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How to Spot Rare Talent and Candidates with Specialized Skills

Updated: Jun 3

Anyone can throw a job posting onto a bunch of careers pages and recruit employees. There are more than enough people out there looking for jobs and it’s easy to fill seats with warm bodies. When you want to recruit actual talent, however, and pick up candidates with specialized skills and experience, you need to be a little more strategic with your efforts.

This process can be intricate, demanding a strategic approach that takes into account the intricacies of human potential and organizational needs. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the critical steps and strategies for spotting those rare gems – candidates with specialized skills and invaluable attributes. We delve deep into understanding what makes a candidate stand out, how to adjust our lenses to spot potential, and how to strategically position your organization to attract these talents. Whether you’re a startup looking for its next leader or a multinational corporation aiming to bolster its ranks with unparalleled talent, this guide is your comprehensive roadmap.

Identify the Skills Necessary for the Role

This might sound obvious but bear with us. Before you can spot rare talent in your candidate pool, you need to know what talent you’re looking for. Do you need a rockstar developer? Do you need an entrepreneur with success under their belt? Do you need a project manager to be the unsung hero of your success?

Sit down with your department managers and C-levels, and identify the specific skills necessary for your open role. Divide them into four categories:

  1. Trainable Skills: These are the skills that you can teach to an otherwise well-qualified candidate on the job.

  2. Baseline Skills: These are the skills that are necessary to survive in the role from day one; a candidate should not progress to interviews without them.

  3. Selling Points: These are the skills your candidate should have to impress you and make a candidate stand out from the rest of the pack.

  4. Excellence Skills: These are the skills and attributes that showcase a truly unique individual who is destined for success in your role.

This list allows you to filter down your candidate pool through progressively smaller filters. Your goal is to find someone with Excellent skills, though this is often unrealistic. You may need to be willing to expand the definition of trainable skills to make room for someone with untapped potential for excellence.

Try to keep this list to skills and experiences. Posting elements like their location, years of experience, and specific certifications might filter out a candidate who would be excellent if you gave them the chance. After all, someone can know a lot about a subject and never bother to take a certification test, and your ideal candidate might not live in the same country when you find them.

Be Specific About Needs in Your Job Posting

There are a lot of ways to make your job posting stand out. One of them is to have a small but clear list of requirements. One common mistake that some companies make when drafting job postings is including too many items on their list of requirements. It discourages people who meet most but not all of the requirements from applying, so most of the people who apply are underqualified and overconfident.

It’s much better to use the division of skills above to determine what is truly a requirement and what is just nice to have. The ideal would be to add your list of excellent skills to the list of requirements. You may have fewer applicants overall, but they’ll trend closer to the ideal candidate you have in mind.

There’s a careful balance you need to strike here. Jennifer Tardy, of Jennifer Tardy Consulting, writes:

“Job descriptions with a ton of basic qualifications indicate that the employer truly has no clue what they are seeking, or what it takes to get the job done.”

Job postings with far too many requirements are one of the top signs of a poorly organized or poorly managed company. It’s all too easy to write down a huge list of nice-to-have qualifications, only to drive away from the best candidates because of the unrealistic nature of what they’re asking for.

To a certain extent, the best way to get around this is simply to question every element. “Does the candidate need this attribute?” Pare your job posting down to the essentials, both to make it more attractive and to bring in the candidates who meet the most important requirements.

Use an Applicant Tracking System

The use of modern applicant tracking systems is surprisingly contentious. These systems can save a lot of time and energy in your HR team, but they can also accidentally filter otherwise excellent candidates.

Kristen Hudson of Jobvite explains the benefits:

“Recruiting software can automate many screening functions, search for unusual keywords, and expand searches to include social media tracking and integrations with third-party employment agencies. You can identify unique skills with automated searches. Using social media platforms, the software can look for keywords, behavioral patterns, and even what kind of products and websites interest potential candidates.”

On the other hand, automated tools prove to be a double-edged sword. Peter Cappelli explains:

“My earlier research found that companies piled on job requirements baked them into the applicant-tracking software that sorted resumes according to binary decisions (yes, it has the keyword; no, it doesn’t), and then found that virtually no applicants met all the criteria.”

A good ATS can be tuned to show a percentage match with an array of different hard and soft requirements while using a limited number of essential requirements as filters. A poorly-tuned applicant tracking system, meanwhile, will poorly filter and sort candidates until there aren’t any viable candidates left in the pool.

Look for Candidates in Unexpected Places

These days, candidates with hard-to-find skills and experience are rarely out searching for a job. They have jobs already, where they’re at least satisfied because their skills and talents are in high demand. Finding the best candidates often means looking for passive candidates and convincing them that the grass is greener on your side of the fence.

Thus, one strategy that many companies and organizations are turning to is looking in unexpected places for attributes, rather than defined skills and experience. The FBI is a good example of this.

They ran a recruitment campaign called the “Unexpected Agent” campaign, looking for skills and knowledge first while being willing to train their new candidates to become agents. For example, they might look for an art historian to recruit as an agent specializing in forgeries and counterfeits in the art world. An art historian would likely never think to apply for a job at the FBI, but their unique skill set would make for a highly valuable asset.

George Anders, the author of The Rare Find, seconds the motion.

“Some of the best sports coaches I talked with would go out and get to know other parts of the globe. Or a rural coach would go and learn about talent spotting in Chicago. Hollywood casting directors might go and check out the Iranian film industry.”

In other words, be prepared to look further afield for the best in rare talent to suit your needs. Look at industries other than your own, where skills might translate. Look for personality traits over experience. Look at broader geographies and be willing to hire outside of your immediate geographic area, or even your country.

Be Willing to Ignore Gaps, Grades, and Past Experience

Part of being open to a candidate outside of your industry is being willing to overlook some elements of a traditional resume or CV that would normally be requirements. Three elements, in particular, are worth putting in the “nice to have” bucket, rather than the requirements.

Would you hire a college dropout for a high-level role in your company? Perhaps your initial inclination is no. Yet, many of the world’s most brilliant minds, especially in tech, dropped out of college to pursue their passions. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and others all dropped out and became incredible success stories.

Educational performance is not necessarily predictive of the attributes that make an individual truly successful in their career. While these tech geniuses dropped out to pursue their inspirations, many others don’t drop out, but rather let school take the back seat while they follow their passion projects.

Consider looking not just at educational performance, but at what a candidate has accomplished throughout their education and subsequent career. A candidate who isn’t necessarily a viable option on paper might have developed an app that precisely exhibits the sort of drive and creativity necessary to succeed in your company.

Alongside education, the candidate’s experience is often used as a sign of their past successes. Sure, to a certain extent, experience in their field is necessary. All a good candidate really needs, however, is familiarity with the industry. Someone with five years of experience and someone with ten may have comparable performance, and in some cases, long years of experience might simply indicate a candidate who is at risk of falling behind the times.

Gaps in work history are another factor that can often be overlooked to find true talent. Sometimes your best, most entrepreneurial spirits have gaps in their employment and education history, from times where they spent years focusing on other projects. Look beyond the surface level and be willing to overlook these elements in favor of attributes that make a candidate more successful.

Take a (Controlled) Risk

George Anders is a fan of taking risks, but only in the right context.

“I met with an art gallery manager who evaluated artists by saying ‘Surprise me’. You can’t hire pilots by asking them to surprise you – that’s not going to make a successful airline.”

Risks can be hugely rewarding, in the right circumstances. Taking a risk with a high chance of success makes the potential failure less damaging if it happens. You may, for example, be willing to gamble on a candidate who doesn’t quite meet all of the requirements but shows promise, where the risk of failure is a loss of time and money. Don’t, however, sign a year-long contract with them with no escape clause.

Context is important as well. As with the airline example, some roles require strict adherence to education and industry standards. A financial planner who doesn’t adhere to compliance regulations isn’t an asset, they’re a liability. A pilot can’t freestyle their flights. A doctor can’t go with their gut against the tenets of practicing medicine.

Make Your Job Attractive

Part of spotting the best talent is knowing what those candidates want out of a job. By offering what the best candidates really want, you attract a candidate pool that has the best chance of giving you the people you want to hire.

The trick is to offer benefits and perks to your candidates that are truly in demand. What might qualify?

  1. The chance to work on big problems facing the industry or the world.

  2. A guaranteed ability to focus on real work, not busy work.

  3. Flexibility in days and hours; the ability to work when and where work can be done.

  4. Tangible support for lives outside of work, such as family leave and paid sick leave.

  5. Upward mobility; is the promise of growth and progression in their career.

The reason so many of the best candidates never seem to stick with one job for long is because of a lack of progression within their companies. They may get hired on for their abilities, and they may excel in their roles, but if they have nowhere to go, they leave.

Hire for Attitude

Mark Murphy, the author of Hiring for Attitude, says it best:

“It’s not that technical skills aren’t important, but they’re much easier to assess (that’s why attitude, not skills, is the top predictor of a new hire’s success or failure). Virtually every job (from neurosurgeon to engineer to cashier) has tests that can assess technical proficiency. But what those tests don’t assess is an attitude; whether a candidate is motivated to learn new skills, think innovatively, cope with failure, assimilate feedback and coaching, collaborate with teammates, and so forth.”

Technical solutions and resumes have a hard time showcasing attitudes; that’s what the interviews are for. Finding a way to assess attitude as it fits with your company culture is essential. You want a candidate with the talent, the desire, the drive, and the attitude to succeed; everything else can be taught over time.

Spotting the best talent out of any candidate pool is as much a matter of subjective judgment as it is any individual quality on paper. It’s an acquired skill, and it comes with experience in hiring and observing the results of those hires.


Finding the right talent, especially those with specialized skills, goes beyond traditional metrics and requires a more nuanced and strategic approach. Whether it’s looking beyond conventional expectations, embracing the benefits of modern tools, or valuing attitude as much as aptitude, the path to recruiting the best is riddled with innovation and intuition. Ultimately, the goal is not just to fill positions but to enhance the overall value and potential of your organization. 

If the task feels daunting or if you’re unsure where to start, we’re here to help. Our staffing services are designed to bridge the gap between employers and rare talent, ensuring that you find the perfect fit every time. Contact us today and let us assist you in spotting and securing that exceptional candidate for your team.

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