HIRING

How to Find the California Chrome in a Stack of Resumes

If all you're looking for is the right pedigree, you may miss the person who can win the Triple Crown of Startups.
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There's nothing more heartening than an underdog making good--even in the cut-throat world of entrepreneurship. That's precisely why the tale of California Chrome has the entire nation enthralled by a horse race.

California Chrome's story starts out unexceptionally, as all cinderella stories do. His owners, small time investors, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin , purchased Chrome's mother for just $8,000--a drop in the bucket by champion horse standards. Yet despite this adversity, the thoroughbred has won both the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and the Preakness in Baltimore. On Saturday, if Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, he'll take home the Triple Crown. The last horse to win that honor was affirmed in 1978.

"Well, we got a pretty good deal," Coburn told reporters this week during his first visit to New York, the site of the Belmont. (And if you're curious, the horse, is not named for Google's Chrome browser but his birthplace and his white marking--four white feet and a white blaze on his forehead, called "chrome" in horses.)

At age 3, Chrome has reeled in about $3.5 million in race winnings, and his owners recently signed endorsement deal with the shoe firm Skechers (sneakers, not horse shoes). So even if he doesn't take home the Triple Crown, he's already a winner, as well as a brilliant example of why you ought to consider the underdogs within your own organization and those whom you've yet to hire.

Now, let's talk about that stack of resumes on your desk.

Are you searching for the one with the "right pedigree?" You  know what I'm talking about. The one with the big name school--preferably with a degree from an Ivy League school or Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford, at the very least. Are you looking for someone who has already worked at Google or Apple or has done marketing for Zappos? That's how you hire, right?

Except those accolades can only hint at what an employee will do for you. Not all great people went to Ivy League schools. Some of your top performers will come from businesses that you've never heard of and gone to schools that were on your "safe" list. I'm reminded of a story from a friend of mine.

He started a new job on the same day as another woman. Neighboring departments, but identical job titles and very similar responsibilities. She introduced herself, "Hi, I'm Karen, I did my undergrad at Princeton and have my MBA from Stern." He shook her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Frank and I went to Buffalo and I make the same amount of money as you do." She walked off in a huff. Her pedigree was super important to her, and she just found out that someone who went to the State University of New York at Buffalo could have the same job as she did, and she was somewhat devastated.

The person doing the hiring had been able to spot Frank as a "California Chrome." He didn't have a great pedigree, but he surely was a top employee.

And that's what you need to look for. Resumes can only tell you about a person's past, they can't tell you about their future. And yes, you do have to screen and, no, you can't take the time to interview all 150 people who applied for one position. But, here is what you do need to look at:

Actual achievements. Resumes shouldn't read like a job description, they should be lists of accomplishments. See how people have succeeded in the past.

Cover letters. Many people hate writing cover letters and some managers don't even bother to read them. You should. Cover letters can give you insight into who a person really is, regardless of what is on their resume.

Consider actual diversity. If your company looks like a rainbow, but every one of them came from the same three schools, that's not true diversity. You're not going to get a plethora of different ideas from people who were trained by the same schools. Look for people from different parts of the country, and even the world. Look for people who came up through different paths and see how that could help your business. Consider where you, personally, are weak and find someone who has strengths in those areas.

Don't conduct a rapid fire question interview. You want to find out if someone can succeed in your company? Talk with them. Tell them about the problems you face and ask how they would address those particular problems. Don't make your company seem perfect and ask how they can fit in. Tell them what you need and see what they can do to fix it. Make it a conversation, not an interrogation.

Look at the pedigree, but only after you've considered other factors. Yes, looking to see where someone went to school and where someone worked in the past are helpful things. If someone graduated from a top college, you know that they are very bright, but that's it. You don't know about their personality, their work ethic, or how creative their ideas are. Those things are far more important than the school. 

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Jun 6, 2014

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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