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The New Science of Talent

Organizations are using increasingly sophisticated methods to screen talent and identify the workforce of the future.

Fernando Molina for Quartz
MAXIMUM DISCOMFORT

Would you dare take a talent assessment inspired by the testing methods of the IDF?

By Ephrat Livni

Reflection, and the clarity that can come after it, are the ultimate luxury in our harried and distracted times. Beyond bringing about a personal sense of peace, taking time to analyze and articulate our experiences provides a demonstrable edge when it comes to performance.

Some of us seek illumination by jetting to Myanmar for a 10-day silent retreat. But most of us must prompt our evolutions within the confines of scheduled lives, so our quests for clarity can at best be squeezed into an early morning or a free evening. However, that’s not an impossible amount of time to find what you need, according to the CEOs of Synthesis, a leadership and talent development company based in New Jersey and Tel Aviv.

“We all crave synthesis. We want to get to the one or two or three things that matter most and figure out how to move the dial on those,” says Synthesis co-CEO Shirley Schlatka. “We all want to cut through the layers.”

Schlatka and her co-founder, Inbal Arieli, say they have developed a method to do just that. Using principles derived in part from the Israeli military’s psychological assessments of new recruits for special forces units, combined with insights they’ve acquired over decades as lawyers working in business, they have built a model for prompting that precious reckoning we need in order to evolve.

Officially, Synthesis helps cultivate leadership and team potential. It’s a unit of True Talent Advisory, an executive search firm based outside Philadelphia. Companies hire Synthesis for help with evaluating potential and existing leaders, and with developing teams and talent. Coaches guide clients as they formulate “agile action plans,” teaching them how to analyze themselves in order to make better decisions.

The assessment and coaching process is designed for individuals in a business context. Unofficially, though, it’s a program anyone might try to improve the quality of their lives, the CEOs contend.

The idea is to develop a mindset that cultivates reflection and intention, providing clarity in a rushed and confusing world. “The process is designed to train people to become comfortable with ambiguity,” Arieli says.

The study of human behavior

The founders of Synthesis are longtime friends with very similar interests and paths. Both served in leadership roles the Israeli Defense Forces, in prestigious units. Arieli was a lieutenant in an elite intelligence unit, and Schlatka was an officer in the Air Force. They met at Tel Aviv University in the late 1990s, where they studied law and economics, both drawn to the two topics for the insights they offer about humanity. “Law and economics is basically the study of human behavior,” Schlatka says. “Law is the study of our norms and values and economics examines our choices.”

After university, their path diverged. Schlatka went into marketing in the US, working first for FedEx and then for a consulting firm before getting an MBA at Harvard Business School. She remained obsessed with the notion of valuable choices, trying to figure out why people make the decisions they do and how to improve the underlying process to ensure better outcomes.

Arieli practiced law in Israel, and pivoted to business a few years later, serving as the director of corporate development for defense-electronics company RADA Electronic Industries, then heading up the legal department at the startup Modu Mobile. In the interim, she got an MBA at Tel-Aviv University. Like Schlatka, Arieli was interested in better understanding herself and the people around her—what motivates us and what slows us down, and whether it’s possible to isolate the characteristics that lead to success and fulfillment.

When the two women became colleagues at a Tel Aviv startup in the new millennium, the local tech industry was booming. Israel had been dubbed a startup nation, a global hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in a tiny state in the Middle East, drawing international investors in droves despite being a political lightning-rod globally. Evolution, it turns out, doesn’t depend on endless time to reflect and unlimited resources.

The friends felt they were part of a phenomenon that they’d been studying for decades, since their military training in the Israel Defense Forces: potential was blooming in the desert, and they’d been considering how to cultivate it long enough to start testing their methods.

Diving right in

Synthesis was formed in 2016, with employees chosen using the method the founders had developed and had been testing with various funds and accelerators in the four years before the company opened its doors.

The process involves a psychological assessment and then sessions with a coach—with meetings every three months—to turn the insights gained into an “agile action plan” to accomplish the goals that have been set. The assessment itself is based in part on IDF methods, and the Synthesis approach is especially Israeli in certain respects.

“In Israeli culture there isn’t much separation between the personal and professional. We dive right into things,” Schlatka explains, conceding that the Synthesis process can feel edgy or brusque, too intimate too fast perhaps, especially in a professional context. “It requires being clear and direct. There is no foreplay,” she jokes, adding, “No. Don’t write that.”

Her joke reflects some truth though. There is a shared intensity to the Israeli experience. Almost everyone serves in the military. Kids have to change very quickly into adults at 18, and the military must make educated guesses about where these untested young people will not only survive but thrive.

When Israeli youth enlist, they take a battery of tests, including psychological assessments that attempt to measure potential. Because these are teenagers, the military looks at what their qualities and characteristics might represent, rather than relying on past achievements and relevant credentials like education or work experience.

The assessments are designed to slot soldiers into important jobs that they are not yet trained for and will only hold for two or three years. Knowing who will be a quick study is key in a system that needs to account for continual turnover. That’s also what companies need now, say the Synthesis CEOs.

High turnover, once frowned upon, is now commonplace, and technological innovations are rapidly changing the business landscape. So businesses seek nimble people who are simultaneously focused and disciplined, yet not rigid. They must also be open to transformation. For leaders and teams to thrive in highly changeable environments, they must be able to handle ambiguity, be adaptable, assimilate information quickly, and shift quickly.

To the extent that the Synthesis assessments rely on IDF methods, they borrow from the military’s forward-looking approach and its focus on potential, rather than credentials, says Arieli, who trained intelligence officers during her military service. “The military generally brings to mind hierarchy and formality and commands,” she says, but given the turnover situation, “the Israeli military is structured similarly to the job market and faces similar constraints.”

Despite their connections to their birthplace, both CEOs, with a charming vehemence, say they are “agnostic” to Israel, noting that most of their coaches and clients are in the US and Europe. They say that their method is universal, and their mindset international. Fundamentally, they insist, people are pretty much the same everywhere.

“When you go deep, you see that people of all kinds have a lot more similarities than differences, and who we are is less associated with culture and identity than with different types,” Arieli says. Her belief in humanity and our potential has only grown over the time she’s spent trying to figure out what makes us tick. “I already started at a positive point but I’m an even stronger believer in human connectivity than ever before,” she says.

Going deep

Before I ever spoke to the Synthesis CEOs, I tested out their process. To be honest, it was awkward. But that’s part of the point.

Practically speaking, the process is painless. After receiving introductory emails from Synthesis, I was sent my portion of the assessment to fill out. There were no multiple choice questions, no scales of one to ten to rate my traits, no word limits, and no rules to speak of.

The first step was essentially answering a series of questions similar to essay prompts. The queries were deliberately open-ended, asking about my history and aspirations, and aspects of work and life, leaving me to fill in the blanks as I liked. It did not distinguish much between the personal and professional. My directions were simply to reflect and write. I was given a couple of weeks to send in my replies.

I was intrigued by these mysterious psychological assessors using IDF methods and what they’d reveal to me about my potential, as both a journalist and as a human. But as a reporter, I always have much to write, most of it not about myself. So I wrote quickly and impatiently, having long ago grown bored with the details of my life and eager to get back to what makes me happiest, scribbling my way through a thicket of facts or trying to concretize an abstract concept.

I sent back my responses the same day I received the questionnaire. In retrospect, it’s obvious I was not following the spirit of the instructions. I failed to let the questions stew, didn’t mull them over time, didn’t reflect very much before writing, though this is clearly part of the intended process.

Immediately after sending off my responses, I longed to take them back, and not just because there was more to say, or because by hurrying, I was missing the opportunity to garner valuable insights. I also felt exposed, and maybe even slightly resentful of the fact that I had opened myself to these strangers’ assessments.

That feeling, I now realize, is part of the personal reckoning that the Synthesis process is designed to prompt. Each person who answers the questions may react differently, and their reaction—whether resistance or eagerness or even indifference—tells them something.

In that interim period, I reconsidered my answers. The questions were still working on me, my responses revising themselves in my head from one day to the next. “I should have said that,” I’d think, and then again regret having responded at all.     

“That’s part of the experience,” Schlatka told me weeks later. “You start the development work yourself.”

Personal reckoning

The Synthesis CEOs may be agnostic about Israel, but I can’t say I felt the same way when I took their assessment. Indeed, the process forced me to think an awful lot about Israel, the country where I was born but not raised.

In the two weeks between sending in my answers and receiving a report from Synthesis, I ruminated about immigration and origins, languages and borders, the person I might have been had I grown up in Tel Aviv and not Boston. While waiting for my report, I realized that I seemed to want approval from faceless strangers, and that I wanted it precisely because they were Israeli and had lived some of my possible alternate lives. And that bothered me.

No matter though. Because when the report came, I didn’t get the desired confirmation.

The assessors were perceptive and generous in many regards, but they noted I was generally elusive and possibly immature, a Peter Pan character with no apparent deep ties. My written responses revealed little about my psychology, it seems, except to the extent that there was a marked absence of revelation. My disinterest in the details of my existence left little personal material to work with, just a list of adventures.

After the initial sting—feeling like I had failed some Israeli litmus test for human connection—a sense of triumph creeped in, as if I had outwitted these alleged master psychologists (it’s a feeling I invite experts to illuminate; your letters are welcome).

The only problem is that when I met with my Synthesis coach, Laura Hunt Newman, to discuss the report, I had some explaining to do. My literary coyness didn’t make it easy to prepare for our discussion, and she had to scrap her proposed plan when she discovered that in person I am terribly effusive and all too inclined to provide details.

To her credit, she proved the Synthesis method and her agility on the spot, changing her “action plan” when we realized that the assessment alighted on something very important (in other words, I outwitted no one). My disinclination to discuss certain personal details reflects a similar reticence in my employment—I’ll happily whip up an article on almost any topic but shirk discussions of what’s bothering me until I’m so annoyed that I’m afraid of what I might say when I do articulate.

“It’s a recipe for disaster!” I exclaimed.

Newman talked me down, convincing me it wouldn’t be the end of the world to express myself before reaching a boiling point. We spent about 90 minutes chatting—she couldn’t shut me up and didn’t try, extending our time. We discussed what I might work on. About a week later, she sent me a detailed plan based on the exchange.

Is it working?

In the six weeks since I met with Newman, there has been some shift in my approach to communication. Take this story, for example. It almost didn’t publish in time to be part of this series on the new science of talent!

I hate missing deadlines and much prefer to pull an all-nighter than to explain a failure to produce writing in a timely fashion. But I asked for an extension, though it pained me greatly, and I even detailed why I needed it, which pained me even more because I I loathe offering justifications. Nothing disastrous happened. The extension was granted.

Undergoing the Synthesis process didn’t prompt instant illumination or make it less painful to speak up, and I haven’t checked my “agile action plan” to make sure I’m on track. But I can tell there is an extra pause in my thought process, slowing down those moments when I’m tempted to rush habitually so that I can choose whether or not to articulate my needs.

That is success by Schlatka’s measure.

“You don’t have use the labels of an ‘agile action plan.’ It’s more a way of thinking, being more intentional” she says. “People use the mindset, not the forms. They use the ideas, not the vocabulary. It’s theirs once they do it.”

Schlatka has used this approach to help her son figure out social situations at school. Say he wants to become friends with someone, they analyze why and figure out the steps he might take to become closer to this person, and they reassess based on results. “We chose to focus on the specific business context, but it’s useful for couples and families, in diplomacy, anywhere—and it’s not meant to be used in a stiff way. It’s natural,” she says.

Ultimately, the goal is simply to become more intentional. So a space must be created for awareness and analysis, to help ensure our choices align better with our values, desires, and aspirations. Arieli and Schlatka argue that their program differs from other approaches to executive assessment precisely because it’s not purely academic but based on their experience studying humans being tested in difficult, fast-changing environments, and blossoming.

Proof and pudding

With just a few years in business, Synthesis has only limited evidence of its methods’ success, the CEOs admit. They plan to soon publish research validating their work, and meanwhile point to anecdotal examples as proof, like claiming to have helped to drive up the valuation of a client company from $180 million to $250 million in a year by applying the Synthesis process to assist the board in choosing and coaching a new CEO.

Based on what is reported by those who undergo the process, and the results of teams that have used what is learned to create plans and see them through, Arieli says, they are confident about their method. “It’s a program for evolution and people are intrigued by the journey,” she says. Given an opportunity to invest in themselves and to get some guidance, people tend to respond positively, she adds.

The idea is to push people to “their optimal level of discomfort” in short bursts, forcing the kind of transformations we long for but usually shirk because we think we’re too busy. The point, Schlatka says, is to develop a plan for sustainable change. She contends that the change will happen in however much you time you allot for it, if you’re trained to be thoughtful.

“We create value by pausing in this intense life,” Schlatka says. “We live in a world with a lot of noise and a lot of data, and figuring out what matters most and what will move the dial is the difference between a fulfilled life and just surviving.”