Be Your Own Talent Scout

Douglas R. Conant

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Douglas R. Conant for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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How do you go about finding the right candidate for a job?

If you are like most people, you look around for the right internal candidate. If that doesn’t work out, then you conduct an outside search. To do this, you go fishing — placing ads and hiring recruiters, and then seeing what lands in your net. You might find a few competent candidates this way, but odds are you certainly won’t get the real talent you need.

By “talent,” I mean three things.

Competence, of course, is critical — the candidate must be able to do required tasks well. But equally important is character, by which I mean solid ethics and especially the ability to inspire trust. And he or she must play demonstrably well with others on the team. I’ve learned that if a person doesn’t have all three of those characteristics in spades, it becomes very difficult to do my job, and for others to do theirs.

Finding people with the right combination of competence, character and team skills isn’t easy, of course, even if you conduct a long, carefully-orchestrated search. To find these people, you have to develop a long-term, very consistent strategy. Here are some things that have worked very well for me:

Network, network, network. When I lost my job 25 years ago and began building my network, I began to be aware of all kinds of talented people working in different fields. Then I went to work for Nabisco following the Barbarians at the Gate leveraged buyout fiasco, and had to help rebuild the company. So I began a practice I’ve kept up to this day.

Every month, I have dinner with two of the top people in any field — finance, marketing, I.T., general management, human resources, supply chain, you name it — that I have heard about through our recruiters or by word of mouth. Over dinner, I ask them to tell me about their work. Over the years I’ve met with 400 of the best people anywhere, and have developed a good visceral understanding of the talent landscape. Of these, perhaps 50 have had the combination of qualities I look for, and over time I’ve been able to hire some of them. I have kept up this practice even when there have been no jobs to fill, because I learn a great deal every time I meet someone new.

[Note: Few of us have access to “the top people in any field.” However, most of us can establish contact and then build a relationship with people in key positions such as the membership director (rather than CEO) at a local chamber of commerce or the bartender of the best local restaurant. Each of your best contacts should have far more contacts than you do. Also, remember that the key to networking success is not who you know but who knows you.]

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In the end, getting the right people on the bus, as Jim Collins puts it, is probably the most important thing a top manager can do. And when you have them on the bus, it’s amazing what your company can do.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Douglas R. Conant is President and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company headquartered in Camden, New Jersey. He is the co-author, with Mette Norgaard, of Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass, May 2011).

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