What You Need to Know Before Hiring Top Performers

As a follow-up to my article Why We Need to Hire Fewer and Fewer People, employers must first understand what it takes for a candidate or employee to become a successful Conceptual Worker. At the core is an ability to know what to do and then do it.  Diving deeper, the Conceptual Worker is expected to solve problems creatively and innovatively, or as Daniel Pink writes, to engage the right brain as much as the left.

While the task of assessing a candidate requires much more thought and analysis than just 5 tips, I offer these 5 basic abilities and personality traits as the starting point if an organization is going to not just survive, but grow and thrive.

1.  Curiosity.  Whether it’s nature or nurture – or both – some people are just more curious than others.  In a hierarchical, top-down management style, low curiosity is rewarded. Managers who bark the following orders are dinosaurs in a competitive 21st century business:  

“I pay you to do what I tell you to do.”

“You’re not paid to ask questions.”  

“Your job is not to question why.”

Management needs to start rewarding curiosity and seek candidates who ask questions and seek answers. But that’s hard work for managers who believe they are the master and employees are the servants. Employers must begin to hire and retain employees who question the source of the information. They need the ability to separate fact from fiction, rumor from truth, hearsay from reality.

2.  Cognitive ability. This term is often tossed around loosely by HR and management.  I like to use this simple contextual description for employers:  Cognitive ability or general reasoning skills is the ability to process new information quickly.  It’s plain and simple.  In this context, cognitive skills may not be related to education, experience, or IQ. It is merely how quickly one can process new information and formulate a response. Of course, some education and reasonable IQ might be required to make certain decisions and solve problems.  But put into this context, cognitive ability is not what you know but how quickly you can assess and apply it.  Unfortunately many managers still hire “smart” people by education degrees, experience, and IQ.  But when it comes to job performance, all they have to show is an impressive resume, often biographical and not predictive of future success.

3. Open-mindedness.  Asking a lot of questions to confirm your predetermined decision leads to lost opportunity and innovation. I’m not suggesting there is not a time and place to seek the information that justifies an action. But being laser focused, also means you miss the elephant in the room. (I’m sure many of you are familiar with the training video, where an elephant walks through the room but few people see it because they are so focused on the other activity.)  Another example of applying open mindedness is “white space opportunity.”  While reading this you are focused on the text. But the text only uses about 25 percent of all the space on this page.  What opportunities exist in the white space? The book Blue Ocean Strategy provides an excellent application for keeping an open mind.

4.  Business Values.  What we value skews the importance we place on certain information.  Daniel Pink suggests that the new MBA is an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) because of the increased awareness of the right brain.  If we value money and power more than community and learning, we will likely give more weight to information that addresses the bottom line but ignores how it might impact other people or sustaining long term performance.  Individuals need to be aware about what they value positively and judge negatively. Managers too need to understand how values affect critical decisions they make and how their human resources filter the information they receive.

5.  Resilience.  Evaluating this trait accurately might surprise some people.  Most managers look for loyalty, long tenures of employment, and no-quit attitude.  When working on a task, high resilience is critical.  But in looking forward, creating a vision, and developing strategy, too much resilience may result in stubbornness.  Sometimes you just have to punt or at least change direction.  Emotional stability also plays a factor in resilience.  Asking questions and challenging the status quo likely generates resistance. Sometimes this resistance results in upset or angry managers, customers, and employees. Top performers in today’s workforce need to be able to take criticism objectively, not personally.  Unfortunately in testing over thousands of candidates and employees, many talented employees fail because they take every question, comment, and piece of feedback as a personal affront.  But just as important are those individuals whose criticism tolerance is high.  High criticism tolerance sometimes is perceived by others as lacking empathy, poor listening skills, or arrogance. Resilience is a critical factor when assessing talent but too much is just as important as not enough.

Note: Curiousity, resilience, and criticism tolerance are just 3 of the traits assessed using ASSESS; Business values are assessed using Business Values and Motivators; and Cognitive abilities are assessed using Prevue Learning and Reasoning.


Ira S Wolfe