How To Find Top Talent Before They're Stars

You always strive to hire top talent. Here's how to make them want to work for you.
Co-Founder, Brazen Careerist
July 11, 2011

Everyone wants to hire stars. But stars are very particular about the opportunities they take. After all, if you can be choosy, you should be.

So the question is, how do you get star performers if you aren’t hiring for a dream job? The answer is, you go for the people who don’t yet know they are stars. My last company was a career management company for young people. So I found myself counseling tons of young people on how to launch a career, and tons of companies on how to hire these people.

What I ended up with is a nose for who will be great and who won’t.  Today, my company, Brazen Careerist, is run by a guy I partnered with when he was just a year out of school. When I met him, our fights were mostly about me thinking he’s immature. After three years of working together our fights got really interesting because he was my equal. (There’s an extra piece of advice: you can judge your workers by how well they fight with you.)

Since then, I’ve launched many other projects with the help of young people with no work experience to speak of. I could just tell they would be great. And after 10 years of being completely entrenched in the just-out-of-college workforce, I’m usually right. (In fact, here’s the twentysomething living at my house right now, working on a new business idea I have.)

You can do this too—trust me, your business will go in new, unexpected places faster than you ever imagined. So, here are five ways to identify star performers at a stage in their career when they are easy to hire: the beginning.

1. Look for a mediocre student

Impeccable pedigree at an early age means one of two things: Great at school or overly privileged rich kid. Either is bad for a hiring manager. The rich kid will do best when their parents buy them a company to run. (Yes, parents are really doing this. And you might suggest this gift, in fact, as a way to get the parent to be a future client or investor.) The great students spend their 20s in complete shock and indignation that school rewards rule followers but work does not. Life is not fair.  Some mediocre students have a sixth sense about what matters and what doesn’t and they are about to kick into really high gear when it’s about salary and not grades. Find a kid like this.

2. Find someone who reads—quantity rather than quality

It doesn’t matter what they read. But unproven hotshots spend a lot of time reading because they have a natural curiosity and level of engagement. It’s true that not everyone is a reader, but this is an odds game, and you make your odds of finding a diamond in the rough a lot better by focusing only on readers. They can read comics, car specifications, Garden & Gun magazine. It doesn’t matter what insane stuff they read. They just need to read. (Also, question your ability to judge someone’s reading pile. I subscribed to Garden & Gun because the name looked too dumb to be true, and the magazine totally rocks.)

3. Check their Myers Briggs score

You can only be a star in a field that matches up with your Myers Briggs score. (You can check out your own Myers Briggs score here.) An ENTJ, for example, absolutely has to lead. There is no way around it. There are no ENTJs who are hotshot designers. And an INFP can’t manage other people—when it comes to managing corporate goals and mediating other peoples’ interpersonal issues, an INFP would rather kill himself.

4. Be a counselor and a mentor

Often, young people feel lost because the world is not what they expected. For example, everyone in their family is a doctor or lawyer and they are a writer. But they won’t admit it because their family would not like it. This type of person is looking for someone to guide them through unchartered territory. If you can guide that person, you can get the kind of work out of them that no one else can. At the beginning of one’s career, working for someone who genuinely cares about career development can make an otherwise so-so job a dream job.

5. Force huge failure fast

Give the person huge responsibility. Find out if they balk. If they don’t balk, they will fail. Failure doesn’t matter because you are there to clean up after them. It’s part of the investment you will make in them. But you need to be able to judge failure: Did the person ask tons of questions while they were messing up? Questions are important, even if the questions were the wrong ones to ask. Most people can’t even think of bad questions. Also, do they want to try again? People who are destined for huge success find failure fascinating as a learning process.

And this, by the way, should be true about you. The best way to find hotshots is to guess wrong a lot of times. It takes having patience with yourself. But like all failure, it’s worth it, because it comes right before grand success. And the excitement of finding a star performer before anyone else has is incredibly rewarding, and thrilling to watch unfold.