Agile Talent: Selecting Tomorrow’s Top Talent

People have widely varied profiles, which may or may not produce the best results under any given circumstances, or in any situation or context.

Henk Breukink, supervisory board member and executive coach

In my previous column on agile talent,  I discussed rapid developments caused by the impact of technology. I explained why today’s selections often fail and identified the most common hiring mistakes.  In the next few editions I will discuss how to select future-proof or agile talent. We should bear in mind that what was once required of talent, and what we ask of agile talent today, are two very different things.

Subjecting everyday selection practices to a thorough check is a smart move, leading to improvements and adjustments. Over the years my colleagues and I have created a method for selecting agile talent that consists of nine steps carried out over three consecutive stages: the preparation, the actual selection and the verifying.

Agile talent graphic

The steps are not all equally agile, but they are all essential. The combination of all the steps produces a better selection of agile talent. Today we deal with step 1 in stage 1; the preparation.


Step 1. Take the context into account

One of the very first steps you need to take when you start selecting talent is to outline the prospective employee’s new work environment. Another word for this is context. This is an essential step, because there is no such thing as universal skills and traits that will fit every single organization or match each conceivable scenario.

Often, be it in sports, business or politics, outliers succeed in the context of specific challenges paired with a particular set of conditions. In other words, they excel under certain circumstances and with a distinct group of people with complementary skills.

A soccer player who does well at Manchester United may be less successful at Inter Milan, Real Madrid or Barcelona. Similarly, a brilliant merchant banker at ING may not be nearly as successful at Goldman Sachs. A lot hinges on the person’s talent in conjunction with the specific situation.

Is the potential hire able to use his/her talent in this place and context? Will he or she be compatible with the strategy of the organization, its purpose and culture, as well as with the blend of skills personality traits and motivational needs of the other team members?


Context outlined in charcoal

How do you map out if a candidate matches the particular challenges and pre-requisites of the position? For starters, you need to identify the circumstances of the organization which is on the lookout for talent. What kind of dilemmas is the organization facing? What is the structure of management and governance? Who are the key decision makers – influential employees apart from senior management and directors? What degree of independence are managers given? Are they basically highly trained implementers or are they expected to contribute to the company’s strategic direction?

Once you have finished this company chart, examine the variety of people already working there. What kind of skills do they bring to the table, what are their personality traits and what are the needs that motivate them? Who would best complement them?


Three topics to pursue

It is important to compare the needs and purpose of candidates with the organizations purpose.  If you truly want to make sure that a candidate will fit in the context of a certain company, I advise you to at least make a scan of the following three topics:

  1. The strategy and other contexts of the company
  2. The company culture
  3. The other employees within the organization: the match within the team

In order to summon a better picture of the strategy and the other company context, you would do well to dig deeper and sift through the business context (macro-level), operating context (meso-level) and, finally, the department or unit context (micro-level).

An assessment of the macro level focuses on the overall aim of the business. In what field or business sector does the company operate? It is essential that you form a mental image of the markets, proposals, customers and sales channels which all play a crucial part in operating the business.

An assessment of the operating context or meso-level needs to examine how the business manages to succeed. I encourage you to look closer at the company purpose, values, vision, strategy and promise (“How do we want the world to see us?”).

An assessment of the department/unit context (micro-level) will determine how much impact the desired talent is likely to have, and whether or not the person will fit in. Here, you should check out aspects such as:

Who will the person be working with, who are the mangers, who are the key customers, both within and outside the company? What are the financial ambitions and goals for this unit? Etcetera.


The match within the team

As most people understand the meaning and relevance of culture, I like to focus on the match within the team. A frequent selection pitfall is the tendency to make a match based on a candidate’s personal profile instead of whether he is likely to become a successful member of the team.  Often someone who leaves an organization (aside from retiring or being lured by a major promotion elsewhere) does so based on a bad fit with the other team members.

Clearly, a match with the position is relevant, but it is equally important to determine whether someone fits in with the other key players in the company. Key players include the management and others who exert a significant influence on company affairs. Are these people in sync with one another or might conflicts be simmering below the surface? Do their personalities complement each other or do they share many overlapping personality traits and abilities?


Know the key players

I strongly urge you to spend serious time figuring out who are the most important people within the organization and focus on what they bring to the table in terms of skills, personality traits and motivational needs. I advise you to be wary of hiring clones of the current management and employees.

Always bear in mind that however talented an individual might be, a universal talent does not exist and “people have widely varied profiles, which may or may not produce the best results under any given circumstances, or in any situation or context.”



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