Friday, March 8, 2013

Why are we so bad at spotting "talent?" And, what does it mean for colleges?

If I were to show you the picture at right (minus the text at the bottom), what would be your guess at the occupation of this man?  Accountant? Used car salesman? Computer engineer? Nope.

This is +Tom Brady, three-time +Super Bowl Champion, two-time Super Bowl MVP, and eight-time Pro Bowl Quarterback. On paper, in person, and on film, Brady would have been a bust for any team looking for a quality quarterback (here's 30 s. of video evidence further reinforcing how utterly unimpressive Brady was as an NFL hopeful). But, +New England Patriots Head Coach +Bill Belichick can do something most of us can't. He can spot talent.

One of my least favorite parts of my job is interviewing and hiring undergraduate students to be peer mentors in the department where I work. Part of this dislike stems from hours of conversations built around the same eight or ten interview questions, which typically yield the same mundane responses from applicants. But, I've also wondered (out loud at times, which gets me in trouble) whether we might have just as much luck throwing the applicants names in a hat, drawing out 50 names, and hiring them. In short, we often care too much about things that don't matter (high GPA, impressive essays, and well-articulated responses to our questions). And, every year we have a "Tom Brady" who we somewhat grudgingly hired, but who then turns out to be one of our best finds.

The same thing happens in various other parts of the academy, but most notably in admissions. This is particularly true when campuses heavily weight more "visible" factors such as standardized test scores, long lists of service and leadership experiences, and HS GPA (though it's a better predictor than standardized test scores).  We're overly impressed with "achievement" and "performance," while undervaluing more subtle and less visible characteristics like resilience, grit, and the ability to receive and use feedback.  This is what Belichick looked for and noticed in Brady and that allowed him to feel comfortable using a sixth round draft pick on someone no one else really wanted. But, Belichick only learned this because he focused on the right piece of data.

Belichick's method is pretty simple, when the Pats find a player at the NFL Combine that they are slightly interested in, they schedule an interview (which is pretty standard).  But, what he does next is where the genius lies.  Belichick has his staff find footage of one of the player's worst performances from their most recent season.  He turns off the lights, plays the clip, and then asks the player "What happened?"  Then, he listens for how the player responds to and explains poor performance.  The conversation that follows helps him identify whether or not the player has the right mindset to play for him in New England. He is only interested in players who want to get better and have the qualities that make that improvement possible.

My colleagues and I need to be more like Belichick and find ways to use our application and interview process to understand the less visible (but more important) qualities of our peer mentor candidates. And, institutions should move, more and more, towards models that allow them to gain insight into the kinds of qualities that Stanford University has come to value and celebrate in recent years and that have been researched by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues. This isn't to say that Tom Brady's speed didn't matter at all, a peer mentor applicant's well-written essays shouldn't be considered, or that a HS GPA shouldn't be considered when deciding whether or not to admit a prospective student. Rather, we should be looking beyond these attributes and find ways to understand whether or not applicants have the qualities that will allow them to thrive and develop once they get into the system and benefit from the training, coaching, and resources provided by the institution or organization. When we do, we'll start to find a lot more Tom Bradys and avoid bringing in any more Ryan Leafs.

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