Untraditional thinkers--the type of talent who can challenge norms and frame big-picture challenges--are usually hard to find through conventional recruiting approaches.

After all, if they're so gifted, so idiosyncratic in their thinking, why would you be able to find them via typical means? The last place they'll be is in some recruiter's database, or already working for a competitor. They'll be off the radar.

A recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by Robert D. Austin and Thorkil Sonne offers several suggestions for finding and retaining such talent. Here are two of them: 

1. Look for the skills in untraditional populations and places. Last year, write the authors, software colossus SAP announced a goal of having people with autism represent 1 percent of its work force by 2020. The reason? SAP recognized that they have the potential to excel at software testing, quality control and security monitoring. Software testing, they note, is "repetitive and detailed work....requiring constant referencing back and forth between computer output and listings of the results that should have been generated by software." 

SAP's plan was inspired by a Danish consultancy called Specialisterne, which was founded by Sonne. Specialisterne realized that individuals with some forms of autism have "an exceptional ability to focus and pay attention to detail, and [find] comfort in repetitive activities. What's more, many individuals with autism spectrum disorders struggle with social interaction and perform well on solitary tasks." In the article, a former Specialisterne consultant says:

I have an ability to see when something deviates. It kind of leaps to the eye...I have a keen eye for errors. I completed 90% of my teacher's education...but I wasn't good at...making contact with [students]. I like working here...Here I can just concentrate on my work without being considered antisocial.

Granted: Among those with autism spectrum disorders, there's a broad gradient of talents and capabilities. Not all of them will be capable employees. And as Sonne and Austin point out, "effective assessment and training are critical to understanding what employees can do and getting them into a comfort zone where they can excel."

Those tasks aside, the bottom line is that Specialisterne and SAP have benefited by tapping into an oft-ignored pool of talent. 

2. Embrace and encourage non-workplace interests, even if it means a departure from conventional 9-to-5 schedules. Sonne and Austin shared how the president of an IT consultancy in the Seattle area retains one of his eccentric employees: 

One of my star players...wants to be a musician. He quit [an earlier job with a well-known company, where he had made a fortune] and now he's working for me 20-to-30 hours a week. And what a deal I have! I've got to be willing to let this guy go on the road, disappear for a couple of weeks at a time, go record CDs. But he does great work, so...you know, it's an opportunity...I'm definitely okay with it.

To be certain, this approach is not without risks. You'll need a company culture in which acing projects and meeting deadlines matter more than facetime. Otherwise, you're bound to create internal tensions over why some employees get to set their own hours, while others are held to conventional ones.

If this seems to you like too high a price to pay--and a violation of team-first principles, where everyone in the organization lives by the same rules--you certainly have a point.

But you might also have a workplace that will seldom attract or retain special talents. 

If you're willing to adjust your HR policies, you may glean additional benefits (beyond attracting the retaining the talent). One CEO told the authors that the perspectives of eccentric employees are especially handy when assessing key shifts in your business model:

When [your business shifts] you'll often find the seeds for the shift in that group, because they’re not really paying attention to you all along anyway. They were worried about some way-out-there trend. They'll see it and there will be something there. [The key to] how to manage change is in that group of folks you don't have a lot of control over.

This insight is consistent with what Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, has stressed as the key to battling leadership blind spots. Most leaders are surrounded by sycophantic direct reports who kiss up and speak in "talking points" that paint a rosy picture. "It's an insulated world, where the blind spot is not explored," observes Gregersen.

But as Sonne and Austin point out, eccentric employees--who are "not really paying attention to you all along anyway"--probably have their eyes on whatever you're blind to. And this is why it's in the long-term interest of any organization to accommodate these eccentric employees. "If by redesigning work conditions for individuals you can significantly increase the amount of value your people create," they write, "that might, depending on your business, be worth more than the cost of the changes."

Published on: May 22, 2014