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Friday, January 28, 2011

Credentialism and elite performance

More comments on credentialism and elite hiring practices.

See earlier post for Lauren Rivera study of recruitment at elite law firms, consultancies and I-banks. I refer to these as "soft" elite firms, whereas I will refer to hedge/venture funds, startups and technology companies as "hard" elite firms. (Goldman is a mix of the two; hence the internal battles between traders and bankers. I welcome comments from insiders on this particular issue :-) In the latter category performance is a bit easier to measure, and raw prestige plays less of a role in marketing to customers or clients -- i.e., the customer can directly tell whether the gizmo works ("these search results suck!") or the fund made money. Whether or not the advice received from a law/consulting/M&A firm is any good is much more nebulous and, well, soft. ***

1) Rivera's work confirms that in the real world, people believe in folk notions of brainpower or IQ. ("Quick on the uptake", "Picks things up really fast", "A sponge" ...) They count on elite educational institutions to do their g-filtering for them. In the past, as noted by one commenter, firms often asked for SAT scores.

2) Elite soft firms generally want people who are smart, but not too smart. Other factors, like personality, communication and leadership skills, etc. are valued as well. Startups, hedge funds, MSFT/GOOG, etc. generally want the smartest people they can get their hands on, at least for technical roles.

3) The soft firms know that what they do isn't "rocket science" -- it just isn't that hard, and any academic admit to a top university is smart enough. They just have to appear elite and smart enough to snow their clients and sell the work. Thus the emphasis on factors other than intelligence, once the threshold requirement is satisfied. Someone who appears smart and inspires confidence in clients is better than a smarter person who doesn't get along with (often middlebrow) clients.

4) In Rivera's research school prestige was the number one signal used by soft elite firms in evaluating prospective hires. Extracurricular activities came in second, but this is probably just a way to differentiate between applicants who have already been filtered using school prestige.

5) It is odd that the soft firms, which market themselves to clients as being super-smart repositories of brainpower (of course this is largely a fiction; see point 3 above), would rely so heavily on university admissions committees. They effectively outsource a big chunk of due diligence on their most important investment (human capital) to a group of people whose judgement they somehow trust, but perhaps without detailed understanding. When I was on the faculty at Yale I knew people in admissions and it's not clear to me that they were the best able to spot potential in 18 year olds. In studies of expert performance admissions people are less good at predicting UG GPA than a simple algorithm. (The "algorithm" is simply a weighted sum of SAT and HS GPA!)

But this doesn't matter if the success of HYPS grads becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once soft elite firms and large parts of the rest of society (in particular, clients) have accepted the idea that elite universities should be trusted to do the filtering, these schools will automatically produce large numbers of successful alumni -- the imprimatur itself has value. The outsourcing of human capital filtering is more dangerous for hard elite firms, with their more objective criteria: if they find that Yale grads aren't actually any good at pricing derivatives, writing code or designing chips, then they'll have to adopt a different filter. Fortunately, since even the dumbed down SAT is still pretty g loaded, hard elite firms can be confident that the lion's share of top talent is at elite universities.

*** Although I have assigned hedge and venture funds to the hard category, cynical or rigorous readers will note that in most cases there is insufficient data to actually determine the alpha (risk adjusted performance) of a fund manager. Thus prestige and other soft factors may have as much impact as real performance.

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