The one question you should (but probably won’t) ask a dream candidate (review of Talent by Tyler Cowen & Daniel Gross)

You just hit the jackpot and can’t believe your luck.

You’re interviewing a dream candidate who’s knocking it out of the park and checking every box when it comes to experience and education.

You’re ready to make an outsized job offer that’ll be impossible to refuse.

You may want to check in first with Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross. They could save you from making an offer you’ll regret as your dream candidate turns into a nightmare.

Cowen is an economist and Gross is a venture capitalist. Together, they’ve studied the art and science of finding top talent.

They’d start by reminding you that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are.

They’d also want to know why someone as educated, experienced and accomplished as your dream candidate wants to work for you and your organization.

If you’re the industry leader and the best at what you do, the answer’s obvious. 

“It is different if you are from the middle or bottom tiers of your sector,” say the authors of Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World.

“In that case, not everyone will want to work with you, and perhaps most people won’t want to work with you, as they will be hoping for something better, whether realistically or not.

“If you are in this position, as many of us are, you need to think especially carefully about what is wrong with the people you are trying to hire. Why aren’t they already working somewhere much better? Why are they talking to you at all?

“Maybe they are totally lacking in self-confidence, or their personalities will turn out to be poison, or they plan on leaving after a year and they are just using you in the meantime.”

Also beware of the highly credentialed and supremely talented who are forever moving from job to job in a restless, unhappy search. “They are good enough to keep on getting hired, but still, most of the time you should avoid them,” say Cowen and Gross.

And finally, Cowen and Gross would tell you that you’re looking for a good match and “not some supposed vision of candidate perfection.”

If you’re running a start-up, small business or non-profit, look for undervalued talent. You can’t afford to pay a premium for the candidates that everyone’s chasing.

“Large companies can afford to overbid for the ‘obvious’ talent, but if you are in a smaller institution you might not be in a comparable position. These days, the top talents are paid what they are worth, and so there is a much stronger incentive to find quality talent that has not yet been identified as such.”

Even though it’s 2022 and we shouldn’t need to be told, Cowen and Gross recommend hiring talented women, minorities and people with disabilities. “Disability is a complex concept, the label probably is a bad one, and apparent disabilities can be correlated with some really good hires. Keep an open mind.”

Your search for talent will run smoother if you flush out what Cowen and Gross call the kludge and sludge that build up in overly bureaucratic hiring processes. 

“Virtually all of you are familiar with the standard bureaucratic interview setup. A bunch of people show up in a room, armed with scripted questions (and answers), often bored by the process and hoping for the best; they are trying to find someone who seems ‘good enough’ and capable of commanding consensus by being decent but most of all sufficiently unobjectionable.”

That decent and unobjectionable candidate likely lacks the creative spark needed to take your organization to a better place.

By delving into the research, Cowen and Gross will get you thinking in new ways about intelligence and personality and what to look for in potential new hires.

There’s also lots of practical advice. What to ask better interview questions? Try these. What are the open tabs on your internet browser? And how do you spend your time away from work. Studies show that our true personality’s revealed by what we do and don’t do during weekends and downtime.

Before making a job offer you might regret, let Cowen and Gross help you do a better job of finding overlooked and undervalued talent.

Jay Robb is the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and spends his weekends reviewing business books for the Hamilton Spectator.