And what to do when you've got that stellar recruit on board...
It's every employer's dream. It's why talent scouts scour universities across the globe and it's why recruitment is such a lucrative industry.
It's the hope of finding that one unique candidate who could do more to transform your organisation than the rest of your employees put together - the hope of employing a young Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg to work for your company.
The CVs of those top applicants may, however, never reach the organisations looking for them, and many more companies could be throwing their résumés away, according to George Anders, author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everybody Else.
Inspired by the difference a good candidate and a great candidate makes in organisations ranging from the Special Forces to tech startups, Anders studied how some of the top talent in the world is recruited and found that traditional methods can miss out some of the very best candidates.
"Our hiring systems work about 80 to 90 per cent of the time, but there are blind spots," Anders told silicon.com.
Traditional recruitment strategies tend to find the second tenth of candidates, he said - so while organisations won't see the very worst candidates, they equally may not see the exceptionally good candidates.
Finding a candidate in that top tenth could be what turns your business into an Apple, Facebook or Google.
Finding such a person requires a different approach - organisations need to change aspects of their recruitment process to ensure the best candidates come to the fore.
Don't discount the imperfect CVs
Anders writes in The Rare Find that "knowing what to do when a jagged-résumé candidate enters the picture is the single biggest differentiator between leaders with a gift for picking winners - and those who keep wrong-footing themselves".
A jagged-résumé candidate is someone who...
...has gaps in their CV or has experienced past failures or mistakes, but also has some outstanding areas in their job history.
Most hiring processes begin by filtering CVs based on a checklist of requirements deemed necessary for the job. While this can be a good way to concentrate recruitment efforts, Anders believes it can mean some of the best candidates are discounted straight away.
"You've got rid of the bottom 80 per cent and you have concurrently got rid of the top 10 per cent - some of your disqualifying grounds actually knock out the Steve Jobs," he said.
"If you had done strictly a credentials-based approach to someone like that, you never would have hired or invested in Steve Jobs the first time or the second time," Anders said, citing the fact that the former Apple CEO did not have a university degree.
So that employers do not discount the candidates with the greatest potential, organisations should identify the one or two traits that are most essential to the job and judge candidates on these traits, Anders said.
"Concentrate on the one or two must-haves and be willing to compromise on the nice-to-haves so you widen the pool of the people you look at, and you get the people who are most likely to succeed."
Resilience key to success but hidden in recruitment
Resilience is one particular skill that is often ignored by traditional recruitment processes, but is a key attribute of success, according to Anders.
"Our traditional screening systems give very little weight to [resilience] which is why I refer to it as the invisible virtue," he said.
While past bold mistakes may have taught potential candidates more about how to succeed than a career of successfully toeing the line at an established organisation, traditional recruitment approaches tend to ignore and even punish candidates for such a history.
"Our feet are pointed in a way to look for uninterrupted success and it's hard for candidates to talk about the time they've struggled and it's hard for interviewers to draw that out in a positive way."
"What we really want are people who have made a success of a difficult situation, because each job is going to bring some difficult situations," he said.
Widen the boundaries of your search
Many employers tend to recruit repeatedly from the same narrow talent pools - consistently recruiting from top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, for example - meaning that talented candidates from outside those traditional areas are ignored.
"I see some employers, particularly the consulting firms that become so reliant...
...on trying to get the finest pedigrees, that they miss all of the really interesting candidates from less renowned, but still very worthwhile, universities where the top two or three graduates can be far better than the top 30th or 300th graduate from somewhere else."
"Elitism for its own sake is a pitfall to watch out for," Anders added.
In The Rare Find, Anders describes a recruiter who works for an advertising company who spends 50 per cent of his time looking for the 'wild card' in unexpected talent pools such as stand-up comedy.
By looking in unusual places, the advertising agency is able to recruit talent that might be ignored by their competitors.
"He does get misfires sometimes but his successes are big enough that they more than cover the dead-end time," he said.
"It's always easier to stay with what you know works but I think it's essential within recruiting to stretch the boundaries," he added.
Automate low-yield searches
To widen recruitment searches to areas that may have a relatively low yield of suitable candidates, Anders said organisations should use methods that allow them to look at a lot of candidates cheaply.
"Any way that you can automate it or use unpaid scouts or come up with other systems to help you find those unlikely candidates without incurring big costs can be helpful."
In The Rare Find, Anders documents how Facebook created its Puzzle Master to seek talented programmers who might not have yet made it to Silicon Valley or come from any of the traditional talent pools.
It was developed in response to Facebook's rapidly growing demand for programmers and its inability to compete with big hitters such as Google in the competitive Palo Alto recruitment market.
Facebook's Puzzle Master page is updated with puzzles designed to test the abilities of potential programmers. Even the image used as the profile picture is a puzzle written in the programming language Piet which uses rectangles and colour blocks. Once solved, the logo reveals an...
...email address which the successful decoders can write to to alert Facebook of their talent.
At the time of writing The Rare Find, the Puzzle Master had helped to find 118 programmers - nearly 20 per cent of those who work at Facebook.
The success of the Puzzle Master scheme lies not in just finding people with the right skills, but also with the right character.
"The mere fact of participation is a powerful sorting tool. What are you going to do if you get a job at Facebook? You're going to sit in front of a screen for long hours and try to write code, so why not get people who think it's fun to sit in front of a screen for long hours and write code?"
Character is more important than experience
Anders writes in The Rare Find that organisations looking to hire at the top levels should compromise on experience but never compromise on character.
"Character is a much harder trait to train. There are a lot of skills that people can learn on the job but something as simple as who works hard, who functions well on a team, who has high standards and doesn't compromise on quality, who meets deadlines [is sometimes more important] - there are people who meet deadlines and there are people who don't," he said.
Employers should also reconsider requiring candidates with a particular level of experience.
"A simple gating thing of saying, 'We only want people with five years of experience or ten years of experience', that's exactly how you end up with that second decile. You get all the people who are pretty good but you miss out on the people who are rocketing through the field who are only in their second or third year."
Time limits on candidates' experience can be totally irrelevant to their ability to do the job at hand - especially in technology because the field is so rapidly changing.
"Try to find someone with 15 years in cloud computing - we haven't been doing cloud computing on a large scale for that long."
Think about the how and the why
While you still want to know what potential recruits have done over the years, interviews should focus much more on the how and why than simply absorbing impressive-sounding job titles at impressive-sounding organisations.
"Success at a small project can be more relevant than a middling performance at a large project," Anders said, so interviewers should really try to get to the heart of how a candidate works.
"These sorts of interviews should be much more about a...
...deep understanding of someone's style of operation. It takes training to do that because it runs somewhat counter to what we would expect from a normal conversation - but interviews aren't normal conversations."
Avoid hiring clones
As well as looking in the same places, recruiters can also unduly narrow their search by looking for the same kind of candidate.
"Often there is a tendency of, 'Let's keep hiring what we've been hiring before'," Anders said.
"Turn the clock back and at one time we only looked at hiring men - now IBM has a female CEO. We are in a world now where people who narrow the pool and regard large parts of the talent pool as off-limits are just missing great candidates."
Don't become blinded by talent
When someone is very obviously talented, employers can lose track of whether that candidate has the attributes they were looking for and end up employing someone talented - just not in the way their organisation needs them to be, Anders said.
"Know your own business and know what the skills you want are and don't get sidetracked by impressive skills that don't relate to what you do," he advised.
Fundamentally, recruiters must make sure they know what the job at hand involves and always bring recruiting decisions back down to that criteria.
"Often this means not just what size budget you move, or the mechanical description, but the actual interaction and dynamics of what you're going to do," Anders said.
"Is it important to interact with customers? If so, are we talking about retail customers or industrial institutional enterprise customers? This is an area where companies stumble quite often. Someone who was marvellously successful at selling to the enterprise world doesn't quite have the rhythm of connecting to the retail world."
"A success in one is not necessarily a success in another," he added.
"I watch poor Hewlett-Packard and they seem to have a knack for picking outside CEOs who can't figure out their own business and they do it again and again. They pick people who are...
...high achievers in one field but are not really suited to making a success of what HP does."
Evaluate your recruitment success
One of the best ways to improve the recruitment process is to evaluate how successful the last recruits have been, according to Anders.
"Ask yourself, 'Of the last 50 people we hired, who were the best five? And what did we think of them at the time?'."
Google frequently reviews the success of its recent recruits which helps them identify what a great worker looks like at the recruitment stage.
"One of the things [Google] found is that when there is conflict - when there are four or five assessors who are incredibly eager to hire someone, and one who isn't - and they still go ahead and hire, those often turn out to be some of their best people."
"Rather than everyone being mildly enthusiastic about a person, the only way you overcome a low score from someone is to say, 'You know what, that is an extraordinary person and I am willing to bet all my chips this month or this quarter that that is someone we need'."
In a similar way, when looking at recruits who haven't succeeded in an organisation, companies may become more aware of mistakes being made in the recruitment process.
"We all make mistakes - the tragedy is when you keep making the same mistakes year after year without realising it."
What do to with talent when you've found it
Once you've found that special candidate, you have to work hard to keep them motivated and keep them in your organisation.
Talented, creative, driven candidates should be given a role that makes the most of their abilities, not only to ensure their own sense of job satisfaction, but also to justify the need to find that extraordinary talent in the first place.
"When you look at major surveys you will see that companies are uneasy about their ability to find outside talent but even more dismayed at how they handle inside talent," Anders said.
"There still tend to be barriers to getting the right people in the right jobs and evaluating people in an effective way so that you promote the right people."