Gut Feel: Taking a Flyer on a Diamond in the Rough

I spend a lot of time training managers on hiring practices — preaching the “gospel” of identifying the job’s key skills, experience, and characteristics, and then designing the interview and selection process to systematically address these issues.  It’s all very good advice — except when it’s not.  This story is about one of those times.

Standing Out

In conducting  training for a client recently, one of their managers (Devon, an African-American man in his early 30’s*) stood out over the course of the two day session.  As I was chatting with the client’s senior manager after the training wrapped up, I said commented about the young manager that ” he’s someone I would hire on gut reaction.”

“It’s funny you should say that,” the client replied.  Then, he went on to tell me Devon’s story.  Here it is  (n.b., names and minor facts changed to protect privacy). 

* Devon’s race is relevant only in so far as he works in an industry that is virtually 100-percent “non-diverse” — making him a tremendous role model for all of the youths that he counsels.

Early Ambition

Devon was born to a 16-year old mother in an inner city.  He grew up one of six children and strived to be a good brother and son — but he always had a feeling that life had something else in store for him.  Acting on this belief, when he was in high school, he wrote letters to fifty elite private schools, saying in effect, “I know that with my academic background, I’m not one of your traditional candidates.  But I also know that I have the drive to succeed at your school — and I promise you that no one will out-work me, ever.  If you give me a chance, I’m sure that I’ll make you proud.”

49 of the schools ignored his letter; one wrote back — and that one offered him a scholarship.

Moving Forward in Life

Devon enjoyed a good college career, excelling in Division II basketball and, most importantly, maintaining a 3.2 gpa.  After graduating, though, he found that a full-time position in his field was hard to find (coming, as it did, at the beginning of the recession).  As fate might have it, he ran into the client’s hiring manager at a local job fair for non-profit organizations.  They established a quick and easy rapport — so much so that, when Devon inquired about open positions,  the manager replied, “I’m not exactly sure what we have that might fit you — but come by around 9 am tomorrow and  I should be able to find something for you.”

Making It Happen

The manager hired Devon as a junior member of the IT team.  Three years later, the rest of the IT department quit en masse to accept significantly higher pay from a competitor, leaving a big hole.  As management scrambled to recover, Devon stepped forward to throw his hat into the ring.  “I know that I don’t have the supervisory experience that you’re looking for — but (reprising his college letters) you know how much I care about this organization, and I promise you that no one will out-work me in trying to get the job done.”

He was granted the position.  Three years later, while still (by his own admission) working to smooth out a few rough edges, this “diamond in the rough” is considered on of the key up-and-coming members of management.  In addition to his IT duties, he spends considerable time serving as a role-model/advisor/confidante to African-American and other minority males among the non-profit organization’s clients .

Diamonds in the Rough — Worth the Risk?

Every position is so valuable — especially these days.  You plan down to the “nth” degree, trying to find the “best fit” among candidates for the opening, leaving nothing to chance.  Why, then, would anyone (especially an HR person) ever suggest hiring “off the cuff” in this way?  Not every organization can afford “they’ll-grow-into-the-job” positions, of course.  But in select instances where you can afford a “calculated risk” or two . . . we need to remember the “human” in human resources, and give hope a chance with a “from the gut” hire.

It can change lives. (It certainly did so for Devon, and everyone he continues to be in contact with spreading the “message” of potential).

I’d love to hear your own stories about “from the gut” decisions — and how they worked out for you and your organization.


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