What HR Can Learn From American Idol

I’m not a big fan of American Idol, but like a lot of people, I get sucked into the competitive aspects of taking a group of talented people and publicly narrowing it down until you have a single “winner.”

This got me to thinking: what can we take away from this kind of competition? Have we learned anything after nine seasons of watching a singing champion chosen this way?

Well yes, there are some pretty big lessons we can take away from American Idol — especially if you’re in human resources.

At its core, American Idol is all about finding and promoting the very best talent — something that HR leaders do for their organizations every single day. But, how the show ultimately goes about finding and promoting the best talent leaves a lot to be desired, and it raises some issues that every HR person should think about in their own talent development process.

So, here are three talent management takeaways I gleaned from American Idol:

The highly-competent-but-safe candidate doesn’t always make the best hire.

This year’s American Idol winner — Chicago’s Lee DeWyze — is a solid and competent singer, but he’s not very exciting. Lisa de Moraes in the Washington Post described him as “the franchise’s third consecutive Super-Safe Kinda Beige Rocker Boy winner,” and she’s right. DeWyze is the kind of hire you make when you’re afraid of making a mistake.

And that raises a good question: are you satisfied choosing someone who is “safe” and won’t get you into trouble, or, do you go with the flashier choice who may have not only more upside, but perhaps some downside too? This year’s Idol runner-up, Crystal Bowersox, has over-the-top talent and style to burn, but she’s also is a single mom with dreadlocks and numerous tattoos who doesn’t really “look” the part of an American Idol. People like her can make you look really good, but, not everyone else may agree.

This points to an management truism worth remembering: safe but unexciting choices yield safe but unexciting results. If that’s what you are looking for in your organization, then go to it. But, if you want to push the envelope and stretch for something better, you need to work on overlooking the flaws and quirks that many highly talented people bring to the table. If you don’t, you end up with someone like Taylor Hicks — the safest and most forgettable American Idol winner ever . How hot has his career been lately?

A committee approach to hiring doesn’t always yield the best candidate.

Lots of organizations like to have candidates get interviewed and evaluated by a slew of different managers before everyone weighs in with their opinion. It’s a “safe” talent acquisition approach.

American Idol works this way, too, with the judges and nationwide voters all weighing in on who they believe is best. It’s a time-honored approach, of course, but hiring by committee rarely yields the best candidate. For every superstar like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, you get a slew of middle-of-the-road winners like Ruben Studdard, Chris Allen, David Cook, and Hicks.

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Idol would do well to limit the nationwide voting until late in the season, letting a smaller group of smart and insightful talent managers — the judges –whittle down the group until the final four or five are left. Doing this would surely help keep more of the highly talented but less traditional candidates in the candidate pool longer, and maybe, give one of them a chance to win.

Your company would also be better served by limiting the vetting of candidates to a smaller group of four to five key decision-makers rather than running potential hires through a gauntlet of managers up and down the food chain. I bet you’ll find this approach not only leads to making better decisions about talent, but is less stressful on the candidates and your organization.

You need to ask yourself — do I hire for competence now or for growth potential down the road?

In most seasons, the American Idol winner reflects someone chosen for solid competence right now over someone who may have more upside in the years to come. That’s why last year’s most talented and colorful Idol finalist (Adam Lambert) was passed over for someone with a lot less potential (winner Kris Allen). Other highly talented but less polished Idol candidates, like Chris Daughtry and this year’s Siobham Magnus, seemed to suffer from this, too.

Except in very rare cases, high potential tomorrow is always preferable to solid competence today, but many HR leaders and talent managers don’t agree. Making the safe choice won’t get you in trouble and may help the organization immediately, but going with the high-potential candidate is likely to yield a lot more if you can afford to be patient. In other words, you won’t build superstars taking the safe road, and isn’t building an organization of superstars what it is all about?

Yes, American Idol is all about top talent winning out, but like a lot of things in life, it’s less about finding the very best talent and more about finding someone who is highly talented and acceptable to a large group of constituents. It leads, in the end, to all-too-many vanilla choices, and while that may be acceptable for American Idol, it’s not the optimum way for you to get the very best talent into your organization.

In other words, you need to hire like Simon Cowell. That’s a tougher way to go, but in the end, you’ll have a lot better talent — and bottom-line results — to show for it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


9 Comments on “What HR Can Learn From American Idol

  1. Like the author, I dislike American Idol- however, this article makes some great points! I have long thought the multiple panel interviews are nothing but time wasters yielding the same results over and over again. What we need now in both the business and political arena are true leaders, those willing to make tough and lasting decisions. Thank you!

  2. This is a great article! I aggree with most of the points made. There are some exceptions to this article I would like to point out. If your company truly has long term goals in mind, there should be some type of development program or training to coach people into top performers like Carrie Underwood. She wasn’t born with perfect pitch, people skills, and performing knowhow. she had to be coached along the way. I am a huge supporter of training for employees so that they can cultivated into stars. Overall though, great article. The parallels are there are can be cleary pointed out.

  3. This was a great article and very appropriate. Not too long ago, we had a client who uses our SaaS Career Site for recruiting extend an offer to a candidate for an HR Manager’s position. The hiring team,the CEO and CFO both deemed the candidate “unusual” and said his background was quite different from the traditional experience they initially thought they needed.

    The bottom line…different in this case was very, very appropriate as both the client and the candidate are very satisfied.

  4. Let’s remember that the audience chooses the winner, which is similar to letting the employees of a company decide on who gets hired or not.

    The judges have been ignored more than once by the people voting for their favorite idol – that applied to HR would mean that HR managers recommend a competitive person to be hired and the one selected is a funny, good looking guy.

    My conclusion is that you should hire depending on what your company needs, not on first impressions, great resumes, charisma, etc.

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