Thursday, October 11, 2018

TALENT SEARCH: Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing [#EmergentVentures]

Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing the deal, what do they have to with finding talent? Aren’t they sales processes?

Same kind of process, I think. In any case, I want to see what, if anything, we can learn about searching for talent by thinking of it in sales terms. In both cases we’re looking through a relatively large population for a relatively small number of “deals”.

This is going to be quick and dirty. I’m keeping links and citations to a minimum. I want to get to the end as fast as I can.

I’m headed toward the MacArthur Fellows Program. But I’m not going to start there. I want to build up to it by stages, to establish a conceptual framework (LQC: leads, qualification, close) we can employ once we get there. Once we get there we’ll take a look at the new Emergent Ventures program by way of comparison.

Find the fastest sprinters in your town

Let’s start with a relatively simple talent search: Find the ten fastest sprinters in the town where you live. I live in Hoboken, NJ., though it doesn’t make much difference what the town is. We’re looking for broad-strokes principles, not details.

What’s a lead? For starters, let’s say anyone who can run. Once we’ve found a lead we have to qualify them: Is it worthwhile seeing how fast this person can run? If the answer is yes, they pass into the closing round and we run them through heats until we close on the top ten.

Assuming that we really do want the top ten fastest, the major problem we face in generating leads is making sure that we’ve searched the whole population. Hoboken is a city of 50,000 living in roughly 1.28 square miles. What we want is a list of the people living in Hoboken. The Census Bureau will have such a list, but it won’t be current, and even in those few years where it is more or less current, some people will not have been counted. Do we care? How much effort are we willing to exert to find the rest? You can answer those questions in what ever level of detail pleases you. All that interests me is raising the issue.

Now, how do we qualify a lead? I’ve said that anyone who can run is a potential lead. That’s a pretty low bar. We want a quick and easy way to eliminate a large majority of the population. If you look at me, for example, you’ll see that my hair is gray and that I’m fairly overweight. There’s no point in having me run heats. Can we eliminate, say, 95% of the population by a quick and crude perceptual test? What is it? Is there anything else we can do that’s quick, cheap, and reasonably accurate?

Once we’ve narrowed things down then, and only then, can we start running heats to close in on the best. I don’t know what’s the best (or at least a good) way to do that, but surely there are people who do.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking, this is stupid. There are already organized athletic programs in Hoboken. Use them.

Right, we should take advantage of them. What’s the best way to do that? Can we assume that, if we identify the ten fastest sprinters in those programs, we will have found the ten fastest sprinters in Hoboken? Why or why not? If not, how do we find the others? Hint, we’ve already been through that, no?

Find the ten best athletes

We’ll have the same three processes, generating leads, qualifying them, and closing on the best. But, within that framework, it’s a more difficult process.

Generating leads: Who’s an athlete? Of course, many people are athletes in several disciplines. That’s OK, though it brings its own problems. Anyone who participates in at least one discipline is a potential lead, but what disciplines count.

Does gold count? My father thought so, Tiger Woods thinks so. But a lot of people don’t. What about arm wrestling? Skate boarding? Base jumping? Ping-pong? Three cushion billiards? Shuffle-board? I assume we’re going to include team sports. Are there any “oddball” possibilities we have to consider? We have to define what activities count for the purposes of this competition. Or do we?

Given a possibly open-ended list of eligible disciplines, how do we qualify leads? The criteria will vary from discipline to discipline. In the case of team sports, do we qualify the team, or individuals? Do we need more sophisticated judges than we had for sprinting? More training?

Given a set of qualified leads, how do we close on the ten best athletes? What are the criteria of judgment for comparing, say, skateboarders with football line-backers? Where we can it seems like a good idea to look at peoples records. We’ll have such records for the high school football team, but not for the kids who frequent the skate park. The fact our search is confined to Hoboken means that we can use regional, national, and even international rankings where we have them. The fact that, say, a Hoboken diver is nationally ranked is important, as is playing on a state-wide soccer team.

My point is simple: Determining the top ten in this arena is much more difficult than in the case of sprinters.

The MacArthur Fellows Program

This is an existing program that’s been around for almost 40 years and named 942 Fellows so far. We know in broad outline how it works. The criteria for selection are:
  1. Exceptional creativity
  2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
  3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
Let us recall, as well, that people cannot apply for a fellowship. That condition was imposed on the foundation by the Internal Revenue Service. They determined that if the fellowship money were to be tax-free, as the foundation wished, then it would have to take the form of a gift. You can’t apply for gifts. Since people can’t apply the foundation must seek them out. That makes the foundation’s process rather like generating sales leads.

Generating leads: The rock-bottom eligibility criterion is simple: being a United States citizen. The process of qualifying those leads is given over to a team of anonymous nominators who identify candidates, collecting preliminary information about them, and forward that information to the foundation. The staff of the foundation then gathers further information, seeks the advice of experts, and makes this information available to a selection committee of twelve people. They close on a slate of 20 to 30 candidates for a year and forward the list to the Board of Directors for final approval.

I assume that the nominators have the three broad selection criteria in mind and take those into consideration along with whatever they know of past winners. They want to nominate people of similar caliber, do they not? I have no idea how much time and effort these nominators put into their task and would imagine it various among them. There is obviously not going to be any attempt to consider the entire eligible population, vaguely defined as it is, in any given you. The sample is going to be a convenience sample. I note as well, that once a person has entered into the selection process they remain eligible for awhile: “We often consider nominees over a period of years; individuals nominated during one particular year are not under consideration for that year alone.”

So what? And what of Emergent Ventures?

I’ve been through a similar exercise in my original reflections on the Fellows program, though not in this level of detail. Nor did I at that time see the similarity between prospecting for talent and prospecting for sales leads. Prospecting is prospecting.

It was obvious back then that identifying fastest sprinters is simple in comparison to finding the best athletes regardless of category. And that, in turn, is simpler than identifying general excellence regardless of field. What has emerged in the above exercise is how the same general process – identifying leads, qualifying them, and closing in on the best – changes as we move from case to case. In the case of identifying sprinters we see an almost mechanical order to the whole process. In the case of the MacArthur Fellows the difficulty of identifying and applying criteria of selection seems to take over the whole process.

I believe that in fact it is no longer the same kind of problem. It may fit within the same general three-part LQC framework, but something else is going on, something that’s not stated, something that’s more or less hidden in the (vapid) generality of those three selection criteria. Rather than examine that hidden something in a direct fashion – which I could do, and have done – I want to indicate it indirectly by asking you to look at the Emergent Ventures program, recently announced by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The center is directed by Tyler Cowen, who also runs the Emergent Ventures program.

The center is associated with libertarian values. And Cowen is a long-time blogger with a large following. He, his interests, and values are thus highly visible and well-known in contrast to the secrecy surrounding the MacArthur Fellows Program. Cowen is looking for “moonshots”, which I take to mean he’s seeking the same level of “heft” that the MacArthur Foundation is. But the metaphor is important.

What are his criteria? Here’s what he says:
Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.” Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence. Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor. What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government? I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures. Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.
What? you ask, those aren’t criteria! They’re examples.

Precisely. He’s sampling the (possibility) space for you while inviting you to find new things in that space and perhaps even expand the boundaries of the space. That's a very interesting way of letting us know what he’s after. It strikes me as being a more sophisticated form of guidance than the MacArthur Foundation’s criteria of excellence. It’s a different way of thinking and proceeding.

There’s much more to say, but it’s time to bring this to a close. Let’s take a last look at the MacArthurs.

Has the MacArthur Foundation had any moonshots? I’ve not attempted anything remotely resembling a complete review, nor would I trust my own judgment over the full range of such a process, but they awarded Stephen Wolfram in their first class (1981). He was awarded for his work in complexity. He used his award to found a software company to market and sell Mathematica, a mathematical analysis program that’s now used by hundreds and thousands, millions likely, of researchers. And he’s continued with his own highly fruitful, albeit controversial, intellectual program. I call that a moonshot.

They also gifted Robert Penn Warren in that class. By that time Warren was well-established as a mainstream man of letters. He’d won just about every literary prize but the Nobel, including Pulitzers for both fiction and poetry. He was co-author of text books used in college classrooms across the land and one of his novels, All the King’s Men, was made into a major Hollywood film. A distinguished man of letters? Yes. A moonshot? No, too safe, too conventional. (I've discussed Wolfram and Warren in more detail here.)

We shall see.

* * * * *

An Exercise for the Reader: Examine the online material for Emergent Ventures. Analyze their process in the terms I’ve been using here: Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing (LQC). Now, consider the fact that the Mercatus Center occupies a distinct place in the university-world ecology and that Cowen is very visible in the blogosphere. Are those things external to the Emergent Ventures’ LQC process, perhaps like a frame setting it off, or internal to it? If the latter, how? The fact that I’m asking these questions implies, of course, that I’ve got a specific approach to them.

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