Recruiting 101: Looking Beyond Talent

Here’s a classic: Think about the star basketball player in your high school. Now think about the number of high schools in the nation, and the number of high school players who go on to join the NBA. Yes, it’s an overused example, but it’s nevertheless an easy way to demonstrate that in a world full of talented people, comparatively few find success at the highest level.

So here’s a question: if your goal is to recruit and hire for success, and talent isn’t the best indicator of future success, what should you be looking for in a new candidate? What is the driving factor behind success?

Depth of knowledge, technical skill, adaptability—all of these are valuable traits worth seeking in a new hire, but the irony is that despite their perceived value, those traits by themselves don’t produce anything or move your organization closer to its goal. Where talent shows its value is when it combines with the drive to achieve. In other words, it takes more than talent to achieve something; it takes motivation. But how do you recruit motivated people?

There’s no easy answer. Unlike experience or aptitude, a clear picture of motivational drive isn’t as visible on the surface in a candidate’s resume, and if you are actively sourcing, you lose the clear motivational indicator of an inbound application or cover letter. But while they aren’t foolproof, there are a few methods you can use to suss out whether or not a candidate possesses the drive and commitment your organization needs to be successful:

To be clear, we’re not advocating a battery of pointless tests as part of your application policy. Whether you’re actively sourcing or just recruiting, you can use the introductory process as a first line of defense to weed out the most passive applicants and definite non-starters. To a point, the more challenging the process, the more opportunity you’ll have to gauge a candidate’s dedication and follow-through on top of their skill set. Want to test a candidate’s initiative? Use carefully timed communication that leaves opportunities to gauge follow-up habits. There’s as much to learn from a candidate’s behavior as there is from the content they provide during interviews and tests.

Assuming most promotions aren’t given gratuitously—although some are—a pattern of steady promotion or increasing responsibility says a lot about a candidate’s work ethic. Even if there was no advancement in job title, earning an increase in responsibility within an organization is still a better indicator of motivation and drive than a series of rapid title bumps acquired through different jobs. Keep in mind that responsibility without recognition can take its toll; as counterintuitive as it may seem to overlook negativity, an applicant who comes across as disgruntled about their last employer might be totally justified if they’ve never received a raise or promotion in exchange for constant increases in workload.

A reference is more than a way to check the box next to the question, “Is [applicant] an axe murderer?” Not to mention, most references will be ready with praise when asked about a prospect’s past performance and personal skills. Take the opportunity to ask about the company itself, its history and hierarchy, the department your candidate worked in, and how other high-performing employees have been recognized or rewarded. Based on the answers you receive, you can establish a baseline for the one-on-one interview.

In one-on-one interviews, use the same multifaceted approach as during pre-screening to gain a deeper understanding of a candidate’s motivation. When asking about workplace challenges, leave the question open-ended, and listen for thoughtful assessments followed by “I” statements of problem-solving and conflict resolution—these show a proactive approach. While it seems obvious to look out for negativity, a wryly fatalistic or even cheerful “that’s just the way it is” attitude also says a lot about how they’ll tackle—or fail to tackle—future obstacles. Motivated candidates don’t just survive. They find ways to thrive. Another way to gauge an applicant’s motivation is by asking about the industry, its current state, its challenges, and their ideas about the future. These subjects aren’t of much interest to clock watchers and passive employees.

Before you talk to references or a candidate, do some background work on the organizations that employed them. And that means more than a simple Wiki search; go on review sites like Glassdoor to get an idea of how they treat their employees, how often they promote, how fast turnover tends to be, and other inside knowledge you can weigh against testimony from your interviews. If you have an inside connection or feel comfortable cold-calling for a more impartial reference than the one given, neither of those actions is underhanded or sneaky. You have a duty to discover everything you can about the person you’re considering for your organization.

The Gold Brick Versus the Wooden Wheel

No matter how impressive a candidate’s qualifications may be, it’s worth every minute and brain cell spent to get a good idea about their drive to succeed. Think about it: Two steps forward and one step back is still one step more than zero, and a highly motivated person of average intelligence might turn out to be a more manageable, loyal, and productive employee than an unmotivated genius. But perhaps more importantly, a motivated manager with a clear goal in mind might be just what that genius needs to quit slacking and reach your organization’s next breakthrough.