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Hire the Athlete, Train the Sport: Hiring for Potential

When you set out to fill an open position, you naturally begin a sort of mental wish list. There are, of course, the absolute must-haves like special skills knowledge, availability, or compensation requirements, but after that comes the (usually lengthy) list of desired qualifications you would prefer a candidate to have. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been charged with hiring will be quick to agree, it is incredibly rare that you can hit every item on the list in a single candidate. For this reason, the ability to prioritize your needs is vital. If you can’t determine which qualifications are requisite and which you can make concessions on, then you could be allowing a ton of great talent to slip through the cracks while holding out for a candidate who doesn’t exist.

            These non-existent candidates are often referred to by recruiters as “purple squirrels.” They represent the hypothetical idea of a perfect candidate. There is nothing wrong with having deal breakers or requirements in your hiring process, but you begin to hamper your ability to attract top talent when you narrow your search too much. The War for Talent rages on, and intelligent, ambitious candidates won’t stay on the market forever. If you’re allowing these potential employees to get away simply because they are lacking some of the less critical qualifications on your wish list, you can be sure that your competitors are scooping them up and developing them into fantastic employees. The key to making the most out of hiring isn’t filtering your candidate pool to a select few who possess certain skills, it’s finding the most capable and eager employees and figuring out how to best utilize them. Many skills, both soft and technical alike, can be trained or taught. Ambition, intelligence, and cultural fit, however, are something a candidate must bring to the table themselves.

            If you have too often found yourself thinking, “I wish we could do something with them” as you let a good candidate walk out of the door because they didn’t check every box on your list, you have likely done yourself and your organization a great disservice. Clearly, you won’t be able to hire every sharp person who walks through your door but don’t dismiss a talent out of hand just because they haven’t had an opportunity to learn a certain skill or to have a particular experience.

In sports, you’re better served teaching a gifted athlete to play a specific sport than you are trying to play a sub-par athlete who already happens to know the game. Hiring is no different. If there is a chance to hire a true talent – even one who might take a little development or training – you should take it. Even if it means passing up a “plug and play” candidate who is perfectly adequate in favor of a rock star who needs some investment and development, hiring the high-potential talent should be your priority. If you’re hiring someone just to do a job, and not because of their potential, then you are missing out on finding the very best talent. In a word: you should hire the athlete and train the sport.


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