People with certain cognitive conditions may not do well in job interviews—but they may have exactly the talents you need for an open position in your team.
So, one lesson that I think about when I think about the issue of managing talent is, to put it simply, it’s important that we don’t leave talent on the table, that we don’t fail to realize serious talent in our midst. I had an experience many years ago when I worked for Ford Motor Company where I had very talented people who were not, kind of, full, complete, well-rounded talents,
and unfortunately, we had trouble hiring those people, because they often didn’t do well in job interviews. But they could be brilliant technical staff, and in that instance, we left talent on the table by not hiring them, by not making them a part of our company for a longer time.
This message came home to me many years later. Fast forward. I was working on a Harvard Business School case about a company in Denmark called Specialisterne. That means “the specialists” in Danish. And what’s interesting about this company—which, its business is mostly software testing. What’s interesting in particular about this company though is that 75% of their staff have some form of autism. That they’ve been diagnosed with autism, and most of the people who work for this company were previously considered unemployable.
And what Specialisterne was able to do is take a task, software testing, that would make most of us crazy because it’s very repetitive, it’s very detailed, and most of us can’t devote sufficient attention to it. But this turns out to be perfectly suited to the abilities of people with autism. And so we take a group of people who were unemployable and make them the best software testers in the world, and there’s something quite brilliant in that.
And what we did is, I think it’s aptly described in a metaphor that the founder of the Specialisterne—his name is Thorkil Sonne—he came up with this metaphor, and it’s very interesting. He uses the metaphor of a dandelion. Now, everybody knows the dandelion. It’s that yellow flower that gets into your lawn, and you can’t extract it. It’s a weed. But what Thorkil points out is that the dandelion is actually a very valuable plant. It has medicinal qualities. There’s some research now that suggests that it contains chemicals that may help us fight cancer.
You can make coffee out of it. You can make wine out of it. In many, many ways, it’s a valuable plant, but when it’s in your lawn, it’s a weed. And of course the metaphor is to his staff with autism. That what makes a dandelion a weed is not its essential characteristics, but the context we place it in or we find it in. Similarly with his staff with autism, what makes them unemployable is not their essential characteristics, it’s the places we’re trying to force them into, these slots in our organizations that we’re trying to get them to conform to.
And so I think there’s a general principle here for us all as we look forward to managing. Especially in the technology age where there are so many brilliant people, as I found in my job at Ford many years ago, who are idiosyncratic at the same time as being brilliant. Their talents are not well rounded, so we have to find space for those people. We have to be good at harvesting their talents. Keeping in mind the metaphor of the dandelion.