How to Spot Top Talent: 8 Traits to Look for When Hiring

by: Nathaniel Koloc

Companies of all shapes and sizes are now facing higher levels of uncertainty and considerably fewer resources to spend on even top-priority initiatives. The result has been a growing significance of a certain type of employee: dynamic, consistently effective, endlessly useful, and enjoyable to work with.

These people can be hard to spot in advance, but when you have one working for you, you know it right away. At ReWork, we’ve found that these indispensable employees tend to share eight common traits. Here they are, along with some advice on how you can uncover them.

1. Resourcefulness

The ability to (quickly) find, unlock, and mobilize resources (i.e. money, expertise, skills, support) in order to plan, pivot, evaluate, execute, or scale a project.

The information age has been upon us for sometime now. Anything we could ever hope to know is at our fingertips, including best practices, trouble-shooting guides, top-10 lists, and the Twitter handles of people who are far more experienced than we are. But not everyone can access this information equally.  Most are still overwhelmed in this sea of knowledge.

If I asked you to conduct a feasibility study on effective conservation techniques to protect the rare aquatic pygmy sloths of Panama, how quickly could you find a template for such a study? How long before you would be in touch with a niche conservation biologist who studies those animals to help advise you?

If your answer is anything over 2 hours, you’ve got room for improvement (seriously).

How to uncover it:

  • Ask for specific examples of times that they found critical information or resources quickly. This includes fundraising and coalition building, as well as smaller stuff (like “How-To” lists) that helped a project move forward faster.
  • Tell them you want to do an obscure project and need help. Ask them to conduct a feasibility study on something like the pygmy sloths examples above. See how quickly they can find a template for such a study, or the contact information for the niche biologist who studies those animals and may be able to serve as an advisor.

2. Resiliency

The ability to work well under uncertainty, and to continue after (substantial) setbacks.

Most organizations are now experiencing increased instability and uncertainty, and thus, using shorter planning horizons. Teams in all functional areas are seeing more tumultuous work streams with changing goals and deadlines. Some people have a strong tendency to mentally lock-up under those conditions. The results aren’t good: decreased performance, irritability, fear, and tensions with other team members. Resiliency is the ability to maintain smooth sailing through those situations.

How to uncover it:

  • Ask for evidence of grit. This could be times they narrowly averted disaster, took a huge risk and had it pay off, or came back from a stunning defeat to achieve victory in the end.

3. Confidence

A healthy esteem for one’s abilities and approach to life; an innate knowledge that “I can handle it.”

The line between confidence and arrogance is fine, as we all know. Nobody wants to work with people who think they are always right. But there is no substitute for someone who truly, with good reason, believes in his or her ability to handle any situation and figure it out.

How to uncover it:

  • See if the person is willing to say “I don’t know.” Ask a question (perhaps about your organization) that: A.) has a right and wrong answer, and B.) is highly unlikely that this person knows the answer. See if they admit not knowing, or if they dodge or BS an answer, or try to guess. If they do any of those things, beware. That is not cool.
  • Listen to how they speak. Confident people tend to speak more slowly, take pauses before answering, and don’t backpedal their answers.

4. Coachability

The trait of not only being able to accept constructive criticism, but of actively seeking out consistent feedback and mentorship; the trait of intentionally cultivating a beginner’s mind; the essence of a learner.

Especially for those early in their careers, this is key. Nobody knows everything, and there are lots of people who’ve been there and done that, with failure and success. Having a genuine interest in learning from them–even when it’s hard–is incredibly useful.

How to uncover it:

  • Ask for examples of times when they pursued or engaged in mentorship opportunities, and how their mentors helped improve their professional abilities over time or when it mattered most.

5. Versatility

The ability to bring one’s full range of skills and strengths to bear in different and new situations, including both on teams and in individual settings.

This is pretty straightforward. Managers need to know that they can re-shuffle and re-allocate people as needed. Sometimes, that means logistical changes and deadlines shifts. Other times, it means entirely new workflow compared to the status quo. The more adaptable the person, the wider a range of settings he or she can be sent into.

How to uncover it it:

  • Ask for evidence that they’ve excelled in wildly different work settings, and ask about their process for handling the transitions.

6. Industriousness

The ability to work your ass off; good old fashioned hard work.

Similar to confidence, there is nothing like a dose of serious hard work. Can they crank for 8 hours straight when push comes to shove? Can they pull an all-nighter if they have to? Do they complain when mind-numbing tasks are required, or do they just do them, and do them well?

How to uncover it:

  • Ask them to explain what it means to hustle, in their own words. You’ll know right away whether they like that word–their eyes will light up, they’ll smile, and they’ll fondly recount tales of intense times. Everyone has that spark that let’s them rise to the occasion. Give them the chance to let their spark shine a bit.

7. Loyalty

The ability and willingness to develop a long-term relationship with a team, organization, or cause.

As careers fragment further and further (current college grads will, on average, work for 14 different employers before they retire), the days of long-term work relationships seem to be fading fast. And truthfully, they probably are. But that doesn’t mean people like to work with others who’ll take off at the first sign of trouble or greener pastures.

How to uncover it:

  • Ask for examples of times when they chose loyalty over opportunity.
  • Ask them what they are committed to in their life, and see if there is overlap in their answer and the mission of your company.

Note: Be careful with this one. Just because someone left a job (or jobs) in short time periods doesn’t mean they don’t have loyalty–it just means those places weren’t able to command their loyalty.

8. Principle

A sense of what is right and what is wrong, and choosing to act in accordance with what is right.

This one is another fine line situation. Being principled is relatively rare–but being judgmental is quite common. Principled doesn’t mean casting judgments left and right; it means being willing to speak up when something wrong is about to happen. Human beings have an instinctual urge to follow those who show a strong sense of ethical concern, and every manager can sleep better at night knowing they can trust their team with sensitive information, delicate situations, and brand equity. Hire people who live their values, and you’ll develop a fantastic company culture.

How to uncover it:

  • This one is tough. It’s impossible to ask about this directly in any useful way. Keep your eyes open for someone speaking up about something they don’t agree with. You can ask about times that they’ve witnessed injustice and intervened, but that can be a difficult question to put someone on the spot with.

Find these eight traits in the talent you bring on, and your organization will be thanking you for years to come.

About the author Nathaniel Koloc @nathanielkoloc
Nathaniel is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, which helps companies making social, environmental, and cultural progress hire the best people using its national network of talented professionals.

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