Everybody wants to work with the best of the best. Whether you are looking to sign on a superstar athlete, or you are looking to invest in the next billion-dollar-startup, or you are part of a corporate board in search of a CEO, you are not just looking for strong performers, you are searching for the most exceptional people. You are looking for the 1% of the 1%. Today, we don’t know how to identify the extremely rare and talented individuals who can move mountains.
If we knew how to identify exceptionals, the Portland Trail Blazers would not have drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Nor would Tom Brady have remained until the 6th round of the NFL draft, watching six quarterbacks being selected ahead of him. If we knew how to recognize exceptionals, a young Walt Disney would not have been fired for his “lack of imagination,” nor would scores of record labels have passed up the chance to sign Justin Bieber. If we knew how to identify exceptionals, Excite, the search engine of the 1990s, would not have walked away from an opportunity to buy Google for under a million dollars.
The difference between good and great is enormous. While the most exceptional corporate CEO’s have an average tenure of 17 years, the average S&P 500 CEO lasts for less than a third of that time. This is because boards, like everyone else, have a hard time judging extraordinary talent. Similarly, the most exceptional startups are worth billions, while the average startup barely survives a few years; because VC’s make the same mistakes over and over again. Personal opinions rule when there is no better way to evaluate potential.
Even when we have a wealth of performance data, we are not good at identifying the best performers. For example, the majority of receivers and running backs drafted in the 3rd to 7th rounds of the NFL draft have outperformed those selected in the first two rounds.
When you are investing millions of dollars into individuals and looking for game-changing results, you can’t afford to operate without a clear understanding of whether they have the potential to become exceptional. And without that understanding, the very people you are betting your organization on will be the reason you fail.
The common traits of the Exceptionals:
Being exceptional is multifaceted. It is a combination of innate skills, intense effort, and a set of enabling factors that make extreme success possible. There isn’t just one characteristic of Bill Gates that you can look for or copy to become as exceptional as him. Even Bill himself will be unable to accurately list all the traits—the multiple, interacting traits—that make him unique.
But through years of research, we now have enough data to know what goes into becoming exceptional. Whether you are recruiting an athlete, or you are hiring a CEO or evaluating a startup founder, the qualities that lead to extreme success are the same.
Unfortunately, looking for exceptional potential in individuals is not part of any evaluation process, and when done, it is based upon a few favorite questions you have in your arsenal. Traditional interviews tend to introduce randomness and bias into the process of selection. When you are looking for the “Michael Jordan’s” of your field, do you really want to ask them why manhole covers are round?
When you are looking for superlative performance, you need a reliable and consistent approach to identify the people that can deliver it. My research with superstar athletes, Nobel Laureates, world-class musicians, and many other extraordinary people has uncovered a set of common attributes they share. These qualities are summarized below. Very few of these traits are part of today’s evaluation criteria. As you go through this list, ask yourself how many of these attributes you consider as part of your recruiting process?
1. Natural aptitude:
The genes you are born with are responsible for 50% of your outcomes. You have to determine whether the individual you are considering has a natural aptitude for the role. Some traits you cannot develop; you are either born with them or not. Examples include power, speed, IQ, logical-mathematical ability, linguistic ability, and others. You can refine and improve these qualities, but you cannot create something out of nothing.
2. The Environment:
Sustained excellence does not happen overnight. Exceptionals have a history of being in an environment with a culture of striving and an expectation of excellence. Understanding the psychosocial setting and the formative environment that shaped people plays an outsized role in helping you determine if they have the potential to become exceptional.
3. Thirst for gaining new knowledge:
Every exceptional is a voracious consumer of new knowledge. They are particularly adept at bringing in learning from other disciplines and applying it to their domain. Additionally, they are drawn to people with a diverse set of experiences and expertise from whom they can learn.
One of the most reliable indicators of how well you do something is how well you believe you can do it. Your self-efficacy, or the belief in your abilities to be successful at a task, is as essential as the skills you possess. Without self-belief, your skills will not materialize, and your performance will suffer. This is another strong predictor of exceptional performance that traditional interviews fail to take into consideration.
5. Total commitment:
Anyone who has a plan B is not likely to become exceptional—the best of the best exhibit a level of commitment to their field that is rare. The desire to do something else never crosses their mind. If someone has a backup career plan or a Plan B, that is not the person you want. When you have no Plan B, you have no choice but to make Plan A work, and that is how exceptional outcomes emerge.
6. Connection with the Future:
The exceptionals have a clear connection with their “future-selves,” or who they will become in the future. People who identify closely with who they will be in the future are more willing to make short term sacrifices to achieve the long-term vision they hold for themselves. The most exceptional individuals have a clear view of who they want to become, and very often a written plan of what they want to achieve.
Sustained excellence is never attained by focusing primarily on big or “important” things. It involves achieving significant results by attention to the smallest details. The exceptionals want to excel at every minute element of their field, on tasks that very often seem trivial to others. They understand that details matter. People who focus on only the “big” aspects of a role are not likely to become elite.
Start evaluating these traits
Most of the attributes listed above are not part of how we currently evaluate potential. But all of them are measurable. If you are looking for a rare and unique individual to transform the heart of your organization, you would be well-served in considering these elements, which are strong predictors of exceptional outcomes. It would mean a significant change to the traditional interview and evaluation process, but without it, we will never consistently find the best of the best.