Recruitment and Retention: Throw People In Over Their Heads

Someone just asked me what I look for when interviewing young people. I answered, “I look for the same things I look for in older people.”

“There are patterns of success evident very early on, and if a young person already possesses them, he or she will be successful when they’re older."

Not everything needs to be perfect. Those who are too smart overthink and underdo.

Sixteen Traits

Here’s what I look for when interviewing candidates, regardless of whether the person is young, old, or somewhere in between.

Commits and delivers results without making excuses. This is the first rule of success. The important point is to get everything done that’s been assigned to you without ever making an excuse.

Confident, but not arrogant. Taking reasonable risks, taking on projects outside of your comfort zone, willingness to make mistakes, being okay with failing – all of these impress me.

Talking a good game, blaming others for not delivering the results, and not taking personal responsibility for whatever happens – that’s how you don’t get ahead (see Point 1).

Has appropriate balance of thinking and achieving. In business, not everything needs to be perfect. Those who are too smart overthink and underdo. Those who aren’t smart enough need too much direction or mess up too often.

Getting a lot of good quality work done on time, all of the time, is the right balance.

Volunteers for assignments that are over his/her head or no one else wants. Volunteering for projects is a sure way to get noticed. Even if your work is not perfect, you’ll soon be recognized as someone who isn’t afraid to handle work outside of your comfort zone.

This is how you demonstrate the confidence needed to get ahead.

Doesn’t need a lot of management direction. Most managers don’t want to over manage. They like to hire people who are fairly independent, can take general direction, figure out for themselves what needs to be done – and then goes ahead and does it.

Doesn’t hide the bad news. Things sometimes don’t go well. Giving early notice to your manager that things are getting squirrelly is essential. This is part of being responsible. As part of this, have a correction plan in mind, rather than dumping the problem on your manager.

Does more than required. Regardless of how old the person is, when I’m digging into that person’s major accomplishments, I’m constantly asking where the person went the extra mile, took the initiative, or did something extra without being told to do it.

Patterns soon emerge revealing work ethic, responsibility, motivation and commitment.

Uses the ‘process of the success.’ There’s a common process that the best people use when handed a project or task to complete.

It starts by figuring out the problem and evaluating options and alternatives, follows with putting a comprehensive plan of action together, then identifying the resources needed and likely bottlenecks, and ends with actually implementing the plan and tracking the achievement of the objectives.

Uses 360° thinking for problem-solving. I like to ask people how they’ve solved big problems. As part of this, I’m looking for people who constantly stretch themselves, reaching beyond their own knowledge base and their core of same-thinking advisors.

Breaks some rules. I’m currently reading Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. It’s pretty obvious that from the dawn of time, being unconventional is more likely to result in success than keeping to the safe and secure.

To uncover this trait, ask people where they’ve battled conventional wisdom and if they’ve won or lost.

Appropriately balances individual and team strengths. I ask candidates to describe their major accomplishments and why they choose one approach over another. Most people tend to emphasize either their individual accomplishments or their team skills.

The best people consider both the individual and the team based on the circumstances and challenges involved.

Throw the person in over his or her head and see what happens. In my experience, a high performer is likely to emerge.

Makes good decisions, and not afraid to make them without perfect information. I have candidates talk through the biggest and toughest business decisions they’ve made. I ask them to focus on how they collected and processed the information, how much information they needed, who advised them, and why they chose one direction over another.

Balancing competing objectives and appropriately considering strategic and tactical issues are essential in making good decisions.

Expects to be rewarded after succeeding. This is a value-oriented trait, but after tracking hundreds of successful people over the years, I’ve found that the best people are fully comfortable with the idea of being rewarded after they’ve proved themselves.

Demonstrates flexibility. Circumstances constantly change. The best people deal with it.

Possesses multi-functional and diversity team skills. Being able to work with people in different functions, at different levels and with different backgrounds is essential for getting ahead. During the interview, I ask candidates to describe teams they’ve been assigned to and why they were assigned to them.

Those with the strongest team skills want to be (and are) assigned to the biggest and most important cross-functional teams.

Builds and develop strong teams. Since hiring top people is a prerequisite for management, I ask managers to rank the quality level of the people on their teams. The best managers focus on hiring and developing strong people and give them the opportunity to become even better.

Fitness for the job

Focusing on the above attributes is important. But to determine fit with the open position, it’s also important to first compare the person’s major accomplishments with what actually needs to be done on the job. If these somewhat match, focusing on the attributes described here then becomes essential.

If the accomplishments aren’t comparable, but the person possesses these traits in abundance, the person should be hired for some job anyway.

Then when hired, throw the person in over his or her head and see what happens. In my experience, a high performer is likely to emerge.

About the Author

Lou Adler is CEO of The Adler Group, a 35-year-old search and recruitment company in the US whose clients include Intel, McKinsey, Disney, ESPN and General Dynamics. He also wrote The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (2013) and Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007). This article originally appeared on LinkedIn’s Influencer blog, and has been re-edited for clarity and conciseness.

Photo credit: Shutterstock  

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