There is one core belief I’ve carried with me throughout my career: it’s all about the people. On multiple occasions, I’ve chosen one job over another because it would allow me to work with a stronger team, give me the opportunity to learn from a particular mentor, or in some other way be a better fit because of the people attached to it. Looking back on each of those decisions, I believe this core principle has served me well.
Once I began leading teams and companies, I used the same principle to ensure I built the strongest teams of individuals I could find. Great organizations are built by great people, and if you have the right ones on your team, you can accomplish anything, even when you need to adjust your strategy or your product, take on a new competitor, or react to a new trend in the marketplace – all of which are often required for success.
But when faced with a pool of talented people, how can you best decide whom to hire? In my 20 years of hiring experience, I’ve found that there are common traits that can predict whether someone will be successful on one of my teams, and I look for them during the interview process. Here are the 6 most important ones I’ve found.
1. Patterns of accomplishment: The strongest people I’ve hired have many examples of accomplishments throughout their lives. I almost always start interviews by asking people to tell me about their lives “before the resume,” and I look for people who have examples of accomplishment early in life. It doesn’t matter what the accomplishment is; it’s usually in some area that the person is passionate about – sports, or the arts, or activism, or academics. It can be anything. The simple fact that they cared enough about something to excel in it shows me that they have passion within and can bring that passion into their work. I have found that people who achieve at a high level early in life are self-motivated and tend to follow that pattern throughout their lives. They usually have many stories of projects they’ve initiated, teams they’ve helped be successful, and recognitions they received.
It’s notable that depending on the circumstances and the degree of privilege someone has early in life, that the definition of “accomplishment” can be different. For instance, for the students I taught at Breakthrough, becoming the first in their families to go to college was a huge achievement. People who have overcome large challenges in their lives also show patterns of accomplishment, maybe even more so than those whose lives have been easier. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, two well-known Psychology professors, refer to this trait as “grit.” There is a great New York Times article that summarizes this topic well.
And, this does not mean that people who don’t have examples of early achievement can’t be successful later. I have certainly hired people who “bloomed” later in life. However, I have found early accomplishment to be a leading indicator of future success, so I hire people with it whenever I can. Companies are successful based on the results they deliver, and people with patterns of lifelong accomplishment tend to care about and consistently deliver results.
2. Passion and talent for their function: I look for people who have a real passion for what they do. That passion also usually indicates a natural “talent” for that function. The Gallup organization describes talents as “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” In other words, talents are innate. They are the things that come naturally to you, that you love, and have likely been doing throughout your life. Talent combined with skills and knowledge that you learn over time is what makes people truly great at their jobs.
It is possible to get very good at something by acquiring skills and knowledge, without an innate talent for it. However, people who are in roles they don’t have a talent for tend not to love those jobs. That’s why I look for passion.
One example is our new VP of Sales at Change.org, Amanda Levy. She loves sales. And she is really good at it. She describes how as a child, her father, who also had a natural talent for sales, described his work as “the transfer of enthusiasm between one person and another.” That is how she feels about it too. When she has something to sell that she really believes in, her pitches become chances to share opportunities with customers and create solutions for them. Between her natural talent and the skills and knowledge she gained from building out successful sales teams at Yelp and Twitter, Amanda was an obvious hiring choice for me.
3. Fast learners with strong fundamental skills: While it is important to have a natural talent in a functional area, it’s also critical to have strong fundamental skills and be able to learn new things quickly. There are underlying skills that are relevant across a variety of functions – critical thinking, analytical skills, strong writing and verbal communication – that I have found to be good predictors of success.
I get asked this question a lot about technical teams. Is it better to hire someone who is an expert at a particular coding language or technique or someone who is more of a generalist, good at learning new things? While there are different views on this question, based on my experience, I will always choose someone who is highly motivated and a fast learner with strong underlying skills over someone who is an expert at the thing we happen to be doing now. Without fail, the one thing that is constant in technology (and elsewhere, according to the adage) is change. We all know there will be new devices, new programming languages, and new approaches tomorrow that don’t exist today. I like to hire people who want to learn those new things and who want to be part of creating them.
4. Adaptability: Given this prevalence of change in the startup world, I have found that people who are comfortable with change in general tend to be more successful. In order to assess this skill, I usually ask very direct questions like, “Can you tell me about a time when your company or team went through a major change and how you handled that?” People who can describe situations where they adeptly maneuvered a period of change are especially valuable on teams.
When challenges arise, you want people on your team who will rise to those challenges and offer solutions, even if it means changing how they work or going outside of their functional role. I look for people who, while competent at their own function, are also open to expanding beyond their typical scope – people who will never say “that’s not my job” when asked to take on something new. Adaptable people want to solve problems even when there is no obvious “we’ve done that before” answer.
Billie Jean King, the groundbreaking women’s tennis player, described this trait so well in a Fresh Air interview she did this month. She said “champions adapt.” And, she described how she was successful by first envisioning all the things that might be out of her control – wind, rain, bad line calls, etc. – and then thinking through how she might adapt her own reaction to those things. Her reaction, after all, was the part she could control.
When I look back on the various roles I’ve had, change has been such a big part of the day-to-day, and how my team or company handled that change meant the difference between our success and failure. At Yahoo!, in the nine years I was there, we saw the advent of instant messaging, digital cameras, smart phones, the social graph, and so much more. At Dealmap, we changed our product (and our company name!) three times until we found something that worked. The people who adapted well to those changes personally and helped the company adapt, too, were the most valuable members of our team.
5. Values fit: Companies should understand their core values and look for people who exhibit those values. I admire the work Jim Collins has done around core values, which, as he describes, are “discovered” rather than prescribed.
Collins says, “Executives often ask me, ‘How do we get people to share our core values?’ You don’t. Instead, the task is to find people who are already predisposed to sharing your core values. You must attract and then retain these people and let those who aren’t predisposed to sharing your core values go elsewhere.” To me, this is spot on.
At Change.org, we recently went through a values articulation process, which I’ll write about in the future. We eventually landed on seven values we embrace as a company, three of which I’ll list here:
6. Diversity of perspectives: This is not necessarily a criterion to look for in any one candidate but, rather, across a set of people as you are building a team. It is tempting to hire people who are just like you, agree with your opinions, and won’t cause any conflict. This is usually a sure way to ensure failure.
In fact, there is a lot of research that suggests that companies built with diverse teams have better results. For example, the Catalyst Research that shows companies with more female board members outperform companies with fewer or no female board members.
As part of our core value of embracing openness at Change.org, we believe it is important to build teams of people that have a diverse set of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. I have found in my own experience hiring people that people who have different backgrounds than others on a team can be very effective at challenging the group and me to think differently and come up with better solutions.
And, while I look for people who have diverse perspectives, I also want people who will present those perspectives in a way that ensures they still build strong relationships with others. In other words, I still follow the “don’t work with jerks” rule I learned from my father. Essentially, make sure to hire people you will enjoy working with – people who treat others well and are generally good human beings.
Photo credit: DavGoss on Flickr
Originally Posted On LinkedIN: By: Jennifer Dulski
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