Creative Age Recruiting Rule #5: Talent is defined by production, not opportunity
Continuing our exploration of the New Rules of Recruiting in the Creative Age.
“Real Artists Ship”
This little saying (often attributed to either / both Steve Jobs and / or Bill Gates) has gotten me into more philosophical fights than anything I have ever spoken. Coming from a family that includes artists and musicians I am sensitive to the fact that art and commerce often seem like bad bedfellows. But I still stand by the sentiment: if you remove the assumption that the phrase translates into “you can’t be an artist if people aren’t paying you” (which is where most of my opponents instantly go to), you find that the statement “real artists ship” is a little like saying “the sun produces heat": it may be up for debate, but is true nonetheless.
“Real artists ship” means that you can't be an artist if you don’t produce something tangible. The fact that you have a nice picture in your head does not make you an artist.
I have a brother who was a composition major at college. He would insist that because he was enrolled in classes and could play some instruments that he was a musician. I would ask him to play something for me, to which he would reply “I am too busy” or “I have to go wash my cat” or some such thing. At which point I would say “You aren’t a musician yet.” Eventually he wrote several pieces as part of his senior year project, and I went to see them performed. They were quite good. But even if they had been terrible, I would have said the same thing: “Now you are a musician.”
It turned out that it took a group of fairly insistent teachers to “ship” his product. Once he left school, he no longer has this support network, and subsequently failed to “ship” anything else. So I would claim that he was only a musician (artist) in the context of school, which means that as long as he is out of school he isn't a musician. Until he creates something outside of school.
Why all this about musicians and brothers? In the creative age, talent is as talent does, and talent "does" only within a context. You don’t hire someone because they have done great things, you hire someone because you think they will do great things. You ask a lot of questions about what candidate has done in the past because you figure that if a candidate has done something before, the chances of them doing it again are pretty good. Well, maybe, maybe not.
In the creative age you are looking for people who show a creative bent: they have a unique and often specialized way of viewing the world and framing problems so that their product or output solves a particular problem in an innovative and useful way. In the mechanical age it was a pretty good bet that if someone could be a draftsman in one company they could be a draftsman in another. The specialization of the role itself contained most of the variables of doing the job. In the knowledge age this started to change: just because you could be a good patent attorney for a biomed company didn’t mean you would be a good patent attorney for a disk drive manufacturer. The variables of good performance were more equally distributed between the expertise required in performing the role and the specifics of the environment within which the role is performed.
In the creative age most of the variables around performance are independent of the role. You can learn to be a great java engineer and produce some fantastic insights in one company, and then go to another company and be almost worthless. Or, you can find yourself a real superstar in one place, only to go to a new company and be completed flummoxed, even though both jobs require producing the same output to solve a specialized problem.
As a recruiter in the creative age you have to be able to go beyond a detailed understanding of the specialized requirements of the role: you have to be intimately familiar with the environment context within which the role will be performed. You can source someone who has stellar references and comes in and white boards a java test like a pro, and the probability that they will be a complete wash-out three months later is just as great as the probability that they would be a wash-out if you had never done the white board test in the first place. In other words, eevaluation of the specific skills set required for a job without evaluation of whether those skills can be applied in innovative ways inside of your specific environment is almost totally worthless.
In the creative age "talent" are as much artists as they are crafts people or trades people. They have to create something that didn’t exist before. And the only way to evaluate the future potential of an artist is by what they have produced before. But it goes beyond needing tangible examples of yesterday’s success. You have to be able to figure out whether an artist is able to shift studios, patrons, paints, canvases and everything else physical and emotional about their art and still produce at the same level. When someone changes jobs in the creative age they are moving from one platform to another: they are literally shifting everything real and emotionally connected about the environment in which they create. It is your job as a recruiter to figure out whether the new platform that you are providing will be the right one to help them create at the same (or better) level that they did before.
As we move to more of a creative foundation for value production inside of companies it is all the more important to understand that “Talent is defined by production, not opportunity”. Whether you think commerce bastardizes art or not, real artists must ship. You have to answer... will they?