Hire Candidates With These 5 Traits — or Prepare to Perish

Oct 2, 2012

Take 30 seconds to read this passage from this year’s Global CEO Study from IBM. You’ll find it either unsettling or reassuring based on your recruiting practices.

For years, organizations have been embroiled in the so-called war for talent. The challenge has historically been a shortage of particular skills. But today, it’s virtually impossible for CEOs to find the future skills they will need — because they don’t yet exist. Bombarded by change, most organizations simply cannot envision the functional capabilities needed two or three years from now … CEOs are increasingly focused on finding employees with the ability to constantly reinvent themselves.

So, was that statement chilling or encouraging? If you hire based on skills only, I’d understand if you’re feeling a cold sweat coming on. Many of the skills listed on the resumes of the last dozen people you hired could be passé by the next presidential election.

But if you hire beyond skills and personality and hold out for certain character traits (which I preach in my new book Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer, where I have a the complete list of character traits plus 258 Tremendous Interview Questions), you have actually future-proofed your organization.

To ensure your team can adapt, hold out to hire candidates with these five character traits. I’ve also listed key questions you should ask during your pre-employment interviews.

  1. Ambition: Is driven by desire to realize personal potential and improve self, your organization, and society. Key Questions: What would you like to be doing in two or three years? What’s your career goal in 10 years? You’ll need to ask follow-up questions to validate the candidate’s initial response, which could be an Interviewing 101 answer. But after this conversation, you’ll have a decent gauge if the candidate plans to transcend your organization or just collect a paycheck.
  2. Ongoing Education: Engages in a lifelong process of introspection, searching, self-improvement, learning, and knowledge application. Key Questions: What books have had the greatest effect on your career? Part of emotional maturity is acquiring self insight; give me an example of something you recently learned about yourself. Nobody is prepared for that second question. The most common answer I hear is, “Ummm … hmmm … well …” You learn that some people just aren’t committed to bettering themselves. They’re living and working, but not really learning.
  3. Responsibility: Is decisive and self-reliant; a dutiful grown child, sibling, spouse, parent, and employee. Key Questions: Tell me about a recent split-second decision you made on the job; why you made that decision, and how things turned out? Give me an example of when you made a mistake and fell short of your outcome. The first question will uncover if the candidate embraces critical thinking or reacts with emotion. During the candidate’s response to the second question, you’ll learn if they take 100% responsibility for a situation, rationalize the problem, or deflect accountability. If they can’t think of a time they made a mistake, that’s a red flag that the candidate lacks …
  4. Humility: Is willing to admit personal faults, apologize, accept criticism, and give credit where credit is due. Key Questions: Give me an example of you changing your behavior for work reasons. How do you feel about the level of recognition you currently receive? You may be wondering how humility will help your company adapt for the future. If employees aren’t humble enough to embrace true transparency and quickly point out where they are failing, they won’t change course when necessary. The first question can uncover if the candidate is quick to admit, accept, and address shortcomings. The second question can elicit a variety of responses, ranging from “I do the work of five people and nobody appreciates it” to “I can’t take sole credit for that accomplishment — my teammates played a big role, too.” During a recent manager meeting at my company, an operations manager who was praised by the sales managers said, “Thanks, but you guys are the ones with the hard jobs. I really admire what you do and have learned from you.”
  5. Perseverance: Maintains focus and single-minded persistence in spite of obstacles. Exhibits endurance. Takes the long-term view. Key Questions: Many obstacles can prevent an organization from achieving its goals; tell me about a time when you met such an obstacle. Can you give me an example of a time when you had to solve a really complex problem that required multiple steps across weeks or months? Some of the best business advice I’ve received from a fellow company president is simple: “It’s a journey.” These questions will reveal if the candidate has the ability to endure journeys and minimize frustration along the way. At my company, we aim to hire juggernauts — people who are unstoppable because they provide steady, consistent force until an outcome is achieved.

With all these questions, be sure to ask for a second example (one instance of a behavior doesn’t constitute a trend) and ask “why?” so you gain a deep understanding of the purpose of the candidate’s action or thinking.

Happy hiring!

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