The better we get, the more mistakes we make

My life changed when I landed a job at McKinsey & Company. I was a “non-target” student, or as I found out through many e-mail rejections to top companies: automated rejection. After working at McKinsey, my eyes were opened to the massive advantages of working at a company that had mastered the virtuous cycle of high performance and investment in people. This transformed my career, but I wasn’t anyone special. There were literally thousands of people like me — people that had early career ambition, had good grades in school and had just started their real-world learning journeys. They could have hired any one of those other people and still made the “right” decision.

Several years later and after becoming a more competent consultant, I connected with Justin, a junior undergraduate from my alma mater. This “non-target” student had similar dreams, but had a better plan than my scorched earth approach to apply to every consulting firm in the country. He wanted to build a student-run consulting club to work directly with clients on consulting projects.

Fast forward 12–18 months later, he had convinced other students to join him and had laid the groundwork of a highly successful group that went on to do projects for Presidents of Universities, CEOs and founders of tech startups — not to mention helping to land one of the first undergrad students from our university directly into a ”big 3″ strategy consulting firm. Much because of this Justin’s vision, his ability to stay humble and continually ask for feedback (even when it was not very good) and just keep putting in the work, day-in day-out.

Here’s the problem: If he were applying to this group today he would almost certainly not be accepted

In my work on talent strategy and organizational effectiveness, this fact and my personal experience breaking into consulting have lingered over me.

How much untapped potential is there in our workforce?

Are most organizations hiring sub-optimally?

I’ve worked closely with the undergraduate consulting group as it evolves. We’ve had enormous demand for the group on campus and have had to develop a recruiting program. I am proud of what the students have developed — it is really top notch. They’ve modeled the program off of top consulting firms, with a mix of behavioral elements as well as cases. However, I keep coming back to the question “would our current process reject the next Justin?

I think it would.

After I started working with Justin, I gave him a mock interview. To say he did not do well was an understatement. But was I concerned? No. He had what mattered — resilience, humility, team-spirit and big goals. In our current recruiting process, I’m not sure we even know how to assess for those things.

Many organizations make these mistakes. As organizations get more successful, they become a victim of their own success. They start raising the bar-because they can and arguably should.

And here is the challenge. Success will come no matter what. What gets measured gets managed — you will gravitate to people that check the boxes of your new process. The manager responsible for hiring will get a pat on the back for recruiting candidates with higher and higher GPAs.

However, there will be a hidden cost and you will start making two different mistakes. First, there will be False positives. You will recruit people that excel at navigating interviewing and acquiring the appropriate credentials but do not add substantial value to your organization.

But the costliest mistakes are the false negatives. You will start rejecting the Justins— the people who’s potential you can’t easily predict, the people who are willing to make a fool of themselves to improve and achieve big goals and the people that may push your organization or culture in an uncomfortable but ultimately, positive direction.



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