Learning how to identify top talent is the key to making amazing hires in executive search. While it is pretty easy to tell who’s good while seated court-side in Madison Square Garden watching the New York Knicks play, it is not so easy for Chief Executive Officers seated in the C-suite. At senior-executive level, candidates start to resemble one another. They often share similar academic credentials and similar career trajectories. They all meet the basic qualifications or they would not have made it this far. However, to hire senior executive talent that is truly game-changing, you must somehow discern the difference between two seemingly identical candidates. To make the right hire, you must develop the ability to figure out which candidate will outperform the rest. You must increase your powers of observation.
A Musical Analogy
Early in my marriage, I discovered my husband Crispin Cioe seated on the floor of the living room, completely engrossed in sorting saxophone reeds into separate piles. He’d hold up a reed against the light to examine the grain, wet it in his mouth, position the reed atop his mouthpiece, aligning the tip of the reed with tip of the mouthpiece just so. Next, he’d encircle the reed and mouthpiece with the ligature, and tighten its screws. With the reed locked in place, he’d raise the mouthpiece and blow. After sounding the note, Crispin then would unscrew the ligature, remove the reed, and place it on one of three piles.
I witnessed Crispin repeat the reed testing sequence a good dozen — maybe two dozen — times. As I watched on, I became utterly fascinated. I could not figure out for the life of me what each separate group was for, so I asked. Pointing to the first pile, Crispin replied, “Oh, these are for practicing.” Pointing to the adjacent group he added, “These are for performing. ” He paused, and in a reverential tone added, “And these are for recording sessions.”
The reeds were all from the same box. They all looked identical. My husband was insisting on sorting the reeds into different piles when there appeared to be absolutely no difference at all. Of course, the thought crossed my mind that I may have just married a man who had come unhinged. And so I sat down on the floor beside him and said, “Help me hear the difference.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the bleating and honking sounds that had been indistinguishable. The practice reed dutifully sounded a note when it vibrated. Yet when Crispin blew the same note on a performance reed, the note filled the room. It was not louder, but bigger. The very shape of the sound had morphed. Then when Crispin tested the recording reed, the note went some other place entirely. It transcended.
I frequently think of that day when I recruit senior executives. Exceptional talent transcends. Clearly, those that are counted among the best are gifted. But they achieve greatness by showing up and working hard in the relentless pursuit of excellence. The nuances that separate the extraordinary from the ordinary are often subtle, but there are patterns that in time you will come to recognize. Being fully present. Focusing. Listening. Doing those three things teaches you pattern recognition. It is how you identify top talent.
I learned that lesson purely by accident when my ability to recognize top performers took a quantum leap after I started attending a yoga class each day. The class devoted the last fifteen minutes to meditation. When you practice mindfulness you become capable of separating the signal from the noise. Paying attention to what matters enables you to identify top talent. You make connections and recognize patterns you previously would have missed. So quiet your mind: the answer will be revealed.