When Hiring, Look for the Five Big Traits for Success

My wife and I just returned from a remarkable trip to Africa and saw the “big five” (lion, elephant, leopard, cape buffalo, and black rhino) in their natural habitat, doing what they do naturally. We were also up close and personal with the big boys and girls of the jungle, and their kids: the famed zoologist Diane Fossey's gorillas.
But on the flight home, I was thinking more about some of the remarkable people we met who evidenced what I refer to as the big five traits of personal success: passion, talent, team skills, thinking and perseverance.
This is a love for the work you’re doing. Passion is what drives motivation, inspiration, and exceptional performance.
The doctor on the tour was an expert in infection-based diseases. He told me he was hooked on medicine as a career when he opened his first anatomy book when he was 18. We met an elephant scientist who thought living in a tent in the bush was a dream come true. It even paid a small stipend.
When I asked a world-class cook at one of the tent camps on the banks of a hippo-infested river what his favorite dish was, he said he couldn't decide. He said he loved them all! Passion is infectious and it’s worth catching, even if you have to chase an elephant to get it.
This is the ability to do outstanding work.Skills, knowledge, abilities (SKAs) and experiences aren't just a list to box-check. This is where most job interviewers – including myself – are often led astray.
For some jobs, box-checking everything on the list is more important. For example, the doctor had a memory like an elephant and the experience to back it up. It was essential for instantly diagnosing serious medical conditions for 30-40 patients a day.
The cook, on the other hand, was a creative genius and in a just a few years was able to demonstrate his exceptional ability. The scientist was a problem-solver, applying all her knowledge to ensure the survival of the elephants she clearly loved. It wasn’t her years of experience that was important, but how she applied them on the job.
In general, box-checking skills and experience is a waste of time. Instead, assess people on how these skills and experiences are actually used on the job.
Team Skills
These represent the ability to influence, organize,develop, lead and cooperate with others. We had a guide in Rwanda trekking us through the gorillas in the mist. He was initially quite reserved.
But within 15 minutes, he had the porters, the trackers, the guides and the tourists – including the semi-physically challenged – climbing jungle trails to see a family of gorillas that seemed not to care we were only five feet away.
For me, seeing our guide’s team skills in action was as inspiring as the experience. When you are assessing team skills, ignore first impressions and affability. Instead ask about the teams the person has been assigned to over the past five to 10 years. The bigger and broader, the better.
This is the ability to apply a person’s SKAs for planning, problem solving, seeing out of the box and decision-making.
The elephant scientist – who was brilliant – described exactly what she needed to track birth and movement patterns, but didn’t have access to big data. The doctor – equally brilliant – was reluctant to change his diagnostic techniques since they worked so well for the past 20 years.
I had no concerns the guide could figure out how to handle any medical emergency even as we were perched on the side of a 45-degree jungle wall.
To figure out thinking skills, just ask candidates how they'd solve realistic, job-related problems. Then get into a back-and-forth discussion to understand the logic behind their thought process in developing a solution.
The answer is less important than how they'd figure out the answer. Forget the brain-teasers and clever questions. They don’t predict the thinking skills needed for success.
This is the fortitude and commitment to get the job done regardless of the circumstances. Sometimes you have to live in a tent. Sometimes you don't have all the tools, time or resources to get the job done properly.
Getting the job done without making excuses is at the core of the big five traits of success. You might even want to give up a little of all of the other traits to get it.
Don’t Forget to Assess Fit
Even if a candidate possesses the above big five traits of success, it won't matter in the long run if the fit isn't right. So while not a big five personal trait, assessing fit needs to be a part of every assessment.
Fit is the relationship of the job, the team, the manager, and the company culture to performance. If the candidate isn't passionate about the actual work, it's unlikely the person will be a star performer. If the leadership style of the manager clashes with the needs of the new hire, underperformance is assured. If the person can't work with the team or doesn't fit with the company culture (pace, level of sophistication, decision-making process, resource availability, etc.), expect mediocre results.
While fit is of vital importance, few hiring managers assess it formally or properly. Instead, most rely on gut feel, intuition, and first impressions.
My approach is to embed each of these fit factors into a performance-based job description clarifying actual job requirements. I then ask candidates to describe their most comparable accomplishments and ask about each of these critical fit factors. The best people are those that can thrive regardless of the circumstances and who don’t make excuses when things go awry.
So whether you're hiring doctors, scientists, cooks, guides or whatever, don't ignore the big five. As important, recognize that the big five are not generic plug-and-play skills and abilities. They need to be assessed in comparison to actual job needs and the underlying fit factors. That's how to tame your own jungle.
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.


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