The Quest for Talent: Selecting the Perfect Candidate

By Leonardo Almonti

Everybody is looking for them, they are the perfect candidate.
Today, more than ever in the history of the corporate world, the search for talents is becoming a “gold rush”. Not only we are looking for the most experienced and effective, but we are also looking for the most talented candidates. Not by chance, back in 1998 at McKinsey, consultants were already talking about “war for talent” (Michaels, Handfield-Jones, & Alexlrod, 2001). This is the quest for talent.

But, what is talent?

Talent is the potential of a certain candidate or employee. This potential is unknown and has to be unveiled. People may or not may be aware of their unspoken talent. What we are looking for is the rough stone, that has the potential to be processed into a shiny diamond. In this sense, talent can be defined as the ability to develop the skills to do extraordinary work over time and under guidance.

In simple mathematical terms, we can express it this way:


Why do we care about ability? Of course cause ability, paired with motivation, if placed in the right environment, produce our ultimate goal, performance:


The new role of HR

As HR professionals, our duty today is to carry out this process: fetch and discover the perfect candidates, nurturing them through training, coaching and supervision, but – paradoxically – always remembering that there is no such thing as the “perfect candidate”, because every candidate is motivated and talented towards a specific environment. Therefore, the very first step is investigating the position we want to fill and the company’s internal culture, for the purpose of creating an appropriate Job Description. Now we are up for the big hunt: the quest for talent.

The Quest for Talent

But unveiling talent may be more difficult than it seems. For instance, has been pointed out that all differences in young players’ draft between teams in NFL could be due to chance (Massey, 2011). And this is in sport, where talent should be much more recognizable than in the workplace!

Back to our offices, when we perform a CV screening we are not actually looking for talent. Of course, education, life and work history of a candidate could be a hint about it… but that’s it, just a hint. As a matter of fact, CV screening is been largely evidenced as a low-reliability practice by several studies (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004). Certainly, if you are looking for experience, that is the loudest speaker, however, we are not looking for experience itself, aren’t we? In fact, a candidate might have a lot of work years behind, but not necessarily great knowledge or skills to perform well in the position.

A recruiter splits a stack of job applications, and throws a half of them in the garbage. “What are you doing?!” asks his coworker. “Well,” answers the recruiter, “we don’t want unlucky people in our company, do we?”.

With this joke, Zeljko Svedic in his book “Evidence-Based Hiring” (2018), summarizes the frightening trend in HR to discard most of the candidates (up to 90%) with unreliable methods. Therefore the real question is, how many talented people are we cutting off through CV screening?

How to assess talent?

A good predictor for talent in complex jobs – which corporate jobs usually are – is General Intelligence. The more complex the duties of the job, the more General Intelligence can predict the performance of the employee (Schmidt & Hunter 2004). In fact, according to Schmidt & Hunter (2004), the most reliable predictors of job learning and job performance are General Intelligence and Conscientiousness paired together.

General Intelligence is often regarded as the underlying factor for cognitive abilities – which are crucial in learning and carrying out complex tasks -, while Conscientiousness is a trait of personality found in people with high “self-discipline”. You can assess the first one through General Mental Ability tests, while the second through the Big 5 Questionnaire (one of the most famous and popular personality test, to know more check this article) or Integrity tests.

Conscientiousness’ items from the short version of the Big 5 Inventory (Soto & John, 2017)

In essence, a candidate that possess these two features will be more likely to have the mental potential to learn fast and persistently new complex tasks in new challenging environments as well as the capacity to be organized, goal-oriented and carrying out reliable jobs.

How to assess ability?

On the other hand, not always we are in quest for talent. In fact, if we are looking to fill a senior position, measuring actual ability could be more relevant than measuring talent. The candidate has to be ready to perform the tasks of the job and will be less likely to learn much more at this point in his/her career. For this purpose, we can use Job Knowledge tests and Work-samples. The goal of these assessments is to measure real ability instead of inferring it from years of experience or education. Example of Work Sample can be to realize a logo for a Graphic Designer position, while Job Knowledge test will be something more similar to multiple-choice questions about how to develop the logo, the strategy and so on.

But beware, even for experienced employees General Intelligence still plays an important role in determining the quality of their work, influencing directly job performance, even after considering its effect on learning (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004).

How to assess motivation?

May the candidate be a rookie or an expert, motivation plays a fundamental role even in the quest for talent. Indeed, without it, would be impossible for us to develop this rough stone into the shiny diamond we want, or even to get the best out of it.

The standard technique to assess motivation is one of the oldest and more popular: interviewing. Most of the time the recruiter in this phase becomes an investigator, whose duty is to discover what really drives the candidate and verify the fit with the company’s needs. This is perhaps the phase that requires the highest amount of soft skills for the HR professional. In fact, even though we can standardize the interview through a structured grid of questions and fixed replies, the ability of the recruiter to understand the person psychology remains essential.

What’s the solution?

In contrast to CV screening, some methods have been found to be rather effective in identifying future performance or talent of candidates. It follows a rank proposed by Svedic (2018), based on the work of Schmidt and Hunter (1998).

0.20 < Low validity methods
0.20 < X < 0.45 Medium validity methods
> 0.45 High validity methods

In the first stages of selection, we are especially interested in the methods we can apply fast as CV screening and with less effort. As cited above, General Mental Ability, Job Knowledge tests and Integrity tests are fast, reliable, easily administered online and results in more work for the candidate and less for the HR department. This is mainly made possible by CAT (Computerized adapting testing), computer-based tests which adapt to candidates’ ability in order to make the test the shortest and the most accurate.

After the first scry, it’s time to apply more expensive and time-consuming techniques on the selected pool of people. Therefore, assessing motivation and exploring other aspects of the candidate’s through Structured Interviewing. In conclusion, this is the quest for talent: finally aiming to hire the perfect candidate!


Gallardo-Gallardo, E., Dries, N. & Gonzalez-Cruz, T. F. (2013). What is the meaning of “talent” in the world of work? Human Resource Management Review.

Massey, C. (2011). Flipping Coins in the War Room: Skill and Chance in the NFL Draft. MIT Sports Analytics Conference.

Mitchell, T. R. (1982). Motivation: New directions for theory, research, and practice. Academy of Management Review7, 80–88.

Schmidt, F. L. & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124(2), 262-274.

Schmidt, F. L. & Hunter, J. E. (2004). General Mental Ability in the World of Work: Occupational Attainment and Job Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Soto, C. J. & John, O. P. (2017). Short and extra-short forms of the Big Five Inventory-2: The BFI-2-S and BFI-2-XS. Journal of Research in Personality, 68, 69-81.

Svedic, Z. (2018). Evidence-Based Hiring.