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The Jagged Resume


The Third Question

The Jagged Resume

He double-majored in math and molecular biology in college, yet he ended up with a weird amalgam of As and Fs on his transcript. Now he isn’t sure what to do after college. Would you hire him?

The world is sprinkled with job candidates who show up with a tantalizing, jarring combination of promises and pitfalls. Parts of their resumes sparkle with fascinating strengths. And yet there are flaws. They are people with jagged resumes – and most organizations don’t know how to respond.

Chapter 3 of The Rare Find shows how to decode such resumes. It begins with the talent-scouting methods of David Evans, a legendary computer-science pioneer at the University of Utah. His graduate students went on to co-found world-famous companies such as Pixar Studios, Adobe and Netscape. All of those future pioneers caught Evans’s eye in spite of highly erratic paths in their teens and early twenties.

One of the biggest successes was Alan Kay, the math and bio major with the erratic transcript. (He also dabbled in anthropology, English and a side career as a jazz musician.) A decade after his time with Evans, Kay achieved enduring fame as one of the top developers of Apple’s first Macintosh computers.

Making the right decision about such job candidates comes down to three simple rules, as follows:

* Compromise on experience; don’t compromise on character. The best talent assessors look for people’s potential to rise beyond what they have done to date. At Utah, Evans wanted people whose bright minds and constant hunger to be working on the frontiers of knowledge could make them stand out in fast-growing new fields.

* Use your own career as a template.  How do you know what common “requirements” aren’t really that important for later success – and what overlooked strengths may turn out to be crucial? In fields ranging from music to medicine, the key insights often can be drawn from what we have seen in our own careers.

* Rely on auditions to see why people achieve the results they do. Why tries hard? Who works well with others? Who recovers quickly from a setback? Conversely, who turns brittle under pressure? Who ultimately doesn’t care? When great assessors watch a candidate in action, they aren’t just looking for a momentary flash of brilliance. They are hunting for dozens of small clues that show how and why someone succeeds.


Can you recover from setbacks?

That fundamental skill, more than almost anything else, is what separates people who surpass expectations from those who disappoint. Organizations as diverse as U.S. Army Special Forces, Teach For America, and Wall Street’s top hedge funds all gain an edge by focusing on resilience when they size up talent.

Yet our societal attitudes toward resilience are tangled as can be. When crises are long past, we celebrate the ability to bounce back. Yet when life is playing out in real time, continued  there’s no room for even a whisper of anxiety about setbacks along the way. Traditional résumés are set up so that resilience becomes invisible.

To find out – right away – who can cope with failure, the U.S. Army runs an ingenious test in the midst of selecting soldiers for its elite Special Forces teams. The method is known as the Log Drill. Small groups of candidates raise and lower a 1,200-pound telephone pole according to a sergeant’s shouted commands. Candidates pause periodically to attempt some pushups and leg lifts in the mud. Nobody gets it right. The strongest soldiers struggle to do mediocre work. The weaker ones perform miserably.

The keepers make it to the end anyway.  They endure the pain and embarrassment of constant small failures, unwilling to give up.  Afterward, I ask some soldiers how they did it. All the finishers say they recognized theexercise as a mental challenge and found some way to bolster their spirits. “I’ve done worse than this” is a common refrain. “This sucks so bad that it’s humorous” is another.

Some soldiers talk bluntly about identifying a weaker candidate, vowing to outlast the other guy no matter how bad things get. Most candidates come to the Special Forces wanting to be surrounded by other soldiers who care as much as they do. As attrition sets in, the soldiers who survive take pride in uniting as a new group of winners. They earn the right to be in the brotherhood

The Third Question

What makes for a great CEO? Many people’s lists are all about showcase virtues such as charisma, vision and strategic thinking. As valuable as those can be, they aren’t the whole story. When I asked some top executive recruiters what they look for, they spoke at length about a second set of hidden, everyday virtues.

Efficiency is on the list. So is self-reliance. And so is an ability to “read the room,” when people with different interests are crammed together for a meeting or a negotiation. Such everyday strengths can’t be gauged in a single, dazzling moment. It takes time to draw them out. But it can be done. Here’s how:

Spotting clues about a CEO candidate’s everyday capabilities can come down to something as simple as having the nerve to ask “the third question,” says Thomas J. Friel, former chairman of the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles. As Friel points out, most boardroom discussions start at a high level of abstraction and generalities. It’s hard to tell much from the first question- and- answer
exchange on any topic. Even the initial follow-up question may dono more than scratch the surface.

Only when a questioner has the temerity to ask a third question do problems come out into the open. Likewise, it’s the third question that clarifi es the exact nature of success and its contributors. “It’s hard for directors to ask that third question,” Friel says. “Everything in the boardroom is set up so that one person isn’t supposed to monopolize the conversation.” If everyone talks a little bit, and
no one presses too far on any key issue, breakthroughs are rare. An hour- long meeting with a candidate can become not much more than
a festival of “hellos” and minor social bonding.

George Anders • 228 Lorton Avenue, Suite 6 • Burlingame CA 94010 • email