For companies large and small, employees are the driving force behind every success. As managers, it should come as no surprise that who we select for our critical roles and assignments are perhaps the most important leadership jobs that there are.
To get this right, HR organizations, hiring managers, and business owners spend mountains of time and energy recruiting, interviewing, and screening candidates. We probe, we query, we test for skills, we check references, we perform background checks, we even scan our candidate’s social media posts. Myers-Briggs and other personality inventory tools help us to assess cultural fit, and a battery of easily available technical aptitude tests let us know if our candidate has the knowledge and training for a particular job. In many ways, it has never been easier to determine if a candidate has “the right stuff.” Nevertheless, despite all of these new tools and resources, there is scant evidence to support any claim that we actually hire better than we did before all of these innovations came along.
Exasperated by this observation, a few years ago I dramatically changed my approach and started looking for less qualified candidates! People that have at least some of “the wrong stuff.” And, I am happy to report that this has yielded dramatically improved results.
When I reflect on a career of hiring, the candidates that always seemed to perform the best, to invigorate, inspire, and change the trajectory of an organization and to constructively disrupt their teams were rarely 100% qualified. Rather, it was individuals with lesser qualifications, but a burning desire to prove something to the world, that made all the difference. Someone that needed a break, or someone trying to stretch into a new role, or someone trying to overcome a setback or a disability – these were always the real rainmakers and earth movers.
At first, I was astonished at the results, but soon learned the repeatability of this strategy. The woman I hired to run our global channels business was missing a few basic credentials. But she was a gifted listener and that skill served her well while she learned the customs and business practices in more than 60 countries. Today, she’s a Senior Vice President of a Fortune 100 company. Another hire that sparked concerns among my peers was the Marketing Manager that I chose as the General Manager of a struggling territory. His lack of any meaningful sales experience made him an odd choice for the role, but his self-awareness of this shortcoming served him well. He lived in the field for nearly six months, working alongside the sales team and garnering their respect. In the end, cultivating those relationships fostered a deep comradery among his team and today he’s President of that $200M business.
70% Qualified + 30% Terrified
To me, the perfect profile is a candidate that is about 70% percent qualified and 30% terrified. Terrified of failure, terrified of missing out on a big break, or terrified of letting down that hiring manager, coach, or sponsor that gave them a shot. A candidate who values a window of opportunity, a chance to push their own limits.
Why is this so? Put bluntly, people that have deep emotional attachments to success and a fear of failure simply work harder and act bolder. They pay attention to the little things. They fit in that extra meeting, they spend time on the weekend preparing for the week ahead, they get nervous before a big meeting, and they incessantly worry about their skills. You’ll find them reading about work outside of the office, talking about their jobs at social events, and they are always at ease telling anyone who will listen why they love their job. These individuals dream about work, literally. When you hear someone recounting a dream about work, that’s the ultimate “tell.” Reach for your pen and make them an offer!
People that are 30% unqualified become obsessed with closing their skills gap and building the muscles that they need to succeed. They don’t want to fail, and they know that the world is watching. They are always self-assessing and seeking validation and feedback from coworkers and mentors. They possess more humility. They know that they have doubters in their midst and unlike their 100% qualified contemporaries, they still need to prove themselves. They know that the skills that earned them the current position definitely won’t get them to the next career station. They still need to develop skills – they knew that coming into the job – and they don’t resent it in the slightest. They love the stretch. And they love the excitement of succeeding at something new, a sensation that is much more rarely enjoyed by a 100% qualified candidate who has done it all before and for whom everything is “wash, rinse, and repeat.”
As Carol Dweck brought to life in her groundbreaking book Mindset, people that best help companies, governments, and society lurch forward are usually those that embrace a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset, she says, don’t just seek a challenge, they thrive on it. The winners that we want on our team, she postulates, are not necessarily those looking for money, or fame, or a good review, but rather they are the unique creatures that embrace their job for the sole sake of learning, growing, stretching, and building their knowledge base.
By comparison, if someone were only 30% qualified for a certain role, or even 50%, the job would probably be too hard. The learning curve would be so steep that the poor soul would struggle, become frustrated, and quickly lose the confidence and the support of his or her peers. In reality, that person would be stretching, but stretching too far. They would be stretched to the breaking point.
Finding The Wrong Stuff
So, how does one test if the candidate sitting across from you has enough (but not too much) of “the right stuff” along with a growth mindset? I’ve found it to be pretty simple. In reality, most people don’t suddenly decide to stretch themselves; yet people with a growth mindset routinely stretch in every aspect of their life and are habitually seeking developmental opportunities. My favorite interview question of all time is, “did you have a paper route as a child?” Think about what an insightful question this is. At 10 years old, were you the type of child that got up at 5:00 am to fold papers and brave the elements, or were you the kind of child that hit the snooze button and arrived perilously late to school?
Today, newspaper delivery jobs may have lost some of their cachets and this interview question will probably go the way of the dinosaurs. However, there are many other ways to determine if the person sitting across from you is 30% unqualified and whether or not they have a career pattern of stretching into jobs and thriving.
Ask your candidate to point to jobs where they were at least 30% unqualified and have them detail the measures that they took to overcome this impediment. Ask them what they did to educate themselves, about the mistakes they made, about the sacrifices they endured, and about what it took to succeed ultimately. Were they consumed with their own development? Did they lose track of time? Did they often forget to eat lunch? These are the tell-tale signs; the fingerprints of someone that has just the right amount “unqualified” for the job at hand.
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