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Talent Acquisition: Finding Your Edge

By Jamie Winter, MA

Jamie WinterIn spite of the frigid temperatures, ice, and snow, signs of spring abound, including the opening of major league baseball’s spring training. As the snow melts and the first pitch is thrown at the beginning of every season, every team is on an even playing field. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal.” While everyone starts out with the same record, we could all argue that those teams that have spent the most money on their rosters should have the greatest likelihood of winning more games. And while this may be true, there is one exception: the Oakland A’s.

“Moneyball” for Talent Acquisition ProfessionalsOakland’s story garnered a great deal of attention in 2003 with the release of Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and the similarly named 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. One of my favorite quotes came from Pitt’s character when he was describing the hierarchy of teams in major league baseball, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there is 50 feet of crap and then there is us.” In other words, Oakland, like most small-market teams, did not (and still doesn’t) have the same resources as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or even San Francisco Giants.

In order to deal with this harsh reality facing his team, the A’s general manager, Billy Beane, applied an analytical, data-driven approach to drafting and acquiring talent. The focus was not on buying players, but buying wins. He determined that to buy wins they needed to buy runs. He then identified the best indicators of a player and the team’s ability to generate runs and built playoff teams based on this approach.

Last spring, I was fortunate enough to see Beane present at the HireVue Digital Disruption conference. He shared that statistics often used to judge players such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average were not good predictors of winning. He said that the best indicator of generating runs and ultimately winning was player on-base percentage. It had the strongest correlation with winning, and it was also undervalued by fellow general managers. This philosophy allowed Beane to go out and find players who had high on-base percentages but lower statistics in the other categories. This typically resulted in a player who was affordable and allowed Beane to find his edge. He could now build a winning team for less.

Beane’s presentation got me thinking about the similarities between his approach and the talent acquisition space at large. Like the commonly used predictors of winning in baseball, there are several predictors used by organizations and hiring managers that don’t really predict whether a candidate will be a top performer on the job—who would ultimately help the organization “win.” For example, most hiring managers feel they are a great judge of talent and often use unstructured approaches to interviewing—they simply rely on their gut feel. Resumé reviews and reference checks are other commonly used approaches to assessing talent and making hiring decisions, yet research shows these indicators have much lower correlations with job performance than other tools such as structured interviews and many pre-employment tests.

The good news—there are tools available for talent acquisition professionals to help them apply “Moneyball” principles to their businesses. Research tells us the top three indicators of whether a candidate will be successful on the job are work sample tests, cognitive ability tests, and structured behavioral interviews.

Work sample tests are based on the premise that the best predictor of future behavior is observed behavior under similar situations. For example, if you want to see if a person is a good pilot, simply put them in a multimillion-dollar flight simulator. The problem with this approach is obvious—most organizations don’t have the resources of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox to create work sample tests. Cognitive ability tests would be great, but candidates tend to view them as unfair, and they tend to have adverse impact on many protected classes which could result in a very costly legal challenge—especially if they are not properly validated.

So what tool can talent acquisition professionals use that is the equivalent to on-base percentage? Structured interviews. These may be an edge for organizations—similar to what Billy Beane found in 2002. You may be thinking that everybody uses structured interviewing, right? Well, unfortunately, you’re wrong. I am not talking about simply given hiring managers an interview guide with a set of questions. What I am talking about is a systematic approach like the one described here. Your edge can come from ensuring structured behavioral interviewing is properly designed and implemented in your organization.

Other tools that can be used as indicators to prepare your talent acquisition team to make the playoffs are pre-employment tests. These should consist of an all-star team of test items, those that are strongly correlated with job performance, engaging, and fair to all candidates. The research tells us that specific kinds of pre-employment tests, like personality or biodata tests, are not the best indicators of job performance compared to cognitive ability tests or structured interviews. However, there are many pre-employment tests on the market that combine these different types of items into one assessment and garner correlations with job performance, and are in the same ball park with work sample tests and pure cognitive ability tests. You can find your edge by using these multi-dimensional pre-employment tests, in combination with structured interviews and especially in situations where you have a lot of applicants applying for targeted jobs.

Where can you start? Beane started by taking a hard look at his business to determine what it would take to win. His business strategy was to win games. He built a profile of what it took to win games—finding players who could score runs. The profile indicated those with higher on-base percentages scored more runs. He then went out and found players who fit his profile.

To help find your edge, start by understanding the key business and cultural strategies in your organization, and then build a success profile to define the kind of talent you need to execute against those business and cultural strategies. Once you have your success profile(s) defined, you can find the right tools to measure the extent to which job candidates have the right profile to help you succeed. Your edge as a talent acquisition professional can come from not only having a well-thought-out profile, but also from measuring that profile better than your competition and ultimately having greater success in acquiring talent that fits your profile. Spring is here. It’s time to play ball!

Schmidt, Frank L. and John E. Hunter, “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings,” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 125, No. 2, 1998.

Jamie Winter is DDI’s Director, Global Testing and Targeted Selection.

Posted: 13 Mar, 2015,
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