Jason Shen – Co-founder & CEO of Headlight
You know who I’m envious of? People who work in a job that has to do with their college major. Journalists who studied journalism, engineers who studied engineering. The truth is, these folks are no longer the rule, but the exception. A 2010 study found that only a quarter of college graduates work in a field that relates to their degree.
I graduated with not one but two degrees in biology. To my parents’ dismay, I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. Years of studying DNA replication and photosynthesis did little to prepare me for a career in technology. I had to teach myself everything from sales, marketing, strategy, even a little programming, on my own. I had never held the title of Product Manager before I sent my resume in to Etsy. I had already been turned down by Google and several other firms and was getting frustrated. The company had recently gone public, so as part of my job application, I read the IPO filings from cover to cover and built a website from scratch which included my analysis of the business and four ideas for new features. It turned out the team was actively working on two of those ideas and had seriously considered a third. I got the job.
We all know people who were ignored or overlooked at first but went on to prove their critics wrong. My favorite story? Brian Acton, an engineering manager who was rejected by both Twitter and Facebook before cofounding WhatsApp, the mobile messaging platform that would sell for 19 billion dollars.
The hiring systems we built in the 20th century are failing us and causing us to miss out on people with incredible potential. The advances in robotics and machine learning and transforming the way we work, automating routine tasks in many occupations while augmenting and amplifying human labor in others. At this rate, we should all be expecting to do jobs we’ve never done before for the rest of our careers. So what are the tools and strategies we need to identify tomorrow’s high performers? In search for answers, I’ve consulted with leaders across many sectors, read dozens of reports and research papers and conducted some of my own talent experiments. My quest is far from over, but here are three ideas to take forward.
One: expand your search. If we only look for talent in the same places we always do — gifted child programs, Ivy League schools, prestigious organizations — we’re going to get the same results we always have. Baseball was transformed when the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics started recruiting players who didn’t score highly on traditionally valued metrics, like runs batted in, but who had the ability to help the team score points and win games. This idea is taking hold outside of sports. The Head of Design and Research at Pinterest told me that they’ve built one of the most diverse and high-performing teams in Silicon Valley because they believe that no one type of person holds a monopoly on talent. They’ve worked hard to look beyond major tech hubs and focus on designers’ portfolios, not their pedigrees.
Two: hire for performance. Inspired by my own job experience, I cofounded a hiring platform called Headlight, which gives candidates an opportunity to shine. Just as teams have tryouts and plays have auditions, candidates should be asked to demonstrate their skills before they’re hired. Our clients are benefiting from 85 years of employment research, which shows that work samples are one of the best predictors of success on the job. If you’re hiring a data analyst, give them a spreadsheet of historical data and ask them for their key insights. If you’re hiring a marketing manager, have them plan a launch campaign for a new product. And if you’re a candidate, don’t wait for an employer to ask. Seek out ways to showcase your unique skills and abilities outside of just the standard resume and cover letter.
Three: get the bigger picture. I’ve heard about recruiters who are quick to label a candidate a job-hopper based on a single short stint on their resume; read about professors who are more likely to ignore identical messages from students because their name was black or Asian instead of white.
I was almost put on a special needs track as a child. A month into kindergarten, my teacher wrote a page-long memo noting that I was impulsive, had a short attention span, and despite my wonderful curiosity, I was exhausting to work with.
The principal asked my parents into a meeting, asked my mother if there had been complications at birth and suggested I meet with a school psychologist. My father saw what was happening and quickly explained our family situation. As recent immigrants, we lived in the attic of a home that cared for adults with mental disabilities. My parents worked nights to make ends meet, and I had little opportunity to spend time with kids my own age. Is it really a surprise that an understimulated five-year-old boy might be a little excited in a kindergarten classroom after an entire summer by himself?
Until we get a holistic view of someone, our judgment of them will always be flawed. Let’s stop equating experience with ability, credentials with competence. Let’s stop settling for the safe, familiar choice and leave the door open for someone who could be amazing. We need employers to let go of outdated hiring practices and embrace new ways of identifying and cultivating talent, and candidates can help by learning to tell their story in powerful and compelling ways. We could live in a world where people are seen for what they’re truly capable of and have the opportunity to realize their full potential. So let’s go out and build it.