The One Trait I Look for in Every New Hire
What sets some candidates head and shoulders above the rest?
Job seekers and students often ask me, “What do you look for when you are interviewing someone for a position?”
Over the course of my career, I’ve interviewed thousands of applicants for hundreds of roles. My favorite way to figure out if we’re going to be right to work together is to pretend that we are already working together. In a nutshell, I expose the mess I need help with and see how the applicant reacts.
The best job descriptions are set up this way. Not what will the person be doing exactly, but what problem will the person be charged with solving?
I love to describe the real problem I’m wrestling with right now, and ask for advice. There are two distinct reactions I get every time. Some candidates freak out, thinking that I’m asking them to actually solve the problem, like, right there, on the spot. This kind of candidate might blurt out, “Blue!” when the question was, “Why do you think this customer group isn’t purchasing as much as they used to anymore?” Others will ask what tools and resources will be given to them, or what detailed plans are in place that they can execute. Many turn pale and look like they are going to pass out.
And then. Then there is the candidate who literally leans forward in her chair. Asks questions to figure out what I’m talking about. Spends all her time understanding the problem, and wants to know more.
I always ask if the candidate has been in a similar situation before (the standard, “tell me about a time…”). I also ask, “What next steps would you take to solve this problem?”
But the answers to those questions don’t matter to me as much as the curiosity and engagement in the problem. When I show you a hard thing, will you help me pick it up, turn it over, and collaborate on what to do about it? (This approach works well for friendships and relationships, too, by the way).
Of course, framing your mess is important. I don’t drop my emotional despair on the first meeting. But I am candid about the size of the hole as a way to invite the candidate to grab a shovel. I also try to explain why the problem matters, and what is at stake when it can be unlocked.
Many interviewers shy away from this kind of “sharing the mess” interviewing because it admits vulnerability. I was worried about it, too. “What if I expose my mess and the person runs off?” “What if they go bad mouth my company to a competitor?”
These are risks, but not ones that outweigh the reward of finding the best people for the job. In building a company, or a life, I’ve learned that nothing outweighs that reward.
I’ve also learned that it’s better if they run off at the interview stage than after you let them in the front door. Or beyond the first date. A runner’s gonna run. And a co-builder’s gonna get curious.