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The 4 Things I Look for in a Prospective Employee

When I interview prospective candidates, I look for four key attributes: enthusiasm, curiosity, insight, and perspective. Here’s why:

Motivation is probably one of the most important attributes of a good employee, and the best kind of motivation comes from enthusiasm. Enthusiastic employees are eager to work. They volunteer for assignments. They work longer hours because they want to — not because they have to. They have an inner drive that keeps them going when other employees are running out of steam.

There are other types of motivation. An employee with a new baby at home may be motivated. An employee who is deeply in debt may be motivated. But enthusiasm is not the same as working for a good reason. Enthusiasm is a motivation that comes from inside rather than a feeling prompted by external factors. Most enthusiastic people are enthusiastic about everything. They live life just a little bit larger than everyone else.

A person who is naturally curious always wants to know more. Curious people don’t take things for granted. If something doesn’t work they want to know why. If something works, they want to know how, and then after they learn how, then they want to know how it could be made to work better. They dig deeper than other people to get at the underlying causes of things. If an organization isn’t working well, then they’ll figure out how to fix it. If a system or product is popular, then they’ll learn what makes it popular so that they can make other systems or products popular too.

Curious people aren’t satisfied with the status quo. To them, life is a series of questions to be answered and puzzles to be solved, and work is a process of continuous improvement.

Enthusiasm and curiosity aren’t enough if a person learns things by rote, just memorizing the facts and not internalizing their meaning. Insight is required to actually do something with the information you’ve learned. Insightful people absorb facts and then arrange the facts in their heads to form mental models of reality. Insight allows a person to apply a physics model to a business problem, or to explain a computer design using a plumbing analogy.

Insightful people don’t put rigid barriers around knowledge, seeing it only for its value within a narrow field. Instead, insightful people view the entire world as connected in a series of universal systems and principles. Learning from any area can be applied to all areas, and new learning is reduced to its fundamental elements and mentally saved for use in countless future situations.

Insight without perspective is like textbook knowledge — technically correct but unusable because it lacks the practical elements that make it work in the real world. Yes, there might be a formula like A = B + C, but what about friction? What about the natural resistance of people to new ideas and ways of doing things? What about the difficulties of scaling a simple solution to a large-scale environment? What about the complications of dealing with environmental factors and unreliable equipment?

People with perspective have the practical experience required to know the difference between theory and reality, and to know how to adapt a theory to apply it in a real situation. Their experience isn’t measured in years, but in the diversity of situations to which they’ve been exposed, in the difficulties that they’ve faced, and in the problems and challenges they’ve overcome. Perspective isn’t the same thing as experience — perspective is what they’ve learned as a result of the experience. There are a lot of people with experience, but not so many with perspective.

How Do You Interview for These 4 Things?
You may say, “Well, that’s an interesting list, but you can’t determine these characteristics of a person in an interview.”

I agree that you can’t determine these characteristics in a traditional interview. The problem with traditional interviews is that they are based on asking questions and getting short answers, and they are usually focused on establishing facts rather than determining whether a candidate possesses some of these more complex personal attributes. And to make matters worse, candidates are usually reluctant to exhibit some of these characteristics in an interview, since they feel constrained to answer the questions without offering personal opinions.

The only way to get a candidate to reveal some of these characteristics in an interview is to turn the interview into a conversation. Get the candidate talking about something that she’s enthusiastic about. Give the candidate a situation that provokes his curiosity. Ask the candidate to explain something abstract, and notice how insightful she is in using analogy or metaphor. Provide a real-world problem and see what kind of perspective he applies to a possible solution.

Uncover these four traits in an interview, and you get an additional benefit too. People who have these four traits love to use them. So doing an interview which allows the candidate to exercise these four characteristics is more likely to convince the candidate that your position is a desirable one. And that’s important, because these people are scarce and in high demand. Hire them when you can.

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