College News

How do you tell talent?

Two Top Search Consultants Speak from Experience

By Sherrie Gong Taguchi


Most people know it when they see it, but how can you tell talent more strategically—either in recruiting or spotting talent among employees in order to develop it? Two alumni have built remarkable careers around telling talent. Paul Reilly (MBA ‘78, ’76), chairman and CEO of Korn/Ferry International and Bob Reilly (MBA ‘79, ’77), chairman of Reilly Partners and former president of the fifth largest executive search firm, are respected leaders in their field. They were classmates and are long-time friends, but not relatives. From interviews with them, here are some insights and lessons learned.

Paul defines talent as “something that separates a good company from a great is someone with a mental or physical aptitude, but to be really must possess a host of skills, experiences, and attributes.” For example, Paul says, “you’ve got to admire Joe Montana not only for his talents as an athlete but also for his talents as a leader. It’s one thing to be able to rally a group of people around a goal, like Joe did in 1977 leading the Irish to the national title, but to reproduce that four times in the NFL is simply amazing.”

When recruiting talent, Bob likes to focus on three main areas: experience, cultural fit, and character. When assessing experience, Bob explores a person’s accomplishments as a team member or leader. “Titles and chronology of jobs are less important than the problems they solved or what they were able to get over the goal line.”

Cultural fit, although more difficult to define, is about “how well someone plays with others in the sandbox.” Bob assesses whether the candidate will fit with the company’s culture. After interviewing 500 candidates annually for many years, he has a keen sense of judgment. You’ll want to make sure you understand your organization’s true culture—not just what’s espoused. Listen to what candidates say about what kinds of groups or employers they’ve preferred or situations in which they’ve thrived. Also pay attention to what seems to be important to them. For example, if the candidate is concerned about where his or her office will be, having a reserved parking space or someone bringing him/her coffee and it’s a non-hierarchical company, that’s not a good cultural fit.

Getting a read on an individual’s character is more subjective. Bob suggests using open-ended questions that allow a candidate to touch on what’s really important to him or her. For example, you can ask the candidate things like: “tell me about yourself” or “why are you right for the job?” The candidate’s answer reveals a lot. What does the candidate bring up or emphasize—family, passions, hobbies, a religious issue, a charitable or philanthropic endeavor, overcoming a setback?

Both Bob and Paul view interviews like conversations. Ask what candidates have done, what they get excited about, what they are proud of, and what motivates them. During the interviewing process, Paul is looking for people who “exhibit integrity, credibility, demonstrated acumen, innovative thinking, passion, flexibility, leadership skills, background supporting and complementing the potential employer, a keen knowledge of the market and industry, and someone who is respected in the marketplace.”

Some of Bob’s favorite open-ended questions are:

• Walk me through your background; tell me about who you are.

• If you had a clean sheet of paper and could write out what you’ll be doing one year and three years from now, what would it be?

• Is this a job you can be successful in and why?

• Is there anything about this opportunity you don’t like and why?

Bob thinks a great candidate will be able to organize and articulate his/her thoughts to answer the question, and also to have the mental agility to ask the interviewer questions, some of which the interviewer may not be able to answer. Questions that show the candidate is prepared, enthusiastic about the opportunity, and doing his/her homework are good signs. A candidate, for example, may ask: “How’s the boss I’d be working for? What is her/his background? Tell me about some of the people who have developed successful careers in the company.” Bob also looks for the fine points that make a big impression. Does the candidate stand when you enter the room, make eye contact, offer a smile and a pleasant demeanor, or show humility?

Red flags include the candidate appearing desperate, frequently using a lot of the word “I” vs. “we,” or dressing inappropriately—something provocative or too casual, too much jewelry, perfume or cologne, etc. Paul says red flags also include: inconsistencies in what a candidate says—even little mistruths. Another is arrogance or a lack of integrity—any hint of not having openness or honesty.

Beyond recruiting talent into your organization, what about being able to identify talent already on your team or in your organization? From Paul’s experience, both as the top executive at Korn/Ferry and as former CEO of KPMG, he notes that achievers share some common skills, experiences, and attributes. “They understand what’s expected and deliver more; volunteer for projects and to be on teams; demonstrate a strategic vision for growth; have the ability to communicate vision; show leadership skills, integrity, and creative problem solving; foster team environments; and exhibit thought leadership.”

Unfortunately talented people can get lost in the shuffle once inside the organization. Different ways to identify and develop talent within include multi-faceted reviews, mentoring programs, and employing management assessment tools.

Paul advises to cultivate, mentor and train talent after identifying it. Encourage those employees, letting them know they have a long and bright future with the company. “You’ll often find people with talent being underutilized in a current area,” he said. “Take risks and move them around.”

The people that Bob says get promoted are usually “smart, hardworking, good people, team players, take a lot of initiative, and are good mentors of people around them.” For example, Bob had hired a chief technology officer for a leading technology company who, when he left the organization, had developed and mentored not only one but rather four potential successors. Truly, to spot, recruit and develop talent is a talent. It’s part art, science, intuition and skill that brings tangible rewards to your organization.

—Sherrie Gong Taguchi has served as Assistant Dean and Director of Career Services at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is Principal of Career Inspirations based in San Mateo, CA.

Sidebar: Telling Talent at Mendoza

Karen Dowd, the new senior director of Career Development for Mendoza’s MBA Program, is passionate about helping both students and companies understand the dynamics involved in making career and selection decisions. Dowd and her staff spend much of their time consulting one-on-one with MBA students seeking employment and with the employers seeking to hire them.

A common theme in all of these conversations is that of “right-fit” candidates. “Most companies come here to recruit ‘the best and the brightest,’” says Dowd. The reality is companies would be better off seeking those candidates whose personalities, work ethic, values, and background best fit the organization’s culture and the demands of the position.

To assist MBA students in their career planning and job search, the Career Development (CD) team offers a variety of tools such as a complete self-assessment process, a professional development course, alumni career panels, city treks to tour recruiting companies and network with ND alumni, mock interviews, resume critiques, and individual career strategy assistance.

To assist employers seeking ND MBAs (full-time and interns), the CD team coordinates a variety of activities including on-campus interviews, on-line job postings, video-conference interviews, just-in-time hiring assistance, career panels, customized resume books, and assistance with crafting job descriptions and talent requirements.


Copyright © 2005 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: May 27, 2005