HIRE FOR WHAT YOU’RE LIKELY TO OVERLOOK
Talent is good. Practice is better. Passion is best.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
YOU’VE ATTRACTED A SOLID POOL of job candidates. Now, what should you look for in selecting the top candidate?
Most companies focus on job-specific skills and experience. Can the person do the job? Has the person done the job? Some dig deeper; they try to determine the person’s values. Skills, experience, and values—all very important. But a candidate could check all those boxes yet still disappoint you, because there’s one more category that strongly predicts success. And you’re likely to overlook it.
Theo Epstein was a pioneer of the analytics movement in baseball, which brought greater sophistication to player evaluation and selection. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox, his methods helped the team break an 86-year “curse” and win the World Series. Then they won it a second time.
At the end of Epstein’s final season in Boston, the talent-laden Red Sox melted down and missed the playoffs. Analyzing why, he came to a realization that changed his thinking about player selection: Skills and experience weren’t enough. To deal with the pressures and ups and downs of a long and grueling season, he needed players who possessed something he had previously overlooked. The right traits. One trait that was especially relevant, given the Red Sox recent meltdown, was the drive to overcome adversity. That’s because overcoming adversity reflects a tenacity that correlates well with winning. As a result, Epstein made the evaluation of traits a core part of his player selection process.
Epstein went on to become President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs. Four seasons later, after applying his revised methods, the Cubs ended their drought of 108 years and won the World Series.
WHAT TRAITS CAN TELL YOU
Traits are personal qualities and characteristics that can tell you a lot about how people will function in the workplace. For example, will they go above and beyond, or will they do the bare minimum? Will they put the team’s interests first or their own? Will they take initiative or wait to be told what to do?
Suppose you’re hiring an early-career professional, someone who has a solid education but who’s short on skills and experience. Which fundamental traits should you look for? Studying early-career professionals in our clients’ companies, we’ve found that certain traits correlate well with success:
1. Punctual—early or on-time
2. Prepared—ready and equipped
3. Engaged—100 percent focused on whatever they’re doing
4. Reliable—do what they say they’re going to do
5. Respectful—of everyone, all the time
6. Positive—see the possibilities, opportunities, and upsides
7. Inquisitive—strive to learn and grow
8. Coachable—open to constructive feedback and guidance
9. Driven—have a desire to achieve and succeed
10. Forward-looking—anticipate and solve problems
Skills tell you what a candidate can do. Experience tells you what a candidate has done. Values tell you what a candidate wants to do. Traits tell you what a candidate will do.
TRAITS THAT FIT YOUR STRATEGY
Imagine your strategy is to consistently provide impeccable retail service. Which traits should you look for when hiring people? Consider John Jaster. John is the managing director at Andrisen Morton, a men’s fine clothing retailer in Denver. A few years back, I was having a new jacket made on short notice. I had planned to fly out of Denver early on a Monday morning, and the jacket wasn’t going to be ready until late the Saturday before, which meant I was out of luck if any alterations had to be made. Not a problem, I thought. The store’s got my measurements nailed down. But that wasn’t good enough for John.
“Why don’t I come in and meet you on Sunday?” he said. Sunday? John wanted to make sure my new jacket fit perfectly, so of course he offered to come in on his day off. It was automatic. He didn’t have to think about it, and he didn’t make a pretend offer, hoping I would say no. It’s who he is. Impeccable service.
On another occasion, I asked him about his philosophy of service. “When someone comes into our store,” he explained, “I feel like I’m welcoming them into my home. They’re a guest. I want them to relax.
“We’re not selling,” he continued. “We’re providing a service. It’s the things our parents taught us: politeness, manners. It’s what I always emphasize with our new staff. When a person walks in the store, if your mindset is that you’re going to sell something, then this isn’t the place for you.”
What about challenging customers? We’ve all experienced them.
“Empathy,” he said without missing a beat. “I learned from my dad that you never know what a person is experiencing or what they’ve gone through. You have to remember it’s about them; it’s not about you. You can’t go wrong with empathy.”
I thanked John for his insights. “Hey, any time,” he replied. “Just let me know whenever you need me. Even if it’s midnight, I can come into the store.”
Putting the needs of others first, making them feel like guests, politeness, empathy, flexibility—traits that are critical to consistently providing impeccable service. Does it make a difference? Absolutely. It’s why I’ve been a customer of John’s for over 15 years.
Now imagine your strategy is to create a culture of innovation in which everyone looks for ways to help your company improve and evolve. Which traits should you look for? Consider Momofuku Ando. On a biting cold night in 1957, Ando was walking home from the salt-making factory in Osaka, Japan. He saw clouds of steam in the street around which a crowd of people were huddled. They were waiting, a long time as it turned out, for noodles to be cooked in vats of boiling water. “Why should they wait so long?” he thought.
He quickly become consumed with the challenge of making noodles that didn’t take so long to cook. After a year of trial and error in his backyard shed, Ando discovered the secret of revitalizing precooked noodles that were flavorful. “Instant noodles” were born. In 1958 he sold 13 million bags of his three-minute noodles. Today, over 100 billion servings of instant noodles are eaten around the world each year. The Japanese voted instant noodles their second most important invention of the twentieth century after the (now obsolete) Sony Walkman.
Innovation is rooted in four traits: a dissatisfaction with how things are, the inquisitiveness to ponder “what if,” a bias for action, and the persistence to transform the what-if into a viable reality. All four are essential. Dissatisfaction alone results in frustration and complaining. Add inquisitiveness, and you’re still only daydreaming. Taking action gets you in the game, yet add persistence and now you have what separates true innovators from mere dabblers. How persistent is persistent? As one example, James Dyson, the inventor and founder of Dyson vacuums, went through 5,127 prototypes of his dual-cyclone, bagless vacuum cleaner before launching it to the market. That’s persistence.
TRAITS THAT FIT THE SITUATION
We worked with a company in the building products industry that was hiring a VP of marketing. It came down to two candidates, both of whom had the required skills and experience. Yet one of the candidates was a natural fit with the company culture while the other was somewhat of a stretch. Which one would you choose?
Not so fast. Hiring for fit with your current culture reinforces that culture. But what if you need to evolve your culture? What if your people need to think and act differently? Then you should hire for fit with the desired culture. The traits you select for need to fit the situation.
That was our client’s situation, and that’s what he did. He selected the candidate who would help shift the culture. A constructive agitator who would inject some discomfort into the status quo. (We of course reminded the CEO that cultures can only process so much change so fast. A constructive agitator not sensitive to that could become marginalized or might even trigger a culture war.)
Context counts. If you’re operating in a fast-changing environment, you want people who are adaptable. If performance expectations in your industry are ever-rising, you want people who are driven to learn and improve. If you have a distributed workforce with minimal supervision, you want people with a strong sense of responsibility who take initiative.
You don’t necessarily want all your team members to have the same traits. Sometimes, it’s important they have complementary traits. That can even be true at the top of your organization with the CEO and COO or the CEO and CFO. My favorite example is Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa. Honda was a mechanic and engineer who was fascinated with engines, design, and technology. He was a tireless worker and an intense perfectionist. He was also prone to emotional outbursts, and was called Kaminari-san—Mr. Thunder—for his temper when others failed to meet his performance standards.
Takeo Fujisawa was the calm to Honda’s storm. A skilled administrator with expertise in marketing and finance, Fujisawa was less intense than Honda and could see the gray where his colleague could only see black and white. He would counsel people, not yell at them. Honda and Fujisawa were perfect complements, and together they built the largest motorcycle company in the world in just over 10 years. (You may have heard they later expanded into automobiles.)
How can leaders with such different traits work so effectively together? First, they were both self-aware (another important trait). Each had great confidence in his abilities yet was well aware of his limitations. Second, they had tremendous respect for and trust in each other’s capabilities. Third, they shared a common vision: to build a thriving, global company committed to innovation.
It’s not critical that each member of your team has every required trait; it’s critical that your team collectively has the required traits. Don’t just hire people like you; hire people who complement you.
THE SEARCH FOR UNIVERSAL SUCCESS TRAITS
Aside from the traits that fit your strategy or a specific situation, are there traits you should look for in every new hire? While there are many tools used to assess traits along a variety of dimensions—DISC, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Predictive Index, and Culture Index being common examples—they aren’t designed as general predictors of workplace success.
Ian MacRae and Adrian Furnham at University College London have identified and extensively validated six traits that are consistently linked to workplace success and that make up their High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI):1
Conscientiousness. People who are conscientious take ownership of their responsibilities, decisions, and actions. They commit to following through. They don’t succumb to impatience or the urge to just get by.
Curiosity. Curious people like to get to the root causes of issues, which in turn helps them learn. They like to imagine possibilities that can lead to innovations.
Courage. Courageous people are willing to think independently and to take risks. For anyone in a leadership role, especially, taking well-conceived risks is essential.
Competitiveness. People who are competitive are motivated, not necessarily to beat others, but to excel and succeed. They push themselves. They’re not easily discouraged by setbacks or adversity.
Adjustment. Well-adjusted people deal well with pressure and stress. They frame these in a more positive way (or at least less negative way) than less well-adjusted people. They don’t let anxieties get the best of them.
Ambiguity tolerance. People with this trait are comfortable with uncertainty. They are open to the merits of different perspectives. They are not only more adaptive to change, but quicker to adapt.
This research has been validated across various business sectors over a number of years. MacRae rightly cautions, however, that any of the traits taken to an extreme could be problematic. Excessive curiosity, for example, could lead to endless contemplation while little-or-nothing gets done. As a result, he and Furnham identified four ranges along the scale for each trait: low, moderate, optimal, and excessive. Those most likely to succeed have traits in the optimal range.
Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychologist who studies human motivation and achievement. At the heart of her thinking is the idea that there are two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.2 Dweck’s research looks at how the mindset we adopt fundamentally shapes our lives.
Essentially, fixed-mindset people believe that their capabilities are locked in. They say things such as “I’m not good at math” or “I dropped the plate because I always do that.” People with a growth mindset believe that capabilities are subject to change. They make comments such as “I can get better at math” or “I dropped the plate because I wasn’t paying attention.”
A fixed mindset is deterministic: We perform at a certain level because that’s who we are. It doesn’t allow for learning or improvement. A growth mindset is dynamic: We can perform better because we have the capacity to learn, grow, and improve.
In general, you want to hire team members who have more of a growth mindset. Yet what if some of your current team members don’t have that mindset? Fortunately, you can help 206shift their thinking. One approach is to set expectations that stretch them just outside of their comfort zones, provide ample encouragement and support, and then reinforce and celebrate improvements. Over time, they’ll gain confidence and comfort in stretching themselves, and adopt more of a growth mindset.
WHAT ELSE YOU’RE LIKELY TO OVERLOOK . . .
At the beginning of the chapter, I said that job-related skills and experience weren’t enough, that a person’s traits, which are often overlooked, are important in predicting success. Yet what about indirect skills and experiences? Could those be relevant and help to predict success?
Let’s say you’re evaluating a candidate to fill a key management position. You’re likely to assume something that shouldn’t be assumed—that the candidate can self-manage, that she has an effective system for capturing and recording tasks and commitments, for organizing, prioritizing, and scheduling them, and then for managing them through to completion. Surprisingly, many managers lack these seemingly basic skills. Yet it’s easy for you to take them for granted. Don’t.
Life experiences can be relevant to a job. If, for example, you were interviewing a single mom who raised three kids while get207ting her degree and working full-time, what would that tell you? That she is motivated, hardworking, and able to juggle and prioritize competing demands. That might be very relevant to the job for which you’re hiring.
Sometimes, it’s not obvious how non-job-related experiences might apply. Imagine you’re a partner in a law firm that’s hiring new lawyers. Are there experiences that might hint at the likelihood of a successful hire? It was a question I asked Tim, my lawyer, one morning over breakfast.
“I like it if they’ve been a waiter,” he said without pausing. What? “If they’ve worked in that kind of job, then they’re used to a stressful environment. They’ve learned the importance of teamwork, and they’re continually dealing with customer relations. And they’re likely to be trustworthy because they’re dealing with money.”
Well, who would have thought?
Many companies like to hire former athletes, those who played competitive sports at a high level. The assumption is that they understand what it means to intensively pursue a goal, to work hard at improving, and to deal with adversity. But are those assumptions true? The first thing I want to know is whether the former athlete was a “natural” or a “worker.” Naturals may have gotten by based on ability alone. That ability might have masked poor work habits or less-than-maximum effort. Workers, on the other hand, were often overachievers—highly motivated individuals who trained exceptionally hard.
Next, I want to know what the former athlete achieved. Did she progress from being on the second team to becoming a starter? From being a starter to an all-star? Was she happy just being on the team, or did she strive to improve and excel? Was she a team captain?
Then, I want to know how she dealt with the inevitable 208defeats, setbacks, and injuries—emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally. In short, I want to know how she dealt with adversity. Because in the working world she’s going to face lots of it.
Did she play a team or individual sport? In general, team sport athletes understand the importance of teamwork in achieving success. They know what it means to sacrifice for the good of the team, and they enjoy the camaraderie and team spirit. On the other hand, individual sport athletes tend to be self-motivated and self-reliant. They are often well organized and good at time and activity management. And they’ve been trained to objectively analyze their strengths, limitations, and performance.
While the background of former athletes often transfers well to business, make sure to test your assumptions by probing the specifics of their competitive experience.
Finally, recognize that competitive experience can be gained in many fields: the performing arts, gaming, adventure activities—it doesn’t matter. You’re looking for a competitive spirit, not just a competitive background—a spirit that keeps driving the person to excel, to improve, and to win.
THE ONE TRAIT THAT IGNITES EVERYTHING
The next time you’re in Cleveland, you must—must—dine at Mallorca. Not because of the delectable Spanish- and Portuguese-inspired cuisine. Because of Enrique.
Tall and lean with Latin features, Enrique the server has an unparalleled passion for his profession. My first time at Mallorca he asked me about my appetizer, which was conversation-stopping good. “That was very tasty,” I exclaimed.
He slowly leaned forward, a fire building inside, and with barely restrained intensity said, “The best . . . is yet . . . to come!” Then he was off. I was stunned. But he was absolutely right.
A few years later I returned with my wife and our Cleveland friends, unsure of what we might experience, wanting to hope, but not too much, knowing that such experiences are rarely repeated. Of course, we asked for Enrique. As he started describing the specials, it happened. I could see the fire building again. “Tonight . . . the baby . . . goat! You know, the little ones, they don’t get away so easy!” He continued, the shackles on his intensity breaking away. “We have seared . . . tuna! It melts in your mouth like butter! And a wonderful salmon … topped with garlic shrimp!” Finally, he gave in. “Give me those!” he cried out, snatching the menus from our hands. “You don’t need them! Tonight . . . I am the menu!” And then he was off. That was that. We had no idea what we’d be eating or how much it would cost. And it didn’t matter!
All of us love to be around people who so openly love what they do. Passion is the trait that ignites everything else.
What would happen if your organization had 50 Enriques? What stories would your customers tell?
• When assessing potential employees, look for skills, experience, values, and especially, traits.
• Well-validated research (the HPTI) has identified six traits that, at optimal levels, correlate very well with workplace success: conscientiousness, curiosity, courage, competitiveness, adjustment, and ambiguity tolerance.
• Look for traits that support your specific strategy or situation.
• Look for people with a growth mindset, those who believe they can learn, grow, and improve.
• Consider non-job-specific skills and life experiences that might relate to the position you’re filling.
• Passion is the trait that ignites everything else. Hire people who have a natural passion for the job.