The Holy Grail: Finding the Right Talent

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

We get so hung up on generational labels: Baby Boomers; Gen X; Gen Y; and now Gen Z. As a result, we ascribe certain characteristics or behaviors to each one – whether fair or not. Adherence to the labels can cause a hiring manager or an executive to overlook the contributions each cohort can make to an organization. Potential stars are overlooked and the usual reliance on outdated search approaches continues unabated.

Those who can provide valuable insight that transforms into top performance should not be subject to inherent biases. All you need to know is that they—

  • Have the smarts to perform the functions of a particular position.
  • Have the motivation and drive to do the job well.
  • Exercise the traits of integrity and trust.
  • Know how to work in a respectful and collaborative manner.
  • Function with the mindset of what is best for the company.

Whether a CEO or a manager, you can always look back and remember whether it was a boss, peer or subordinate who possessed these traits. And it did not matter to what generation they belonged. What mattered is that these traits were used as elements of a tool for identifying and assessing top talent.

A New Model for Talent Assessment

In today’s competitive market for talent, senior management is tasked with filling positions with people who can further the mission and goals of the company. Despite all the critical financial, operational and strategic decisions a leader must make, selecting talent offers the least in guidance. It is certainly not intuitive and involves a thought process that is very rarely used.

Think about it. You have to fill a mid-level position; one that may be a few rungs lower on a ladder that can lead to the C-Suite. The usual thinking is to frame your search to attract those whose thinking, work style, personality and approach to decision making are aligned with yours. Often times this can solve the job search. Other times, there will be a need to attract those whose thinking, while not in alignment with yours, can certainly be complementary and leveraged for the right purposes.

Consider the issue of personality. You make be an extroverted leader who enjoys stimulating and thought-provoking conversations. Well, the finance person you are looking for may not share the same traits, but it is okay if an immediate connection is not made. On the other hand, you may meet someone whose demeanor is a mirror image of yours, but who may lack some of your skills. This, too, is okay. A person’s behavior and personality is apparent immediately. The one unknown—which appears later—is the ability to do the job. You need a starting point to begin to form judgments about a candidate.

So What’s Talent?

Talent has three basic elements: 1) Aptitude to perform the role; 2) Appropriate behaviors important to become successful in the job; and 3) Required experience to excel in the position.

Aptitude, by definition, means a natural ability to do something and a suitability or fitness for something. This is normally evident in the ability to think strategically and speak in an articulate fashion. It may also include the ability to work with numbers (e.g., budget development, P&L analysis) if the position has a financial or operational responsibility. In fast-moving companies, change is the one constant. If learning and honing new skills is necessary to take on new roles, then you need to find people with such an aptitude. Otherwise nothing else matters.

Behavior has become more important as we read about work environments becoming more toxic. Morals and integrity are touchstones of proper behavior.

Experience is the easiest to detect early on. Besides the resume, you can assess this from a face-to-face meeting as well as from the opinions from references. A note of caution: prior positive performance is one thing; it is no guarantor of future success. Sometimes, experience can be underemphasized because of other factors; other times, it can be overemphasized to the detriment of other attributes.

Deliberate and Decide

During the course of a phone or in-person interview, another factor may come into play: attitude. External events, health, moods or other factors can have unintended consequences in how a person comes across to you in a discussion.

Attitude impacts the way the person thinks, feels and acts, and it can easily force you into a decision not to hire unless you can employ a deliberate approach to uncover hidden issues. Contrast this with the concept of aptitude. A litmus test is to consider whether harmful consequences will befall the person if he or she attempts to complete a task. If yes, it is an aptitude issue. However, if the person has done a similar task in the past but does not want to do it now, it is an attitude problem. In the middle is the situation where the individual has never done such a task at a certain level but demonstrates competence in a similar situation.  Providing the necessary training may be all that is required. Aptitude you can correct; a bad attitude may be corrected, especially if the person can envision the results of a negative ending.

Basically, you can’t coach someone to demonstrate a better attitude as evidenced by a strong drive, reliability, morals or ethics. Similarly, you can’t mentor an individual to gain more talent or intelligence. The person starts his or her first day with certain arrows in their quiver, so if you notice certain arrows missing, you must decide to work around the deficiencies or end the relationship before too much time has passed — both for you and the new hire.

If you notice your direct reports simply lack experience or certain behaviors, your coaching and the right kind of experience can make all the difference. If they have trouble with people skills, presentation and writing skills, managerial, or technical skills, you can provide the necessary training. Sometimes you can provide the guidance yourself, depending on the person’s level in relationship to yours. Other times, you can arrange training or experiences to develop the person. In most cases, if the person exhibits talent, you can be optimistic he or she will improve with the right training and experience, provided the talent to learn already exists.

No generation has a monopoly on talent.

Certainly, circumstances blend in a way to provide unique knowledge and experience for each generation (e.g., technology for the Millennials, leadership for the Baby Boomers), but true talent with its attendant elements is age- and generation-agnostic. Through the years, companies’ hiring had the goal of getting in the honest, talented, smart and driven people to fill roles.

Choosing people haphazardly because of urgent needs will cost you much more in the long run. As the senior leader who must decide on human assets, carefully consider (in equal measures) the elements of aptitude, behavior, and experience—not age or cohort— and you will effectively attract and retain the best people for your company as you continue to strive for long-term organizational success.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at