Searching for the Perfect Employee

The talent market is a highly inefficient market. By promoting better alignment between supply and demand forces, employers, job seekers, and the overall economy stand to gain.

It is first important to create a distinction between the talent market and the labor market. Talent, in contrast to labor, is highly skilled, differentiated, and portable. It is talent, not labor, that generate the ideas that fuel the engine of growth and innovation.

Talent market inefficiency is fundamentally a demand -- or employer -- side issue. And it's an issue that starts at the point at which an employer determines a need for talent.

In my experience, many hiring managers lack a fundamental understanding of the role they are hiring for. They recognize a need for help, but they struggle to understand the details of the functions that role will perform. This does not mean that every hiring manager must grow through the ranks and have once performed the role they are hiring for, but they should at least demonstrate a capability to identify what they don't know, and a willingness to close that knowledge gap.

Even if a hiring manager is spot-on when it comes to understanding the work to be done by a role, many struggle to view people as they are - a complex web of emotions, capabilities, ambitions, potential, to add to already over-weighted elements of education, experience, and skills.

The existing research dismantling the common HR focus on education, experience, and skills is dense, and so I won't pay much attention to it here other than to acknowledge that it exists, and it is compelling.

Let's instead turn to emotions, capabilities, potential, and ambition. In my mind, perhaps the most important component is human emotions. It holds this position in my mind because of its ability to impact the other three components. Elliot Jacques' in his work on requisite organizations spoke at length about the power of "-t", or temperament, and its ability to eat away at human effectiveness.

Capabilities can relate to both intrinsic and learned elements. I imagine human performance and excellence can be distilled down to some near-universal list, and that should include elements from how an individual approaches a complex problem, to how they manage systems and processes, and more. Analyzing capabilities enables hiring managers to spot a round peg for their round hole, when others might see a square peg.

Focusing on capabilities is also important because it forces the conversation to be about what an individual can achieve in a broad sense -- their potential -- not just about whether they are a fit for the immediate role they are being assessed for.

When it comes to ambition, there's no greater role model for this point than Michael Jordan. Phil Jackson remarked that Jordan's two greatest weaknesses early in his career were his shooting ability and his guarding on defense. With time, Jordan not only turned these into strengths, but he became one of the most accomplished shooters, and clutch defenders, in the history of the NBA. We've all worked alongside individuals of ordinary makeup who achieved extraordinary things, and they often do so because of an unrelenting drive that keeps them singularly focused on their goals.

If you read around the talent literature, there's not much unique in what I've offered so far. Many of the most admired companies in the world, and many start-ups who will one day enter those ranks, support these and other principles around talent. Yet, these principles are not widespread.

The fundamental challenge that has limited the spread of these ideas to most companies is the threat posed by meritocracy. Bureaucracies, common and awful, protect the status quo and its mediocre (at best) baggage. Individuals within these organizations often claim that they fear distilling individuals down to a series of numbers and assessments. Yet they are missing the more fundamental point. More data, triangulated from more sources, and appropriately curated, can only bring us all closer to the true picture of what an individual is capable of. Those who fear it, in fact, have something to fear.

Fortunately, these conservative voices will very possibly soon be resigned to insignificance. The war for talent is no stalemate. Forward thinking employers continue to rack up victories in part by expertly identifying and matching talent. Employers left behind will be forced to catch up or fade away. A nascent market has emerged among several start-ups who are trying to solve this problem, but no front-runners have emerged. When one does, it could be a game-changer that touches us all.