In 2009, programmer Brian Acton applied for positions at Facebook and Twitter and was passed over. Five years later, he sold his startup, WhatsApp, for $19 billion.
What happened in between those two events? Two critical moments occurred. First, Acton got an iPhone and had an idea for an app that represented a new market with unlimited potential. Second, he decided to put his time and energy into a startup.
Looking back now, it seems absurd that any major tech company would pass over a clear innovator like Acton, but that's exactly what happened – and it's a perfect example of why our current talent assessment and hiring processes are antiquated.
The traditional hiring process is built on a model that has lasted for decades: take in resumes, read them over, interview people, and make a decision based almost purely on flawed, subjective judgments. How deep is the resume? Did the person go to a good school? Are the resume's supplementary materials relevant or not? It's easy to make a case for or against someone across the board based on this kind of information, but these factors are pretty unreliable predictors of future job performance.
In the 21st century, the trick to identifying innovators like Acton – even when their resumes don't stand out – is to ignore traditional hiring factors in favor of talent signals. These signals are particularly important when filling junior-level positions: The right hires there can power your company for decades, while the wrong ones might tread water or struggle to catch on.
Almost everyone's resume looks the same straight out of college – i.e., pretty sparse – so what talent signals should hiring professionals look for?
Cognitive Ability and Conscientiousness
Data gathered by organizational psychologists suggests that two simple sets of traits should be prioritized during recruitment:
Cognitive ability, which includes things like critical thinking, problem-solving, learning ability, and verbal and math skills.
Conscientiousness, which often encompasses things like goal-setting, self-motivation, and tenacity.
More recently, some experts have started talking about the importance of grit, but this trait is so closely related to conscientiousness that it may be indistinguishable from it.
Cognitive traits demonstrate the ability to process, adapt, and solve problems, while conscientiousness speaks to behavioral triggers such as drive, work ethic, motivation, and goal-orientation. From an HR person's perspective, the dream hire for almost any position would be someone hard-working, reliable, driven, and with plenty of cognitive ability.
How can HR staff identify candidates who excel in these key areas of conscientiousness and cognitive ability? Here are three practical ways:
High-quality web-based tests of cognitive aptitude are now widely available and represent a cost-effective way to assess candidates' critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. These tests generally take 20 minutes or less to complete, so they can be administered early in the hiring process. That means they can inform decisions about which candidates should be brought in for interviews.
Research shows that these types of tests are far more predictive of an employee's success than common hiring criteria: They are twice as predictive as job interviews, three times as predictive as work experience, and four times as predictive as education level. This means these tests are particularly effective in evaluating recent college graduates, who come with limited work experience on their resumes.
2. Interview Techniques
Generally speaking, the more structured the interview format, the more effective it will be as a means of gathering job-relevant information on candidates. Both cognitive ability and conscientiousness traits can be assessed through a variety of structured interview techniques. Active problem-solving (popularized in Silicon Valley with whiteboard challenges), asking tangential questions to problems, and presenting open-ended real-world situations (with added twists thrown in halfway through) are good ways to do discovery on those traits, as they require the candidate to demonstrate logic, problem-solving, and communication skills in real-time.
3. Resume Items
A resume may not be very predictive, but it can still be a good point of reference as a history of experience. Keep in mind that not all relevant experience has to be from paid work; extracurricular activities can demonstrate many conscientiousness traits. Look for secondary projects, volunteer tasks, and outside hobbies that require things like due diligence, goal-setting, persistence, and tenacity in the face of adversity. A candidate's involvement with unique activities may give more insight into their conscientiousness traits than any previous job task.
Most importantly, the only way to truly uncover a candidate's conscientiousness and cognitive abilities is to break away from hunting for skill sets on resumes. For many positions, skills can translate laterally with the right training, and a candidate's ability to adapt and innovate are far more important for long-term success in most roles.
If you only look at resumes that check off boxes for a limited number of skills, then you're missing the forest for the trees. If you want to avoid passing on the next Brian Acton, you may want to adjust your focus: Look for real talent signals rather than resumes that check all the boxes.