Learn to Identify the Qualities You Really Want in Your Next Hire

Oct 2, 2013

Many business leaders take a gut instinct approach to selecting talent. This means they know in their gut what they want their candidates to look like, but don’t take the time to fully develop a profile of the ideal person into a measurable description. Even if the ideal candidate is described in a job posting or a job description, it is often vague and lacks clear direction. In a recent exercise with a group of business owners and executives, we explored some of the qualities they looked for in candidates. I made two distinct observations and came to one conclusion.

  1. None of the qualities they described had anything to do with education, extracurricular activities, work experience growth, or a history of success.
  2. All of these qualities fit into one of two categories: either attitudinal or emotional intelligence.

This group surveyed also came up with 10 qualities of an ideal candidate, listed by category:


A can-do approach to business problems

A desire to exceed expectations

A quest for personal and professional growth


Emotional Intelligence/Competence




Caring (empathy)


Social awareness

From this small sampling of business leaders, each person in the group picked the most important quality that came to the top of their minds when try to select new people for their business. They know they can find people who meet their basic educational, skill, and experience requirements, but what the leaders lack is the ability to select people for these intangible qualities. Many of these otherwise savvy people have very successful businesses and can spot someone with some or many of these skills because people with these qualities tend to shine brightly. However, these executives all wished they could find more people with these qualities and identify them in candidates more effectively.

I could give you a set of interview questions that directly relate to each of these qualities, and you could use them and they will help you select people for these qualities. But here is the tricky part: The real key to success is to own and understand what these qualities look like and how they can be identified in real-world behaviors and actions.

I encourage everyone to perform this exercise with their management teams to ingrain a culture and skill set that allow you to identify your key success qualities in candidates. To succeed in business means you must develop the skill of hiring everyone to be responsible for recruiting the future of your business.

Once you have you list like the one above, don’t be surprised if it’s not very similar to that one; it’s time to evaluate each quality and turn it into something tangible, objective, and measurable. Take each quality one at a time and identify where in your business you see people demonstrate that quality. Think through each carefully and revise if necessary. Start here, with this example of humility:

John is really great because he consistently achieves at the highest level, and when praised by his supervisor he is always gracious. He shows humility every time when he says to himself and the team, “Thank you for recognizing this achievement. Next month I want to work harder to reduce misunderstandings that occur with my prospects during the sales cycle. By doing this, I believe we can achieve happier clients and more sales.”

Now you have identified a behavior directly related to the quality you are hoping to identify in future candidates. Do this for each of the qualities you have on your list, and now you will be ready to create interview questions that will help you identify these qualities in your candidates. The reason this second step is key is because it allows you to ask questions about certain behaviors and work-related situations that occur when someone exhibits the desired quality.

For the final step, you are going to develop your own interview question. We have a classic example of what humility looks like, so how can we determine if someone has this quality or not? Ask a question that will make the candidate discuss a time he or she exhibited the desired quality without asking the person to explain whether he or she can actually exhibit the quality. Here is a road map:

Do not ask, “When was there a time you demonstrated humility at work? Can you explain what the situation was and how that situation turned out?”

This is too obvious. Any halfway trained candidate could come up with a decent answer. You need to design questions that force the candidate to explore this quality within himself or herself without being aware of what you are evaluating.

Try asking this instead: “How do you assess your own performance after achieving a particular work-related goal? Give me an example of a time you did this.”

Now evaluate the candidate’s answer for behaviors closely related to the desired quality of humility. Does the candidate’s explanation look like the behavior in individuals on your team who exhibit humility?

The goal of performing these exercises is to teach ourselves to become expert interviewers, even with limited numbers of individuals to practice with. The trouble with most hiring managers is they do not hire frequently enough to ever become experts. Taking your time to participate in an activity like this one helps you better focus your own skills on what matters the most to you. If you take this seriously, by the time you have finished you will have thought these questions through, from their most basic foundation to their real-world application, and developed an interview question you will own when it comes time to ask it. The visualization of what you are looking for helps to put each candidate in perspective, which will allow you to judge their potential performance on the qualities that matter the most to your organization.

It is critical to digest these concepts; without an exercise like this and practice, you are handicapping your ability to grow and develop as an interviewer. These exercises will help you master these concepts, making them easier to apply in real-life situations.

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