Agile Talent #4: Selection based on ability, motivation & identity.

“70% of today’s high performers lack critical attributes essential to their success in future roles.”

Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt, Harvard Business Review

In my previous column we discussed the myth of universal talent and I explained how to take the specific context into account. In this edition we focus on step 2 of the first of the three consecutive stages (preparation, selection and verification).

I have condensed this step into three factors: ability, motivation & identity. When I mention ability, I am referring to experience, skills and IQ – the traditional characteristics of knowledge and capacity. I will discuss these three factors according to their increasing degree of complexity.


Ability (and Knowledge)

Each of us has our own idea of what we mean by the term ability, but the variations boil down to what people know and what they are capable of. For example, we refer to the ability to properly conduct an interview with a candidate. Similarly, we all know what we mean by knowledge as a subset of ability. We immediately come up with examples such as fluency in a foreign language, playing a piece by Mozart or reciting long passages from Shakespeare.



A discussion of personality traits is where things start to get a little more complicated.  Broadly speaking, these traits denote who you are, the virtues and habits that distinguish you as a person. A kaleidoscope of characteristics comes to mind, rarely bundled in any individual: perseverance, determination, emotional stability, extroversion, resilience, creativity or kindness. The list could be extended.

I believe that in a world of flux, the personality traits such as adaptability and resilience, as well as the ability to learn and embrace change, will become vastly more significant for the selection of the best talent than they are today. These are unique characteristics which tend be fairly stable over time. They are robust and cannot be learnt or altered as easily as skills.

“ Delving into the personality of the candidates is essential. An accurate personality profile will equip you with a deeper and richer understanding of the candidate’s talent, and an improved grasp of his or her ability to excel at performing certain tasks. If you are eager to comprehend how a candidate might perform in a particular position or situation (i.e. stress), you have no excuse to omit this aspect of talent from your selection.”



In addition to skills and personality traits, there is a third category to consider in selecting talent; called motivational needs or drives. Needs are notoriously hard to describe – rather the opposite of skills, in fact. In adults, needs are essentially fixed and even more arduous to change than personality traits, which means you had better seriously keep them in mind during selection. Motivational needs are the innermost motives which drive someone to achieve a certain goal or situation.

A metaphor may help explain how needs function in our lives: they tend to work like the battery charger in a car. If you manage to satisfy one of your dominant needs, you will feel recharged and fulfilled. This works both ways: when you do things that are out of sync with your inner needs, your energy supply can become drained to the point of depletion. Needs tend to produce urges for action, with the strength of an urge varying with the dominance of the need.

A scholar who has conducted acclaimed research in this field is former Harvard professor David McClelland. He has stated that needs or motivations are those things we spend most time thinking about. His research shows that our way of thinking determines how we go about doing things, both at home and in our professional environment.

The reason is simple: if you rarely, or never, think about something, it is not likely that you will behave in a way that is in accordance with it. On the contrary, frequently thinking about something is often likely to produce behavior that is in sync with your thoughts. If you know what makes a person tick, you can broadly predict how this person is prone to behave.


The Impact of the Three Dominant Needs

In his research, David McClelland describes roughly 400 human motivational needs, lines of thought which influence your emotions and your deepest values. Three of these needs have such a profound effect on your social activities and your behavior that the specialist literature terms them ‘primary social needs or motives’. McClelland has found they account for roughly 70 to 75 % of all our behavior. They are the needs for achievement, affiliation and power.


The need for achievement

People with this particular need are extremely goal-oriented. They never stop thinking about how to improve their own performance and bolster their accomplishments. They feel energized and fulfilled by succeeding at difficult tasks or tough assignments. Frequently judging and evaluating themselves based on a standard of achievement they or an external entity (e.g. their company) set is second nature to them.


The need for affiliation

People with a need for affiliation are deeply committed to building and maintaining close friendships and strong relationships. For the most part, they are highly sensitive to other people. Virtually all those with this need have an acutely developed sense of empathy and finely-tuned feelers for the needs and emotions of others, especially the people close to them.

They enjoy working with others and tend to dislike jobs which need to be done alone, or highly competitive tasks. They will practically do anything to avoid conflict. Coping with criticism or negative feedback can be a challenge to them, whether in a personal or a working relationship.


The need for Power

People with a need for power are attracted to strength, influence and even authority over people and situations. They relish exerting influence over others and like to leave an impression of strength and toughness. It is important to realize however, that power can simply mean ‘influence’ and does not have to mean being a tyrant or an omnipotent ruler, terms which traditionally have been linked to power.

In general, people who are driven by the need of power tend to have exceptionally good social skills. They are always conscious of status symbols and all things prestigious. They might enjoy networking opportunities where they could meet important influencers, or become a mentor or coach to someone new to their field, or they might opt to take on voluntary board positions as a sideline.


An example of the three needs

Let’s assume that you and your team decide to go mountain climbing, up Mont Blanc or Mount Kilimanjaro, as an exercise in teambuilding. You have a clear objective, to reach the summit of the mountain together. On the way up the mountain the guide starts to realize that the group is made up of vastly different people.

The first stage of the climb is uneventful – in fact, the man with the need for achievement is already thinking of his next summit, which has to be higher and more difficult to climb. Meanwhile, the teammate which has a need for affiliation will be worrying about everyone managing to keep up during the whole climb, and is constantly checking to make sure no one gets left behind and everyone is having a good time.

The person with the need for power is fixated on how he will personally stick the flag in the ground at the summit, and then ask one of his mates to take a flattering picture of him. As they all climb back down the mountain, he starts to fantasize about giving an interview to National Geographic or a management magazine which would be surely interested in the climbing trip.

So there are three completely different ways to climb a mountain, play golf or perform in a certain job even though all the participants are simultaneously taking part in exactly the same activity. It is wise to bear in mind that having succeeded in the past does not mean someone will succeed in the future.

Taking the context into account is the smart thing to do; that is, asking how and where the candidate achieved his success and what is his or her potential for change.


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