Talent Arbitrage – How I Find the Best People

Published on: January 2, 2013

If you asked me 15 years ago when I left the entertainment for the tech industry if what I learned as a talent agent would be useful, I would have waived you off. Yet I use that knowledge every day and I am thankful to my mentors. It has become my “secret sauce” that helped build talented, effective, and loyal teams. Professional growth paths of each hire and length of tenures are my KPI. That all said, I find the following practices deserving of a chopping block:

  • Obsession with pedigrees has been getting rather silly lately. Without fail, candidates have responded by tailoring their resumes to oversell certain things. How many product managers from Facebook/Google/etc. have we seen who were entry level employees. Or “top school” grads who either got in as a legacy or weren’t exactly stellar students. 
  • In our search, we write off people who could become perfect for the role in a shorter time and at a lesser cost than continuing the search for Mrs. Perfect Fit.
  • Obscene “overfishing” of the same narrow talent group has created market demand that commands a premium not warranted by the value of the output of their work.

Given that payroll is one of the top expenses for many companies, we have to invest in the growth of our talent management practices.

This is where the art of talent arbitrage comes in. Let me share the recipes for what has worked for me so well:

  • Talent arbitrage is not about under-paying and taking advantage of employees. I can not emphasize this enough! It is about focusing on a verifiable ability to do the job instead of a pedigree veneer. It is also about minding the career paths, investing in professional growth, and showing strong bias towards growing people in the team. And lastly, compensating talent for the value delivered.
  • The best talent is never well-rounded. As one of my mentors often reminded me: “talent is a fixed pie – a gift in one area, means weakness in another.” Building a team is a grand puzzle of pairing talent to multiply the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses. 
  • Professionals with a “chip on their shoulder” usually have endless self-driven energy. It is like a talent rocket fuel. The overlooked, underappreciated, micromanaged, or otherwise mistreated find my teams refreshing.
  • Time spent in the office (assuming Work From Anywhere is slow to become mainstream) does not equate to results delivered. There is an undervalued segment of professionals who, if given flexibility and trust, will overdeliver their peers.
  • Encourage side hustles and hobbies. It is the best burnout prevention and professional development “hack.”
  • Years of experience – not an effective KPI for predicting capability to execute and deliver. Different industries, company stages, and even geographies act as accelerators of one’s potential. The more intense the velocity of cadence in the work environment, the more intense is the learning.
  • The vast majority of skills are transferrable. So are methodologies and other know-how. I am a huge fan of injecting new blood into the team from industries that aren’t even related. It breaks up group-think.
  • Immerse candidates in their future job as early as possible in the interview process. Even fantastic marketers have terrible resumes.
  • The maligned “up or out” method I saw in the ’90s is very effective when applied with the context of skills and not hierarchy.

May what I shared help you hire better and happier teams!

Photo credit: Shannon Holman