Just as people like to think they're well above average when it comes driving or sex, so it is in business when it comes to spotting and hiring top talent. Of course, this is unlikely to be true but, while the attitude persists, hiring great people will too often remain a hit-or-miss affair, regardless of how much time or money is expended on the process. The risks are magnified in the case of senior and board-level appointments, as the downside of getting such critical hires wrong is much greater.
It doesn't have to be that way. Top professional talent-spotters know how to get under the skin of both recruiter and recruit, matching strengths and weaknesses and teasing out hidden depths on both sides. Here are a few of the talent trade's top hiring secrets.
Simplify your search
It's important to codify your approach. Too many hiring quests begin with such long - and contradictory - lists of desired traits that it is hard to keep any clear sense of priorities. Avoid generic 'must haves' and instead take the time to think through what the role really requires. Producing a short, well-focused list of attributes is far more likely to pay off.
Trust your own experience
There's a role for neutrality and dispassionate observation in some parts of the hiring process. But too little importance is often attached to the hard-won lessons that come from a career in the right industry. What skills do you need that you haven't got enough of? Where is the market going and what qualities will the coming generation of leaders require to get there? Don't just look for a junior copy of yourself: keep your eyes open for strengths that you have always admired but never enjoyed.
Are they smart enough?
Strategic vision and boardroom poise stand out straight away, but do the people with them have what it takes up top? The candidates who really impress are those who are able to connect the dots in a decision-making environment that isn't fully clear. They are able to see the impact of their decisions. They may or may not have IQs that put Nobel laureates to shame, but they have a pragmatic ability to reason through the day-to-day challenges of a senior executive's job without getting lost in the details or misreading a situation.
Make them think on their feet
Executive assessors at global recruitment firm Spencer Stuart have built up a sizable practice in Europe and the US in recent years by creating short scenarios in which candidates must figure out the best course of action - on the fly. Being in the midst of one of these simulations is a bit like returning an Andy Murray serve at Wimbledon. There's very little time to collect one's thoughts. The pressure is palpable. Fumble for a moment and the point is lost.
Yet for those candidates possessing sufficient mental agility, the exercise can be thrilling. Many of Spencer Stuart's scenarios involve long-simmering conflicts in corporate settings that demand clear resolution. The winning approach is seldom obvious: that's business. The candidates who can juggle these imaginary competing forces in their minds - and come up with a workable resolution - are ones who are more likely to make the right calls in the everyday give-and-take of business.
When interviewing, delve don't glide
Most interviews glide from topic to topic too quickly. They become good-natured hunts for social affinity, rather than probing quests for deep-seated strengths and flaws.
As Tom Friel, recently retired chairman of top headhunter Heidrick & Struggles, says: 'You don't learn much from the first question on any topic. You may not even learn very much from the second question.' Only by locking onto a subject and asking progressively more detailed questions does a clear sense of a candidate's character and track record emerge.
It's the third question, by Friel's tally, that is most likely to start yielding unscripted insights. So if you want to know which candidate can hold up well under media scrutiny or who can keep profits up as budgets tighten, the ability to keep probing past the smooth reassurances of an opening answer makes all the difference.
Don't fear the oddball
Smaller firms understand this better than large ones. They know they can't hire top university graduates by the hundreds, the way the big consultancy firms or City institutions can. It's necessary for them to look on the fringes, to find the not-so-obvious prospects that others overlook.
Consider the high-tech pioneers who developed the Netscape browser, the early Apple Macintosh computers, the Pixar movie studio and Adobe Corp's Acrobat and Photoshop software. All four individuals studied computer graphics at the relatively obscure University of Utah, and all had somewhat erratic prior work histories. But their professor, David Evans, was convinced that if he could find restless spirits who were looking to get to the frontiers of knowledge - in whatever field would have them - he would stand a better chance of happening on geniuses.
Time proved him right. Not only did he discover an extraordinary number in his own right; his proteges went on to apply the same methods in building their companies. When Pixar picked a down-on-his-luck Hollywood outcast, Brad Bird, to direct one of its most ambitious movies, The Incredibles, the animation studio took a chance that paid off richly. The Incredibles became one of the 50 most successful films of all time at the box office, while also winning fleets of awards for its creativity. If Pixar had played it safe, such success might never have happened.
Can they listen? Can you?
Too often in top business circles, listening is regarded as a weakling's trait. All the glory belongs to the presenters on brightly lit stages, projecting their ideas and energy onto an audience full of acolytes. Start seeing the world that way and new encounters become tinged with an unhelpful desire to dominate the conversation.
By contrast, aggressive listeners gain authority by being incredibly attentive to other people. These experts catch the gestures, pauses and inflections that hint at something beyond the words being said. Shrewd politicians know this. There's a saying in Washington - and probably in London, Paris, Delhi and Beijing too: 'The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he's not telling you.'
Listening isn't just a prime virtue in candidates - top-flight talent-spotters are also great listeners, combining persistence, patience and politeness as they keep probing for hidden insights.
In the boardroom, such skills can seem as rare and mysterious as an ability to speak with the dead. Little wonder, then, that directors often feel more comfortable asking outsiders to help, rather than trying to master these dark arts themselves.
Have the courage to ask: 'What can go right?'
There's always a downside to every decision, so it's never hard to think about what might go wrong. But it's the upside that has the potential to deliver real benefits, so try to focus on what might go right instead.
- George Anders is the author of The Rare Find: spotting exceptional talent before everyone else Portfolio Penguin £14.99
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