The battle for great talent is indeed a war. Companies small and large are open about the apparent dearth of quality candidates not to mention the arduous process to seek and filter in order to find them.

I have conducted hundreds of interviews in my life and actually I might say by now I’m approaching a thousand in part through some work I did to merge companies. Aside from the 1/10th of one percent who are obvious home runs I have come to realize there are not a lot of sure bets. Often times it comes down our instincts, combined with an analysis of who answers the questions well. I have written about some of the more critical questions in previous articles here and here.

Even some of these must-have questions yield responses that can be a trap. One of the biggest ones lies in how we probe what candidates are looking for in a career or employer. Truth is, career development is a fluid process such that even now in my middle age I have new employer search criteria that have emerged. So, the more deeply you dissect answers, the greater the chance you can get a false read.

The resume has many clues that can certainly help. I have posted in the past about the importance of accumulating results and accomplishments in your career so that your resume doesn’t just read like a job description. Companies are looking for ways to quantify impact so that they can predict how you might influence success once on board. But not every candidate has a long list of credentials, yet many of those could be high performers. I have seen this to be the case with younger candidates, career switchers and those who have disengaged from the workforce for valid reasons.Hidden value2

Luckily, in my vast experience I have caught a number of indicators of potential for not only strong performance on the job but also excellent team building abilities. I haven’t always taken note of or probed for these, but I now do more deliberately as I have reflected on commonalities among some of the star performers I have encountered through the years.

And so now, when networking and interviewing, I look for signs of one or more of the following descriptors in my recruits:

1. Passionate.

I don’t really care about what, just have it. Have something that gets you up in the morning. It doesn’t need to be directly related to your career, it doesn’t have to be something that makes you rich, but it has to be something that gets you off the sidelines and engaged. You’ll never be successful if you don’t have it within you to become fully invested…in something.

You get bonus points if you regularly develop new interests. This signifies interest in personal and professional development. You get even more bonus points if you have a passion for solving problems and/or serving your consumers. That means $$$.

Passion also manifests itself in raw spirit. About eight years ago I interviewed someone straight out of B-school who had nothing but an internship under her belt. Within the first five minutes I said to myself “wow, the lights are really on, here” and I had made up my mind that she had the job. It was simply the way she talked and the conviction with which she spoke (many point to ‘confidence’ as the descriptor, but I think ‘passion’ is more sexy). Didn’t regret it. We have since gone our separate ways but our mentoring relationship continues today. Only difference is that she does as much mentoring to me as I do to her these days!!

2. Active.

This doesn’t mean athleticism necessarily. It doesn’t even have to be physical. I mean, writing poetry is being active.

I’m not all about filling up your day with nonsense as this over-scheduled society tends to do. I actually build in restful moments through meditation or running through the ravine that’s next to my condo in this bustling city. Deliberate actions to recharge count!

You know how they say ‘give it to a busy person if you want it done?’ It’s true; people who are active and busy tend to be productive and successful. What’s more if they can dimensionalize impact or quantify a result (e.g. I taught myself guitar and now I write my own songs…or…I took up running and now I do 10Ks every other month), even better. Shows they are going places!

3. Articulate.

I’m kickin’ it old school here but I’m standing by it – people who speak and write well tend to be among the elite performers. I have already posted a more in-depth study of business communication, but here, I’m pinpointing those who have a strong command of the English language (particularly if English is your first language). It’s not only a signal of raw intelligence and excellent education, but it points to things like attention to detail. More importantly, though I have found that clear words come from clear thinking; good speakers can often reason and problem solve.

4. Humble.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I do not wish tragedy for my worst enemy. We have all seen people experience devastating, life-changing events, and we have probably caught ourselves thanking the heavens it wasn’t us.

Nevertheless, humbling experiences make us pretty real, with evolved life perspective. We become more unflappable while also being likeable because of our grounding. I worked with a young adult who comes from a known family name, one of the more affluent in Canada. When she was hired, many of us were apprehensive about what she’d be like. Turns out, her father had a debilitating illness and she was quite involved in his care, at her own sacrifice. I’m not sure if that’s what did it but I have to say she was one of more down to earth and entrepreneurial people I had ever met who had a substantial trust fund.

Humble people can show hunger, as well as appreciation for all in their life that’s good.

5. Unflappable.

Speaking of unflappable, I love people who can show passion yet be moderate in their emotions.  This is one of the harder things to test for so I’m still working on it. I mean, I’m not the type to just become a jerk (ummm, intentionally) or play games in an interview just to get a rise out of someone. That’s too much of an artificial circumstance. For now I tend to probe on times they have been frustrated or have had conflict.

I have posted here about this favorite word of mine as being one of the more contemporary and sought after leadership traits. Think about it. If you have a colleague who remains calm amidst all of the day-to-day chaos, how much more would you want to work with – or even for – that person…? My guess is a lot.

6. Social.

I hesitate on this last one, being an introvert with social tendencies; I need to support my people. I’m a huge fan of building a work culture with an eclectic mix of employees such that to be unique is to be the norm.

So, while I would not in any way discount a candidate who doesn’t appear inherently social, I do perk up because of certain types of social activity. Teams, clubs and activities done in groups (e.g. playing in a band) are all formative environments to develop leadership and collaborative skills. You get to exercise skills of influence, resolve conflict and set goals among the many functions that simulate the dynamics of the work environment.

7. Charitable.

Selfless people tend to see the bigger picture and naturally become better team players. They take pride in the success of others which means they don’t get to emotionally bogged down if a colleague is promoted before them. This mentality is also the promise of a standout leader. As a people manager your job is to make everyone around you great, while you groom one or more to take your place. A generous person is more likely to have that kind of confidence to develop their own competition and obsolete themselves.

In interviews I don’t just look for outright charity-based activity. I have many questions that help me probe for the predisposition to champion the ideas or success of others.

8. Visionary.

The best entrepreneurs — especially in the tech space — can tell you where the world going. They can insightfully characterize current trends in technology, commerce and social dynamics and predict how this will transform the business universe.

In this article and also this one, I talk about the dark side of having experience. Experience can often be beneficial only if you’re looking to do business the same way you did it ten years ago. People who make money and cause outcomes rarely look back or stay stuck in the present; they look forward. The more clearly a candidate can envision tomorrow for you, the more likely he or she can help you build your company.

This is something extremely rare and also something you just can’t teach. So even if there are material shortcomings in the candidate, think twice before you toss them aside. I take pride in the fact that this word appeared in my very first marketing performance review…and look at me. I’m awesome, right??!?!?


Nowadays it’s fairly rare that some nugget of wisdom racing through the veins of my social media feed stops me in my tracks. It does happen occasionally, though, and I remember one article in particular from a few years back on marriage — something I know little about. But the quote that stood out was: you don’t marry somebody for who they are; you marry them for who they are becoming. Wow. That’s freakin’ powerful, not to mention true…and it’s sage advice we can apply to the recruitment process. That’s why potential to me is a thing.

Our leadership and work habits are in a state of constant development. While I try in interviews to detect any significant or uncoachable weaknesses, I look to this list to find something to hang my hat on when deciding among candidates.  There is no bigger thrill than finding that diamond in the rough, hiring at great value and then realizing the upside by teaching someone to deploy raw ingredients to become an outstanding performer.


Social Skills and drive are cited as the biggest factors outside of ability in this 2017 HBR article about identifying high-potential employees. Yup!