Judging talent: Exceptionalism

The most important leadership skill is, clearly, the ability to make great people decisions, to put people in the right seats and to rigorously take them off the bus when you have to.

Jim Collins during a Charlie Rose interview

CEOs should be good judges of talent

Photo Credit: Victor1558 via Compfight cc

I agree that selecting the right personnel is one of the most important responsibilities of a CEO. CEOs should be personally involved in recruiting and hiring the best talent, because this more than anything else gives an organization a competitive advantage.

But how do you judge real talent? I have already discussed on this blog how to gauge creative initiative in job candidates. There are three other traits that I look for in every candidate I hire: exceptionalism, motivation, and value.

Unfortunately, many people equate talent with job knowledge. Knowledge is not particularly important in many jobs: People hire knowledge when they want someone to come in and get the job done without a lot of coaching or bother on anyone else’s part. Knowledge can be taught. Talent is what is important.

Exceptionalism: Look for patterns of success

What I always look for in a candidate is something that tells me they are exceptional, or that they would be exceptional in their job. It’s something that tells me they will contribute a whole lot more to the company than just those skills needed to do the job at an acceptable level.

Woods at age 2 on The Mike Douglas Show. From ...

Woods at age 2 on The Mike Douglas Show. From left, Tiger Woods, Mike Douglas, Earl Woods and Bob Hope on October 6, 1978. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do you identify exceptionalism?  Well, people who are exceptional have a history of being exceptional. Tiger Woods showed exceptionalism at a young age and won three junior U.S. Opens before going on to professional greatness. He didn’t just show up on the golf course one day and start beating everybody. Look for patterns of exceptionalism in the person’s past.

Identifying exceptionalism in recent college graduates

If the candidate is a recent university graduate, you will probably discount his academic experience and ask, “Well, what job experience does he have?”  The exceptional candidates were exceptional in university. They were the captain of the swim team, won the speaking contest, or interned at Goldman Sachs. They became a star at whatever they tried.

Look for exceptional accomplishments even prior to college: They programmed robots at 16 years old or were the national gaming champ. When you see these kinds of things on a resume or you discover them during an interview, you may not know how this has anything to do with your company, but you know the candidate is exceptional.

Exceptional people apply their skills to all facets of their life


Florida Ironman Triathlon 2010 Photo Credit: TimothyJ via Compfight cc

Somebody who has learned how to be really good at one thing knows how to transfer those skills into being really good at something else. That is the point. My wife is a competitive triathlete. She is swimming now, because her basic strategy has always been, don’t drown and make up your time in the bike and the run.  And so she’s been training with all these master swimmers and told me, “God, all these people are VPs and CEOs.”

Think about it. I mean, if you’re 45 years old and you are out there in the pool an hour every day being one of the best in the country at swimming, you’ve got some discipline.  You probably honed those skills while in school, so you doubtless also had access to a good education. And if you’ve got education and discipline, you’re probably going to be pretty good at what you do, right?

Discover their story

Exceptional people demonstrate the fact that they are exceptional over and over again. So always look for that on the resume and during the interview: What story can they tell you? What have they done to convince you that they are exceptional? Always look for people who are the best at whatever they do. They will apply those skills to your organization in kind.

In my next post, I’ll cover what I mean by motivation and value as two other essential traits.

Related article:

The 5 Traits All Top Performers Share (Fast Company)

Why It’s Wise to Hire People Smarter Than You (Inc.)


  1. I agree with what you’ve outlined about exceptional people. I’d like to add that people’s “exceptionality” is most observable when they are in environments that foster their strengths. I have worked with exceptional people who didn’t realize they were exceptional until I or others helped them become aware of their skills/strengths.

    Also, many people I know (including myself) have sometimes themselves in situations that don’t bring out the best in them because they find themselves dealing with unexpected politics, bad timing/luck, or in a place without thoughtful leadership. It would be interesting to know how many people out there are exceptional, but they aren’t aware of it and/or they haven’t lucked upon an environment/mentor that helps them see it.

    One of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.”

  2. Wonderful insights Aruni! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the notable Einstein quote! I’ll be writing more about the strengths-based management approach I’ve used in my companies and how that helps employees hone their exceptional talents.



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