Cracking The Talent Code: Strategies For Unveiling Potential

Ed Pintwala
March 29, 2024

This week I want to talk about identifying talent -  something I strive to do virtually every day. This isn’t just about checking boxes or looking for fancy resumes, it's an intricate blend of art, science, and intuition. A ubiquitous and hugely valuable skill for society. And one that every professional wants to be good at, but ultimately finds there is 'no' one best-practice or model to follow to conquer it.

Here we dive into some fascinating methods to identify talent with insights from the book "Talent" by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, where they explore energizers, creatives, and winners.

We also explore unconventional approaches to talent scouting in Patrick O’Shaughnessy's 'Invest Like the Best' Podcast, where the authors reveal their secrets to spotting potential.

Some key takeaways; look for raw energy, insatiable curiosity, and unwavering durability. Learn to read between the lines, uncovering the traits that truly matter.

From assessing past performance, to navigating personality tests, the journey to finding the right talent is nuanced and challenging. Yet, it's a journey worth embarking on, with every step revealing new insights and possibilities.

Let’s dive in and break this down here.

How Do You Define Talent?

I like both the author's answers summed up here:

Tyler: We treat talent as having a creative energy that can alter outcomes and make projects better in ways that matter.

Daniel: I think it is ultimately the ability to positively manipulate your current environment to achieve your desired outcome. There are many different ways of doing that. Some people do that by intellect. Some people do that by charisma. Some people do that by physical strength, but that is ultimately I think the basic definition of talent.

  • Creative energy
  • Alter outcomes
  • Positively manipulate

When you interview someone or are the one being interviewed, do you think about how you can portray your talent?

Even more challenging, how do you display a career's worth of creative energy that has positively manipulated environments on a 2-page resume and make sure your audience can see your intellect and charisma?

Resume tip: If your resume is a cut-and-paste bullet point outline of the job description that your employer gave you - please throw it out.

Regardless if you’re in Sales, Operations, Engineering, or Finance, you should be highlighting and separating subheadings & bullet points called ‘Key Accomplishments’ or Achievements. Try and state actual metrics, volumes, percentages, cost savings, revenues, etc around how you directly positively influenced these outcomes - and become very good at articulating them to people verbally - this could be a whole other newsletter in itself.

I ultimately believe that past performance is still the best indicator to predict future success. But the challenge is, there are many other external factors and ways that ‘past performance’ can be perceived, and measured.

What To Look For When Assessing Talent

Pure raw energy

One big takeaway from the authors is to look for not just creative energy, but pure raw energy in general. When Daniel works with a recruiter, after being shown a short list of resumes, he sometimes asks, “Send me your top three people just by energy, who is the most energetic person to talk to?” As he is betting that all else equal, the person with more energy will simply win by getting ‘more shots on goal’ to deliver positive results.


This can be harder to uncover through conventional interview questioning. Beyond their resume and work experience, another tactic in an interview is to try and uncover how they spend their time and energy outside of their day job and how they weigh opportunity costs.

Daniel believes this is exceptionally interesting, to ask what people do when they don't have any particular obligations, in their downtime, the movies they watch, the activities they do, and the books they read.

Lead-ins for this can sometimes be on someone's resume which is why I like when they list hobbies, or “Other’ categories you can ask about in terms of volunteer work, sports, or travel.

Daniel notes there are many layers to thinking about the answer, but the first layer that's quite important is looking for specific answers instead of just generalizations. If you ask someone about their favorite movie, it's really helpful if they say, "I really liked The Matrix”. Versus just saying “Action movies and stuff." There's something about that, the person who's able to articulate specific proper nouns.

I feel it can be more challenging in a virtual interview or general phone pre-screen,  to get to know someone on the outside of work level, but you can still get them talking about team dynamics and find commonalities to open them up about other curiosities that are often hidden between the lines.


Tyler points out that in the context of a brief interview or interaction, assessing who has durability, is much harder than assessing energy or smarts or even conscientiousness. Durability means they'll stick with it. They'll persist. Is often hard to get a grip on. He notes obviously with older people, you just look at their track records and it will tell you, but with younger people, there's not a record. How do you know?

Sometimes I think for younger people, simply getting a degree or diploma, even if it’s unrelated to the job, it does prove they can commit to something, stick to it, and see it through. Other times you can look for other examples, of course, how long did they stay with an organization, why did they leave, was it just because they didn’t like someone, or did they try and stick it out to make an impact and advance their career?

Metrics And The ‘Moneyball’ Approach To Identifying Talent

The pod host, Patrick is a big financial ‘quantitative lens’’ guy, so this is a fascinating debate.

Daniel explains that firstly, we are only on day one in the field of social sciences, and there is much more to be learned and explored in the field.  He compares using a personality assessment test like The Big Five Aspect scale. Measuring your traits on the 5 big personality traits (OCEAN) Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

This is like trying to take an incredibly high-resolution image, which is someone's personality and predicting how that actor will work in different environments through a very narrow constraining lofty compression filter called the Big Five Aspect Scale. So it does not capture a lot.

He goes on to say that outcomes, measuring people by the outcome in the previous work they did because the quantitative tools are so coarse, is a far better and richer way to assess someone vs. looking at their personality test alone.  Adding that another fundamental constraint to all personality tests is that they are all self-reported. 

Hence you can run into gaming issues where someone's assessing the personality they want to be as opposed to what they are. You can have people just repeating the same test throughout the day, delivering completely different results. So to me, that says even taking a data, metrics-based approach, can still yield a very ‘gray’ vs. black and white predictive indicator of future success in their job.

Using Personality And Psychometric Tests As A Value Add Tool

I do have several clients who use these tests, a few we’ve come across:

  • McQuaig
  • PI (Predictive Index)
  • TAIS - The Attentional and Interpersonal Style (my preference)
  • DISC
  • Wonderlic

We see them as a value-added tool, which can paint a more colourful picture of someone’s personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses, and help Senior leadership teams and Supervisors understand what traits may help or hinder them and their peers in their day-to-day interactions on the job.

The authors point out these can provide a helpful vocabulary for a team. However, they do not recommend using these tools as a standalone method to figure out who to interview or measure someone's performance singularly.

I do know some clients treat the profile assessments as a deal breaker if they are not a match. Which must shrink their potential candidate pool, and is difficult to measure over time if that is for better or worse.

The benefit comes when companies use a consistent assessment tool for everyone on the team to understand when you say ‘openness’, they know exactly what you mean. And when you say conscientiousness, they know exactly what you mean. 

Be Mindful Of Gaps And Blindspots When Assessing Talent

Maybe you’re optimizing for very average even keeled people?

Daniel Gross points out, that when you have a consensus mechanism, or put it another way maybe ‘hiring by committee, (I see a lot of large corporations to this, multiple interview rounds with multiple Managers / Directors, VPs involved, panel interviews, etc. and they will not hire unless everyone ‘likes the person’), you end up optimizing for very even-keeled people

The most important thing to pay attention to, the most kind of mispriced people, so to speak, are ones where people on the team vehemently love them and vehemently hate them because you often get outliers in more than one dimension.  But I can understand why most organizations would shy away from these types.

You'll have people that are your typical example, like incredibly productive, but difficult to deal with. People that are incredibly extroverted and fun to deal with, but very, very bad at dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Consensus mechanisms don't hire those people because it's a bit painful to push through, but he feels those are the most important people. 

Be careful chasing after ‘conscientiousness’. 

Tyler points out, that for lower-level jobs, everyone’s looking for conscientiousness. That is obviously important, but if you're trying to hire away conscientious people from other organizations, the organization knows they're conscientious, and thus they want to keep the good ones and let the lemons come to you. So be very careful when chasing after conscientiousness for its own sake, yet without at all denying its absolute importance.

Specialists can sometimes be outliers but often can do one role very well.

Daniel says you should search for some kind of unevenness in the person. And Tyler adds he feels much better about hiring someone when he knows what’s wrong with them.  This can broaden your lens. Because you can now start to think of who you can hire that is somewhat actually disfigured in some ways and just have them focus on one specific thing. A classic example may be that someone is an amazing Sales ‘Hunter’ and great at new business development and growing topline sales, but you would never want them managing people or a team - as they are too focused on individual results.

Another example here would be to find someone from a larger organization who is very talented but because the company they are with grew so much, they don’t do much work anymore as they are too bogged down like a cog in a wheel interfacing with people vs. actually doing tactical work. So this can be a win-win hire if you are a mid-size or smaller company that can utilize them better.

Get them talking about specifics beyond what they’ve prepped for.

Picking out a line from their resume and probing into it 3-4 questions deep can force the person to elaborate and articulate specifics so you can then see their thought process come through.  Was there any negative spin? Do they seem like someone who builds rapport with a team and accomplishes things above and beyond the bare minimum? Do they mention specific names and people they have helped or who have helped them along the way?

If you know their former or current company or a colleague they previously worked with, ask them about that person, what was it like working with them? Were they a good mentor or coach? Ask about how they made positive progress in the business. Then listen, how specific do they get? Do they give you #s, %, metrics, and tangible results and examples? Are they using ‘I’ a lot vs. ‘we’ and the team?

Of course, many people are prepped and ‘good interviewers’, hence once you have these examples, it’s always good to then backcheck these with others they have worked with - what we call ‘informal references’, as well as the typical references they provide you.

Are References Useful?

Daniel Gross: I think the correct answer is references are useful. It’s good practice to provide the reference with a performance scale, say from 1-10, how good they were at a specific strength. Then ask why. Which gives you a bit of alpha or measurable context.

Make the effort to build rapport on a Reference call to break down barriers and encourage more truth in responses. Tyler feels references are essential for jobs requiring a lot of conscientiousness that are mid-level. Making the referrer feel safe to criticize, which is very hard to do is an art in itself. You don’t need to trick them, but sometimes it is worth going overboard and straight out asking something like, "Would you work with this person?" Or could you, in a ranked quantitative sense, compare them to other people we may both know?

You have to force their hand to get a slight downgrade of comment and then take that seriously when you hear that downgrade. Sometimes the value of the reference is strictly a function of how well you know that person, or how well you know the friend that referred you to that person, to get a clear picture of the candidate.

Recruit others through references and build a wider network to make reference calls more worthwhile.

This is why we love references, not always for true evaluations about someone, but to use them as a way to source more candidates. People don't take advantage of this, but don’t be afraid to ask them, who else should we be talking to?

References are not as useful for younger people or new grads.

In this case, the references themselves, if they are also young, may not truly know the candidate's potential or be able to have an experienced enough ‘judgment’ lens on their accomplishments or potential to succeed in the role you’re recruiting for.

So What? How Can This Help Me?

Candidates / Interviewees:

  • Reverse engineer some of these takeaways and do your homework on your audience. Try and understand what incentivizes them as the hiring manager, and what they are looking for you to bring to the role.

  • Bring your energy to the table, let it come through whether over the phone, a screen, or ideally in person, to display who you are at your best and make it obvious that you are passionate and committed to succeeding in the role and working for the company.

  • Master the balance between not over-articulating and boring your audience with too many facts and specifics, but at the same time do not over-generalize, and be specific about what you did, and how you did it. To positively alter outcomes in your previous work experience.

  • Ask yourself once you understand the job profile, and mandate, how can you put them at ease, being true to yourself and real about your accomplishments, that you are the right person for the job?

  • Tell your story, and find commonalities to how it relates to their story, and how it can contribute to a win-win positive outcome.

Hiring Managers / Interviewers:

  • Look for raw energy, who wants it more and is willing to take more shots on goal?

  • Gauge Curiosity, who seems like a lifelong learner, is always curious and restless in a good way. Who will never stop or feel the job is done well enough or settle as a ‘clock-puncher’.

  • Test Durability - not easy to do, but look for proof of perseverance and winners or who quit. Competitiveness in sports, fitness, or extracurricular hobbies sometimes highlights this.

  • Do not always optimize with a hiring by committee or consensus approach, sometimes for specific roles, outliers are OK, and can do specialized work well.

  • Do references, but don’t just go through the motions, break down barriers, and listen very carefully to any ‘downgrade’ in your comment.

  • Ask references for other references, build your network, and expand your talent pool.

  • Use psychometrics and tests, but as value add tools to provide a common language for your teams, to understand each other better and overcome relational challenges.

This topic is way too vast to sum up in a couple of pages, and I know all of the above is easier said than done! But again, it’s a craft and an art that you have your whole career to develop and work on. :) 

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