Diamond in the Rough: Taking a Risk on the Less Obvious Candidate

Group Interview Tips

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article  that discussed how an increasingly risk-averse labor population has led to a declining number of new business ventures and entrepreneurialism in the US.  I would go even further and say there has been an increase in companies unwilling to take risks in hiring, leaving them with employees who, although great “on paper” (i.e., great test takers from good schools and brand name firms), aren’t typically inclined to take risks or think outside the box. I’ve seen a growing reliance among human resources departments on hiring “Perfect on Paper Candidates.” Although no one is going to get in trouble for hiring them, oftentimes Perfect on Paper Candidates don’t possess the creativity or resourcefulness needed to build a successful company.

I always encourage my clients to consider candidates who aren’t necessarily the obvious frontrunners on paper, but who have impressed me with their ingenuity, talent, and ability to “get things done.” I call these candidates, “Diamonds in the Rough”: candidates who may not have come from the top tier schools or who may have recently been laid off, but who have also achieved significant accomplishments in their careers and who are willing go the extra mile and work hard, even if it means that they have less time to play to internal politics.

Recently, we completed three searches where the companies were willing to take a chance on hiring the Diamond in the Rough.  The candidates had either been let go because of cutbacks or because their company was shutting down a division—none for reasons related to performance.  Unfortunately, we frequently see candidates who’ve been laid off not because they were poor performers, but because they did not “play the game” of internal politics that is often necessary to avoid the chopping block during layoffs. Each candidate in these three searches had believed that, if they worked hard and exceeded expectations, their accomplishments would speak for themselves. Unfortunately, these employees are often the most at risk during layoffs because they haven’t taken the time to find a mentor who is willing to go to bat for them.

In each of these three recent searches, our clients took a risk on the Diamond in the Rough because we, as the search professionals, went to bat for them. We presented them along with a slate of Perfect on Paper Candidates and discussed why we believed that the less obvious candidate in the shortlist would make the biggest impact as an employee.  Fortunately, our clients were open-minded and recognized that these candidates exhibited the agility, work ethic, and resourcefulness that would make them strong contributors to the firm. Even more importantly, our clients took a risk on the idea that, if they were willing to hire a less obvious candidate, that person would be even more dedicated to succeeding in their new role because they knew they would need to prove themselves. In each case, our clients have been surprised and delighted with the energy and achievements that their new Diamonds in the Rough have shown. I would also argue these employees have less “Bad-itude.”

Very often, I’ve observed that Perfect on Paper Candidates go into new work environments acting as though they have nothing to prove; in their mind, they have already demonstrated their ability and are sometimes less willing to go the extra mile. I call this mentality “bad-itude.”  I have found that these candidates are less likely to stay late into the night working on a deal or less willing to make copies at the copying machine because it needs to get done. Companies need employees without “bad-itude”: employees who are less interested in job description specifics and more interested in getting things done with a “no-task-too-small” mentality. The Diamond in the Rough very often has this mentality because they haven’t been able to rely on a perfect resume in order to get ahead and are grateful for every opportunity to prove themselves.  The more firms can fill their ranks with such employees, the better equipped they will be to scale rapidly, create new and stronger revenue streams, and stay ahead of the competition.

This is not to say that all Perfect Resume Candidates have Bad-itude, nor are all Diamonds in the Rough super stars willing and able to hit it out of the park given the chance. However, I have found that it is worth keeping an open mind when reviewing candidates; don’t throw a resume into the garbage because it is flawed; sometimes the flaws show someone who is willing to take risks and opt out of political games. In our current labor climate, with job creation slacking and entrepreneurialism lagging, it is in our best interest to constantly consider new ways to spur growth and innovation. Taking a chance on a less-obvious candidate can, in some cases, prove to be a wise and rewarding business strategy.

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