Increase Diversity by Focusing on Talent

Diverse Set of Smiling People

In staffing a new facility, by emphasizing talent rather than experience, we eliminated a major barrier to employment and increased our diversity. Can you take the same approach and have the same impact on your organization?

Today’s post is by Larry Sternberg, co-author of Managing to Make a Difference (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Despite research concluding that experience is a poor predictor of professional success(1), in too many situations, organizations designate experience as an absolute “must have,” a ticket to admission, in the hiring process. But lack of experience is the only deficiency that is guaranteed to correct itself over time.

If you hire someone today who has zero experience, I guarantee you that three years from now he or she will have three years of experience. In most cases (I know there are exceptions) elevating experience to a “must have” is simply unwise. In the worst cases, experience requirements become a significant barrier to employment and diminish diversity. But organizations continue to overemphasize experience anyway.

In the mid 1980’s I was Vice President of Human Resources for a newly formed company, The Portman Hotel Company, which was owned by the well-known architect and real estate developer, John Portman. Our first hotel was under construction near Union Square in San Francisco. Mr. Portman made it clear that he expected us to deliver truly extraordinary service. We, the operating team, were challenged to go beyond the current thinking about how to run a luxury hotel. And we were not merely encouraged to do so – we were supported.

Extraordinary service requires extraordinary people. We had to hire 350 people to staff this hotel, and it was evident to us that traditional methods of recruiting and interviewing candidates were inadequate for this challenge. We engaged a firm that specialized in measuring aptitude (they called it “talent”), and we decided to de-emphasize the importance of experience, which substantially expanded our candidate pool. We contacted almost every organization in San Francisco whose mission included helping their constituents find jobs. We said, “Send your people. No experience necessary.”

By focusing on talent rather than experience, we removed one of the most common barriers to employment and thus increased the likelihood of diversity. And the outcome was much better than any of us had hoped. The demographics of our 350-person staff were to the percentage point the demographics of the city of San Francisco.

The use of an objective assessment tool also enabled us to escape some of our subjective biases. For instance, we hired a couple of 70 year-olds to clean rooms! Who would do that? They became two of our most celebrated employees. We hired a Human Resources Director who was a career Army combat officer and veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam. He had never worked in a hotel. Who would do that? He did a spectacular job, and also taught all of us a great deal about leadership.

We hired a lot of people with no experience, and we simply trained them. We knew we could give them the knowledge and skills they needed. We realized that we could not give them things like empathy, an eye for detail, a love of service or a positive attitude. They either had those traits or they did not. The assessment told us that. Despite their lack of experience, and in alignment with their aptitude, the staff did deliver truly extraordinary service.

This was a life-changing experience for me. Here’s what I learned: aptitude matters. Training and hard work alone will not create extraordinary performance. Unless a person has the aptitude for a given endeavor (e.g., leading, teaching, selling) all the training in the world will not empower that person to perform at a high level of excellence. For every job, for every career, there are aptitudes that truly are “must haves.” If you’re after extraordinary performance, aptitude matters.

By giving talent more weight than experience, your organization can increase diversity without compromising performance. You just have to be willing to adjust your thinking. This emphasis on aptitude over experience makes a difference when selecting managers too. If an individual does not have any management experience, but does have the talent to be a great manager, he or she will grow rapidly in the role. Highly talented people can be fast tracked. You just have to be willing to invest the time and effort to teach, coach and mentor.

(Schmidt, F.L., & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-274)

Managing to Make a Difference

Larry Sternberg is the co-author to Kim Turnage of the new book Managing to Make a Difference: How To Engage, Retain & Develop Talent For Maximum Performance (CLICK HERE to get your copy). Sternberg is a senior executive at management consulting firm Talent Plus. For more information please visit

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