn’t have the right technical degrees, credentials, etc. But someone who was 94th percentile in work, with that extra background, might be a more promising candidate than someone with a 96th percentile ranking on mainstream measures and no other signs of standout dedication.

Abhijit:  When you do hire someone with a “jagged resume”, what should organizations do to ensure that these new hires survive and thrive in the new environment.

George Anders: Excellent topic to think about. It’s bad for everyone if your boldest hires don’t find good homes within your organization. Here are a few thoughts: Try putting such people on small, experimental projects where the risks of failure are modest and the best path to success isn’t obvious. Make the most of their creativity and ability to think differently. (Don’t put them at the controls of the nuclear power plant, where a single mistake could be catastrophic and you have no use for “creative” approaches.) Also, try pairing them up with a seasoned mentor who can help them sort out your culture and make sure they don’t get discouraged if there are minor adjustments that need to be made in the course of settling in.

Abhijit: When a company hires thousands of people every year, what methods will help them find the rare talent? Or is this model limited to hiring in smaller numbers?

George Anders: Big companies can still hire very effectively if they give hiring managers discretion, every now and then, to approach the candidate pool with imagination instead of with rigid formulas. I was very impressed when Wal-Mart, in the U.S., started hiring returning Army captains to become new store managers. Being a mid-level leader in wartime is quite different from keeping the shelves stocked and the employees’ schedules right in an American store. But both jobs require first-rate planning, relentless prioritizing and strong time management. Young Army officers with those strengths could resettle into seemingly different — but actually quite similar — corporate jobs with a high level of success.

Abhijit:  And now the sequel talks about how people can “become a rare find”. What are three things people can do at the start of their career to achieve success with a jagged resume?

George Anders: In “Becoming a Rare Find,” I recommend several steps for people with jagged resumes, so that they don’t get lost in the crowd, especially when competing for prized, highly competitive jobs. The first is to get to know the “hidden” job market, where positions are filled without ever being officially posted to the wide world. I believe this is important in both the U.S. and in India. Identify the organizations where you would like to work. Get to know people who have ties into such organizations. You don’t need to be the chairman’s nephew to have a path in. There will be graduates of your university or high school who are working there. There will be consultants, suppliers, even clerks and delivery people who can let you know when openings are arising. Take time to put those connections to work.

Second, be willing to work for a small, ambitious company that could become a future giant. Not everyone who wants to work for Google or Wipro will end up there. But even such famous companies started small. At small organizations, you will have a chance  to do a great deal early on. Then you can leverage that experience to a bigger company if you still feel that is what you want to do.

Finally, learn how to make social media work for you. Build up a presence on Twitter, YouTube and other sites that shows your skills in action. If hiring managers are going to “Google you,” take some time to ensure that what they find speaks well to what you can do in the workplace.

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Read George Anders column in Forbes magazine <click here>

Comments

  1. This was an interesting read. The lookout for jagged resume’s as well as the tip around the “hidden” job market were good takeaways :)

  2. Very good insights.

    Often-most people tend to ‘conform’ while hiring -at any level- as it is safer to!

    It is ironical that most exercises -are based on ‘rejecting’ folks ..rather than ‘selecting’ the right one!

    It would be interesting to do an occasional audit (no,just the ROI of the hire)..of tracking those ‘close matches who didnt make the final list’ !! The opportunity cost lost thus..can be unnerving.

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