Finding talent that is actually talented

Dec. 1, 2001


The telecommunications component and equipment industry, and particularly photonics and optical networking, has weathered this year's downturn better than some sectors. However, even with fierce competition for technology, products, and senior-level executives, companies across the globe have been faced with challenging issues, including massive layoffs in which not even upper-level execs were exempt. The extent of the cuts led by networking giants like Cisco Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA), Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, NJ), and Nortel Networks (Brampton, Ontario), which put up to 50,000 people on the street, has created a domino effect throughout the industry.

Telecom companies' revenues are down, market capitalizations are falling fast, venture capitalists are holding onto their funds, and many early-stage companies are folding. However, the long-term up-trend in communications demand remains, and the need for top-level executives to take the lead is going to increase. Now is a great time to position your senior-level team for your long-term goals. With so much talent now available due to corporate reorganization and the shutting of unsuccessful companies, it is critical for organizations to distinguish between the talent that is actually talented and the executives who are merely average or poor performers.

The recent massive layoffs have cut so deep that every level, including executive management, has been affected. Many layoffs have been based on poor performance. Other cuts have been indiscriminate, be cause companies have been forced into short-term thinking to keep cash outflow under control. It is that portion of the talent pool that should not be overlooked. Many talented senior-level leaders are victims of the downturn, and wise companies need to discriminate between the two.

In a market that still retains the potential to become enormously competitive, there has never been a greater time to position your senior management team for long-term success. The search for true talent is never easy. But by determining the type of leaders your organization needs and creating a plan on how to identify and secure those leaders, you will ensure that you remain a step ahead of your competition.

Finding top executives boils down to one critical concept-focus on human characteristics. Any search should assess experience, knowledge, and a proven track record as a minimum. However, most companies fail to examine each candidate's human characteristics carefully. Time and time again, I see companies make the same mistake-they hire for experience and end up firing for qualities.

To combat this experience-versus-human-qualities dilemma, it is important that throughout the interview process, you probe to learn the details of the candidate's previous accomplishments and assess the person's ability and enthusiasm to lead the company. The best executives will have a formula for success that includes both inner traits and concrete actions.

The following is a list of traits to look for in top executive candidates:

  • Outstanding leadership qualities. Do they have a formula for success? Do they easily communicate the vision and complex goals so the entire company can understand them? Have they built a complex organization to accomplish impossible tasks? Do they have an intuitive sense for hiring great talent for the right positions?
  • Incredible intellectual capacity. Are they bright, not just strategic? Do they know how to use their intellectual power to make quick, solid decisions in a tough, competitive environment?
  • Honesty and integrity Are they well-principled people who share the company's values? Will the leadership team at your company instantly feel they can trust the candidates?
  • Work ethic, enthusiasm, drive, and intensity. Do they have a warrior-like quality about them that allows them to persevere, no matter how difficult the task? Are they adept at creating a deep level of trust among their people? Do they have an incredible work ethic, extraordinary stamina, and the ability to create an energy-charged, enthusiastic work environment?
  • Natural charisma. When they walk into a room, do people notice them, respect them, and value and trust their knowledge?
  • Contagious passion. Do they have a unique and contagious passion for the challenge and opportunity? Are they able to articulate this passion and get people excited about goals and plans?
  • Technology-centric. Do they understand technology and have the ability to integrate it in the strategic goals of the company?
  • Humility. Are they willing to accept that they may not always be correct? Are they willing to learn from their mistakes?

Referencing is the key to identifying who, among the thousands of available candidates, is the real "needle in the hay stack." Referencing is absolutely critical and, done correctly, is the most reliable element of great search work. Dril ling down into very specific issues will soon identify those laid off for performance and those for economic reasons.

Following are referencing techniques to ensure the most comprehensive due diligence on your executive prospects:

  • Coordinate reference discussions with both the client and search consultant.
  • Conduct references in person.
  • Discover other references by asking the references provided.
  • Ask open-ended questions to which there are no "correct" answers.
  • Triangulate different points of view on key subjects via multiple references.
  • Avoid "good/bad" reference discussions, focusing instead on "how and why" discussions.
  • Ask questions that put the reference's own professional identity (i.e., how they see themselves) at stake to persuade full participation in the reference discussion.

Ultimately, you must choose the candidate that you and your team have built a rapport with-the one you know can drive your organization and be passionate about it for the long term. Ask your search firm for compensation advice, learn what your competitors are offering, and find out what your candidate's current compensation is. Then offer them a package they can't refuse. Hiring top talent is one of the most critical priorities in your organization, and with the volatile marketplace, you cannot afford to miss the opportunity.

Once you understand how to identify talent that is actually talented, it is important to realize that the best candidates are going to be evaluating you as a company. The top candidates are looking for companies that have a clear market proposition, clear product placement, and a compelling proposition. They are also assessing the venture community's interest in the company where return-on-investment is everything and risk is not popular.

The issues surrounding leadership remain as urgent as ever. Great businesses require great leaders to succeed. The most challenging obstacle any company faces is finding the right combination of executives to build a strong management team.

The economic downtown provides an opportunity to bolster your management team and attract top talent. Golden handcuffs and unbelievable stock options that once made the best talent un touchable do not have the same meaning in today's marketplace. Now is your chance to identify and attract the leaders your organization needs to speed ahead of your competition.

Keith Mackay is managing director at Christian & Timbers (Cleveland), an executive search firm. He can be reached via the company's Website,

An expanded version of this article can be found on Lightwave's home page at