Evaluating Talent: 5 Tips from a Coach

How to Spot the Winners

Creative agencies and college athletic programs share one key commonality: their success relies upon recruiting top talent into the fold. Talent is the only true commodity. All other inventory and overhead are a means to the end of attracting and retaining talent (so the agency can attract and retain good clients). Agencies hire renowned architects, build cool spaces or plush midtown offices. College athletic programs erect shiny new arenas and renovate stadiums with skyboxes. Small & Mid-sized regional creative agencies are similar to small and mid-major athletic programs. They have to recruit harder and smarter. They have to evaluate talent more judiciously, and be able to find the diamond in the rough — the talent with upside and desire.

I was a college basketball coach for six years at a mid-major program — Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. My primary responsibility was recruiting student-athletes that could compete at high levels in the classroom and on the basketball court. Like mid-sized agencies, there was nowhere to “hide” a recruit that wasn’t a good fit (male enrollment: 1,200). If we brought the wrong kid in, not only did it cost us wins — it cost us one of our precious few scholarships. Just like mid-sized agencies, the wrong hire sets the agency back. Evaluating talent becomes the difference between the winners and the losers.

There are two kinds of talent in any field, in my opinion. Let’s call them Original Talent and Derivative Talent. The original talent is one-of-a-kind. Their work and skills are special and distinct — nobody does it quite the way they do it. The derivative talent is skilled and able — but replaceable. Gifted, but not indispensable.

I’ve found that it’s difficult to separate the “game” from the recruit. If a kid plays the game “the right way” — he’s probably a solid dude. If he is a shuck and jiver on the court — that’s probably the way he is off of it. It’s a little trickier with creatives, but it’s difficult to separate the person from the portfolio. The trick is to discover if the book matches the recruit. So how do you do that? What can you do to recruit more smartly and effectively– to evaluate more judiciously? Here are some things I did as a coach and like to incorporate into my creative recruiting.

1. The Walk — Before I’d watch a recruit play in a game, I just wanted to see how he walked. I could tell a lot by that. So I’d get to the gym early to be there for the JV game so I could watch the kid walk into the gym, and then walk into the locker room to dress out. His posture, balance, gait and grace literally signaled how “grounded” he was. I looked for something I call a “humble swagger.” All the great ones have this. Some have more of one than the other. But I look for the perfect balance.

I was surprised at first that “The Walk” also applied to creative talent, (a slouch is a slouch).  Greatness begins from the ground up, not the neck down.

2. Good Hands/Handshake — It’s amazing how many great athletes can’t catch the ball. They can run like a banshee and jump out of the gym but throw some of them a pass from 18 feet with some zip on it and it’s concrete city.  Coaches that ascribe to “the best available athlete” theory of recruiting often wind up with a team prone to turnovers.

So how does this apply to creative agencies? Well, once I pitched a nice piece of NASCAR business with an agency. We had great work, except a creative guy spilled his coffee all over the tissues. I remember another creative guy would develop “the shakes” when he presented work internally and externally. His hands rattled the table. He may have been better suited to be a gynecologist. Others always seem to be fumbling stuff. Finally, ever get the dead-fish handshake? It was somewhat in vogue about 10 years ago. It creeps me out. Or the Fred Flintstone handshake, where you need to ice down your hand afterwards? In sport and in business, I want people with sure hands and solid handshakes on my team.

3. A Peculiar Habit or Trait — This is pure Palma and impossible to substantiate, just my school of evaluation. I’ve noticed that the truly great ones — those with Original Talent  — ALL have some distinctive peculiar habit or trait. One of the greatest copywriters I’ve ever recruited chews paper. Another great radio writer had a voyeuristic affinity with a telescope in his office. One of the greatest high school basketball players I’ve ever seen had this unusual neck tic. In some, it’s their dress. In others, their diet. But, behind nearly every great original talent is some distinctive peculiar habit or trait.

4. Eye Contact — I’m not a shrink but I know poor eye contact signals evasiveness or worse, insincerity. As a coach, I would never recruit a kid who didn’t look me in the eye. They didn’t have to say a lot, but they had to make consistent eye contact. When I recruit a Creative Director for an agency, I make a point to try to meet him. They’ve  got to look me in the eye when they explain why they are motivated by the opportunity. If not, it’s lip service.

5. See Them Sweat — How are they under adversity? Do they exhibit grace under pressure? Do they handle victory and defeat with equal dignity? These are key indicators of character. Are they truly competitive (true competitors need to compete, NOT win)?  Truly competitive people never accept in victory what they would not accept in defeat.

I remember getting numberless VHS tapes of basketball players from all over the country. Invariably they were made by coaches or parents trying to get their kid a scholarship. Besides the obvious “highlights-only” editing, the biggest problem with video evaluation of talent was that you never got to see the kid actually sweat. There is no perspiration on video.

Then when I got into creative recruiting, I received all those 3/4″ reels from creative talent. Cassettes. DVD’s. When the work was brilliant, I still needed to know that the work was actually the recruit. I needed to “get to the gym early” to see the recruit walk (meet them for coffee, breakfast, etc.). It’s a similar dynamic as the creative recruit’s portfolio is the “highlights-only” video of the advertising world.. It is, too often, accepted as Gospel. We neglect thorough evaluation. They’re really good out of the windup but we fail to see them pitch out of the stretch position.

This is where online recruiting really hampers small and mid-sized creative agencies. It leaves them more vulnerable than ever to poor fits. It seems easy, post an ad for a job and count the resumes. The problem is, the top talent — the Original Talent — is not looking on web sites for a job. They’re playing. And winning. Online recruiting is shallow and sterile.. You get a hundred resumes, 90 of them are blatantly poor fits so they get deleted on contact. Ten of them are potential recruits. Now how do you evaluate them? They will be pretty adept on the phone, they’re ad people — they know how to talk and sell themselves. I prefer to watch them walk….

10 thoughts on “Evaluating Talent: 5 Tips from a Coach

  1. Gene P.

    good post, mike. it’s remarkable how many bad hires (and fires) are made in our business. my theory: it’s the bad bosses who pull the trigger on the bad hires. they’re like the chicks who always pick the wrong guys to date, when mister right is staring them in the face. these people could benefit from a third party — such as a mike palma — arranging that ideal marriage, so to speak. too bad you don’t work chicago…i’d love to know anyone if anyone is looking to hook up.

  2. Fernando L Diaz

    Hi Stag Teamate ’72-74′ 1-2 Punch Best 2 Scores in St. Agnes History. How are you doing 36 years later?
    Good to hear from you. Let’s Team up again for another run. What Coach Frank Morris taught us makes us a special breed of Winner in life. Just look at us now. God Bless…

      1. Tony Schmitt

        Palma & Freddie Diaz that was a great show to watch!! If there were 3 pointers, you good only guess how points the Stags would have put up on the scoreboards on LI.
        Tony Schmitt HF’76, I played with Alex Middleton in S.Huntington.

  3. Pingback: 2010 in review | mikepalma.com

  4. mike cullinan

    I was just with Tommy Ahern and we were talking about the great Rob Conroy and yourself -great team-cheers-Mike Cullinan


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