How to Spot A-Players

There's nothing more important — or tougher — than finding talent. Here's advice from some top scouts.

Call it talent chemistry. When smart leaders surround themselves with the right players, something magical happens. Throw together the wrong people, though, and you'll get a noxious gas. These days, finding magic ingredients has become harder than ever. Google, for instance, receives 1,000 job applications a day. Mistakes are more expensive than a couple of broken test tubes — and harder to clean up. And, despite what some companies claim, there's no single personality screen that can snare the right A-player every time. With that in mind, we went looking for expert talent spotters and asked for their secrets. Hint: You're not going to find A-players with just a standard interview and a resume.

Boil Down Employee Passion

Not only has Alfred Portale successfully run Manhattan's three-star Gotham Bar and Grill for 19 years, he has also groomed at least eight of the city's most prominent chefs, all of whom have gone on to head their own two- or three-star restaurants. And Portale's proteges have mentored at least nine more hot up-and-coming chefs.

Portale invites potential hires to spend a few nights in his kitchen so both employer and employee can put each other to the test (a customary practice in the restaurant business). But beyond cooking competence and teamwork, Portale looks for a flash of something extra. "I watch for a certain positive energy, a certain intensity. I watch how they carry themselves. I watch how they stand. I look at their hands. I look at the way they pick up a plate or set it down," he says. "It all comes across and tells me something I need to know."

He's looking for signs of their passion and respect, not just for cooking, but for Gotham itself. "When a lot of restaurants — or companies for that matter — have an opening, they just want to get a body in there. I'm not interested in that at all," Portale says. "I always have a very long-term goal for any individual I hire."

Perhaps the best example of that is Jacinto Guadarrama, who started at the restaurant as a dishwasher in 1985, two weeks before Portale arrived. It wasn't hard for Portale to notice that each night in the cramped kitchen, Guadarrama, a Mexican immigrant, would race to finish scrubbing pots and pans early so he could slide over to the garde-manger (cold appetizers) station and soak up as much culinary training as he could. Early on, he told Guadarrama that he envisioned him one day getting involved in the restaurant's management. In 2000, Portale named Guadarrama, who by then could have had his pick of Manhattan kitchens to run, chef de cuisine at Gotham, second in command behind only himself.

"I don't chase after people," Portale says. "It's very important that a person recognizes that being here is a positive experience and an important place for their career. If they don't, they're never going to work hard enough and learn, grow, and perform like they should."

"I watch for a certain intensity," says three-star chef Alfred Portale. "I watch how they stand. I look at their hands." It all tells him about a potential A-player's passion and respect.

Get Real

You may not have wanted to share an office with last season's cast members of The Apprentice, but as compulsively watchable Thursday-night television, it was a winning team, earning NBC some of its highest ratings of the season. Now Rob LaPlante, the 28-year-old casting producer who put together the first blockbuster mix of personalities, is once again on the hook with the Donald to find new contestants who can outshine Bill, Kwame, Omarosa, and all the rest for the second season, debuting this fall.

LaPlante's technique for sifting through the 215,000 applicants for the first series and the 1 million hopefuls for the next one resembles a kind of speed-dating mass interview designed to get quickly at a person's true colors. At a New York casting call this spring, applicants were ushered in 12 at a time to one of five large tables, each headed by a single member of the casting crew. After hasty introductions were made, the leader at each table threw out an instantly polarizing question — "Is greed good?" or "Are men or women better at business?" Then the staff member sat back and watched contestants race to be the most controversial, outrageous, or, heaven forbid, rational and levelheaded. From start to finish, these sessions lasted 15 minutes, tops.

Unlike at most job interviews, LaPlante doesn't care about the answers. "This is all about finding charisma," says the veteran of reality-show casting, including for MTV's The Real World. "Our job is to peel away the layers to figure out if a person is for real."

One of the stars of the first season, Troy McClain, the Idaho mortgage broker with only a high school education, made the show and thrived long into the series because of what LaPlante describes as McClain's "authentic presence," which he knew would play well. "Troy may not have had a lot of polish," says LaPlante, "but he certainly displayed — in the auditions and on the show — what kind of drive he has."

High School Confidential

Stan Richards founded the Richards Group, a Dallas-based advertising agency, 25 years ago and has built it into one of the largest independent shops, with annual billings of $950 million. To do so, Richards has built a dedicated team by looking to . . . high school? "I start every interview by asking a person what they were like in high school," Richards says. "People who tended to be outstanding in high school are likely to be outstanding for the rest of their lives." Both chess-club presidents and quarterbacks are welcome, but not anyone who identifies a little too much with the movie Dazed and Confused.

Richards also places extra emphasis on a person's writing ability to get a keen insight into her talents. "With TV reels, it's impossible to tell who had the primary responsibility for a spot," he says, discounting them even though TV spots are about half of his agency's work for clients such as Corona beer, Home Depot, and Fruit of the Loom. "With print, and especially with radio, the writer controls the process from top to bottom."

He has even hired people based on their cover letters. "The work may have been somewhat pedestrian, but if the cover letter was brilliant, then I'm willing to take a risk. All I'm looking for is one, maybe two absolute gems somewhere." The idea is that if someone can perform consistently at a level that initially shows up only as a faint glimmer, he's certainly willing to invest the time, money, and patience needed to draw out that person's talent.

Richards's style has paid off in loyalty in the notoriously mobile advertising workforce. The average tenure among the higher-ups at the Richards Group is 12 years.

Finding A-players goes beyond making someone cook or shout or relive high school. What's important about these techniques is that they uncover what really drives a person. And, in turn, what qualities make you perform better. To find the team that's going to help make you great, you've got to figure that out first. Talent in its own right is useless. If credentials were all that mattered, Enron would still be going strong today.

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