The art and science of talent search: how to spot, assess, woo, and retain highly talented people

The book by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross is here:

Cowen interviewed Gross on a podcast is how I learned about the book, sounded interesting. I reading it now, only on page 16 but seems good. It’s $2.99 on Kindle right now, figured couldn’t go too far wrong.

@freighterman1 might find parts of it interesting.

I formulated this question to ask the corporate monkeys. “If Elon Musk was sitting across the table from your company’s interview panel, does your organization have the ability to recognize his talents and ability to win?”

The system that is thrives on mediocrity is unable to recognize excellence.

I remember one apprentice I had years ago in a workshop, was pretty good but I knew he would be a problem for 4 years, ( His father said as much) he just had to be the boss.
We survived 4 years and he left and started his own business and lived happily ever after.

Same when you know your school buddy is going to end up a champion salesman in some industry.

HR have always tried to invent ways and ,means to substantiate their industry, dont be fooled.

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Here’s a transcript of the podcast, one of the co-authors interviewing the other.

Book was quick read. A lot of good information I’ve not seen elsewhere. Nothing to do with HR which the book calls a “a hiring process full of kludge and sludge”.

Not directly related to maritime in most cases. We got crew mostly from the hall but we were able to evaluate crew for senior officer’s positions not by interviewing them but actually working alongside them at sea.

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So I downloaded the book and glanced through it.

The authors advise how to recognize founders and entrepreneurs in the tech world. That’s light years away from hiring officers and crews for boats. A tech company is looking for someone new to break all the rules. A disrupter. That’s the antithesis of a boat operator, who is looking to hire someone precisely to follow all the rules.

I’ve never heard a captain tell me, "Get me a creative AB.” Or, “Give me a mate who disrupts things.”

The number one thing captains want in a crew member is work ethic.

A lot of the book is about better ways to interview people to suss out their level of creativity. When I interview people I’m trying to suss out their work ethic, and it’s just as difficult to determine.

An interesting thing about mariners is that the best ones are often quite inarticulate, but they have a tremendous work ethic. Conversely, I have found that people who tell me exactly what I want to hear in an interview are quite often bullshit artists, who are great at interviews but otherwise lazy bastards

After a lot of interviewing people i admit to a prejudice against the well-spoken, and a liking for the near-mute. The latter very often compensate for their lack of social graces by working like Trojans.

The best possible reference for a sailor is 7 years at a Bering Sea fishing company. A bullshitter changes their job or gets canned every year, or less. Seven years at the same job means the applicant is steady. And Bering Sea fishermen have a work ethic that would make an Amish farmer look like a crack addict.

In the past we used the Simmons Personality Survey for vetting applicants. Long story. Basically it sussed an applicants’ personality. Because Bering Sea mariners tend to be tougher individuals than office or creative workers, the survey was only marginally useful for us.

But one thing I Iearned from using it was this: common to CEOs of the biggest companies, the best generals, and the best ship captains is a fundamental lack of self-

It’s difficult to express exactly what is meant by that phrase, because to most ears it has a negative connotation. The opposite to this trait is the egotist who believes they are perfect, and have no need to prove themselves. Whereas the best captains, generals, and CEOs are driven by a constant need to work and improve things, to prove their own self worth, if only to themselves.

I admit I haven’t read the entire book, but I didn’t find mention of this fundamental character trait in it, which surprised me. It would be the first thing I would look for in an innovator or founder I was considering backing financially.


I thought first third was good, the middle section dragged a little, I skimmed some of it but the last third has some some very good points.

It’s definitely not a how-to manual for HR, which in maritime at least is more about screening out the undesirables etc. Also the word “talent”. That’s a term usually associated upper level athletes, movie stars etc.

That said, I think that the book has enough value at $2.99 that it’s worth it “at the margin” - to use one of the authors favorite terms.

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Different positions require different skill sets. I’ve struggled to find the original blog where I read this, but a guy that ran a software company said he had a simple rule for hiring: “I want to hires somebody that is A) Smart and B) Get’s things done”.

The arguments is that smart alone, can also mean lazy and nothing gets accomplished. And getting things done (hard worker) without working smart isn’t very useful either. One can be a super hard worker and dig a ditch all day manually with a shovel–good work ethic…but he also could’ve used the excavator sitting there.

What most businesses forget, especially established commoditized business, is the need to do continuous improvement. Everything can be improved, even at the AB/QMED level and below. A wiper can improve his production by setting up a cleaning station on each level of the engine room, easily doubling his useful output. This is why some businesses win and other remain stagnant (or lose). Again, would you recognize Elon Musk’s skills if you interviewed him?

Working smart is preferable, of course. Given the choice I would hire only brilliant people with great work ethics. But they are few and far between. That’s the real world. Given the choice of hiring between a clever guy with no work ethic and an average guy with a great work ethic, I’ll pick the latter every time.

The wheel doesn’t need to be invented all the time. I just need a guy to keep the wheel we have spinning. You can invent or innovate any new system that you want but someone has to maintain it. Different roles, as we agree.

I understand your analogy about shovels/excavators. I have no problem with the analogy. I would add that it’s the job of the foreman (officer) to tell the guy to switch from digging with a shovel to using an excavator. If the guy with the shovel wants to make that call then maybe he should apply to be the foreman.

If he doesn’t want the headaches of being a foreman then he should just do what he’s told and everyone will be happier. If the guy suggests good innovations or works very hard he should be paid more than the average guy.

Where I work ABs are the backbone of a workforce performing skilled labor, in many ways like construction work. A lot of mechanical details. For this reason we set the AB pay scale deep, with a big gulf between what an entry level guy makes and what the most skilled “spark plugs” make, precisely to reward/ retain talent and hard work.

As for your Elon Musk question: I don’t know. I don’t hire tech company founders. I hire mariners.

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Elon Musk would make a lousy AB.


You totally missed the conceptual point. I know it was abstract, but come on man!

And to say the AB or OS or Wiper cannot provide valuable improvement is why the shipping industry is basically in the stone-age and has very little innovation. I don’t care what 40 years of experience as a mariner has taught somebody if it means this person is closed minded and never attempts to ask “why do we perform this task this way?”

Toyota has it figured out. America ignored Demming, but the Japanese did not. Your AB could have an idea that could potentially save your company millions…but will your company even hear him out?

This failure to implement the Toyota Production System (TPS), or lean manufacturing, is a result of management’s inability to create a true lean culture.

TPS, or lean, has been around for a few decades; the concepts and tools are not new. Companies embrace the lean tools but do not understand how they work together as a system. They will adopt a few of the lean tools but always fail to recognize the most powerful principle that Toyota recognized decades ago: A continuous improvement culture is needed to sustain lean.

At Toyota, everyone within the organization, from executives to shop-floor workers, is challenged to use their initiative and creativity to experiment and learn. We often hear labor advocates criticize assembly line work as being oppressive, and claim that menial labor robs workers of their mental faculties.

However, this could not be further from the truth with respect to lean. When Toyota sets up assembly lines, it selects only the best and brightest workers, and challenges them to grow in their jobs by constantly solving problems.

All areas of the organization (including sales, engineering, service, accounting, human resources, etc.) are staffed with carefully selected individuals, and the company gives them directives to improve their processes and increase customer satisfaction.

Toyota invests time and money into their employees and has become the model for a true learning organization. The importance of teams and teamwork is a way of life: team-building training is required, and it is put to practice daily. This investment in its employees far exceeds that of the typical organization that focuses on making parts and counting quarterly dollars.
The Toyota Culture of Continuous Improvement

Here is the money quote:

To truly understand the power of a continuous improvement culture, we again look to Toyota. Toyota employees generate more than one million process improvement ideas annually. The more astounding number is the fact that 90 percent of those ideas are implemented. There is no secret to why this occurs. Toyota executives have created a culture that encourages and rewards this behavior.

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I didn’t say that. In fact I made a point of saying when ABs do suggest good innovations they should be financially rewarded by increased pay.

The way we work here is light years from how we worked even ten years ago, the result of innovations large and small. A crew nowadays can load nearly three times the cargo that they could ten years ago in about 75% of the time. That’s innovation.

The salary system we have here, described in the Mariner Pay thread , which is apparently unique or nearly so, was invented by a captain and readily adopted by management.

But I live in a practical world. I remember several years ago I hired a college kid as a summer relief deckhand. The report I got back from the captain was that in the middle of loading cargo the new guy would stop and tell the mate how he knew things could be done better.

There were usually several reasons why he was wrong. But cargo operations would be in full swing. There was no time for yakking. Afterwards it would be explained to the new kid why things were done the way they’re done. Details that he, 10 days on the job, didn’t understand. Concepts he had never thought of. Didn’t matter. For the rest of his short tenure he would repeatedly stop everything to prove to everyone he was the smartest guy in the room.

Which was the point. In college he was BMOC . On the boat he was low man on the totem pole. Which he couldn’t stand. So he tried to impress everyone.

No one was impressed, because he was just making everything harder by slowing everything down.

The end came when halfway through the trip he told the captain he wanted the company to fly him home because his girlfriend couldn’t adjust to not having his awesome presence around. The fact that deserting the crew would make their jobs harder meant nothing to him.

The captain told him, No. So the guy quit and flew home from Dutch. Making everyone’s job harder.

When the voyage was over the exasperated captain sat me down and suggested his own innovation to me: during our training process for cargo ops, which we put new people through, the trainer should tell the trainees to shut the fuck up until they master the skills they are being taught before stopping production to reinvent the wheel.

Which in a practical world is pretty much how things should work.

Your whole direction about Toyota: I get that and have no issue with it. My guess is those Toyota assembly line workers are more likely to be established employees who spot a pattern to be corrected, or stumble on a solution because of a constant problem, than a new guy on his first day of work

Don’t blame me for not understanding a point which you readily admit is abstract. The more abstract a point in writing the more likely the reader will interpret it differently than intended.

This applies shoreside, as well, in all industries. Many of the people I’m unsure of because they don’t interview well are the best workers I’ve got if they get hired, whereas the guys that really impress me tend to be the problems once we get them in the door.

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You tell a story of a newly hired college boy know-all as an example to prove that worker bees shouldn’t be listened to for improvements? C’mon, man. Again, cherry picking outliers in a world of bell curves.

Worker bees that have taken the time to learn their job tend to get listened to. Gadflies on the other hand are best viewed when they head down the gangway on their way home.

IQ tests are the single greatest predictor at job performance.

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I think self-esteem is included in the personality trait “neuroticism”.

Most extremely successful people are highly intelligent and many successful people have low self-esteem but most very smart people or people with low self-esteem are not highly successful.

What’s required is a bundle of traits. The book calls it “the whole package”.

When you watch some of the shocker police interactions on youtube its obvious there should be an IQ test before you are allowed to be a Policeman in the US, even have more then 6 years of schooling would be a start…


Yes. I think there is a difference between having low self-esteem and not holding yourself in too high esteem. Nest-ce Pas?

“Self-esteem” in the context of the Simmon Personality Survey is a substantially different thing than the common use of the term. In the Simmons Survey it is meant to describe how driven a person is to reach their potential and succeed. In the survey result it is expressed along a bargraph. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Over the years we learned that when we hired someone with an extremely high level of self esteem they couldn’t be taught or told what to do, relatively speaking. They were Know It Alls.

On the the other end of the spectrum if they had very low levels of self-esteem (SPS definition ) they were always the first guy on deck and the last man off. They would drive themselves to learn every job they could, and do it right.

The egotist has heaps of self-esteem. In their estimation they were born perfect so there is little reason to drive themselves to extremes to reach success. They will reach the level of their natural talents and level off there. Maybe be quite successful at what they do, but not preeminent.

The person with low self-esteem (as defined by the SPS, remember) is never happy unless they are always striving. Life without another goal to conquer is misery, because they find self worth in striving. They are the guys who are billionaires at 30 but still go to the office six days a week, at 4 am., at age 75.

My favorite example is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. In his autobiography he makes it clear that even as a child he had an absolutely driven personality. Life was a series of goals. After he reached the ultimate goal, the moon, he was miserable for many years, because no other goal could compare, and his self esteem depended on constant challenge.

Neil Armstrong I think was the same way, though his character was very different than Aldrins. Both men ascribed their troubled times after the moon, in part, to the fact that there was no subsequent manned Mars mission for them to join. They needed ever increasing goals to achieve self worth.

Steve Jobs had the trait, to everyone’s betterment. So too, I believe does the convicted tech swindler Elizabeth Holmes, to her investors’ detriment. Whereas the egotist would be relatively happy in prison, because they are perfect, she will not. Cut off from any meaningful challenges she will spiral downwards.

By the way, as far as I can tell the Simmons Personality Survey is no more . Our agent retired. The company’s website is moribund. It was always only a fourth level of importance when it came to hiring decisions but it was always fascinating.


What did I just read in this quote?