28 February 2012 Jay Shepherd

The 10 most important traits for job candidates

Here’s an excerpt from Firing at Will: A Manager’s Guide, Chapter 17, “Hiring to Avoid Firing”:

How do you know the right talent when you see it? Remember: past accomplishments and skill sets are merely table stakes for candidates. Without those, a candidate shouldn’t even get through the door. Instead, what you’re really looking for is a culture fit, which is the best determinant of a successful employment. You want candidates who truly want to work there, and who will want to spend time with you and your coworkers, and with whom you will want to spend time. If you’re just looking at work experience and qualifications, you’re missing the opportunity to bring in the right people.

Here are what I think are the ten most important traits to look for in a job candidate:

  1. Differentness. You don’t want an office full of cookie-cutter duplicates. Instead, your team will be stronger when you have a truly diverse workforce. And not just race and gender, but also background and life experiences.
  2. Sense of humor. You’re more likely to enjoy working with people with a good sense of humor, who know when to laugh and who can bring the funny from time to time. They don’t have to be comedians, but they do need to know how not to take life — and themselves — too seriously. A good sense of humor is also a leading indicator of intelligence.
  3. Optimism. I’m not talking about Pollyanna-ish types who are naive and unrealistic. I’m talking about people who have positive attitudes, and can help lift coworkers up instead of bringing them down. Life’s tough enough without someone telling you how tough life is all the time.
  4. Eye sparkle. This is a Tom Peters term. It’s that look you see in a person’s eyes that shows that they’re alive and thoughtful and engaged. It shows warmth and empathy and fun. It says that the lights are on and someone is indeed home.
  5. Connectivity. Look for signs that the candidate knows how to interact with other people. Ask about his or her friends and family. This is why going out for drinks or lunch is such a good idea. Someone who connects well with people will be an asset to your team.
  6. Creativity. Even if the job isn’t what you would normally consider a “creative” position, it’s better to have creative people. They tend to be more positive and engaged, looking for better ways to solve the customers’ problems.
  7. Perseverance. The workplace should be a marathon, not a sprint. You want to find people who will stick with it, even when it gets dif- ficult. Look for signs that they follow through with things that they start. Someone who jumps around a lot from job to job might be deficient in this area.
  8. Initiative. Few things are more frustrating than having an employee who sits around passively and waits to be told what to do. I’d rather have someone who oversteps his or her bounds and needs to be reined in than someone who doesn’t show any initiative.
  9. Self-confidence. This is a critically important trait. It’s difficult to teach, although it can be developed and fostered. You’re better off hiring a candidate who believes in herself. Then she’ll also be more likely to believe in your company. Self-confidence is contagious.
  10. Passion. If you know that the candidate is passionate about something — anything — then it’s easier to believe that he or she will care about the company, the customers, and their problems.

You might not agree with everything on this list, and you might list other traits that are important to you or to your company or industry. That’s fine. Just make sure that you go into the hiring process with a strong idea of what you’re looking for in a candidate. It will make your task much easier, and it will improve your chances of getting the right people for your team.

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Comments (6)

  1. Bernie Lietz

    Jay,
    Great points. You are also looking for a values match. If you have clearly defined values in your firm, then you should be looking for people that share those values. I agree that just looking at work experience and qualifications is bad–we’ve made more hiring mistakes that way. It never hurts to have an optimistic and creative person join your team. It rubs off!

    • jayshep

      You’re exactly right, Bernie. In fact, the very next paragraph in the book makes that point about values:

      “Getting the right talent into your company is one of the most important things you can do as a manager or employer. When you start with the right people who are there for the right reasons—because they believe in your company—you’ve already gone a long way to reducing your odds of facing an employee lawsuit.”

      And in Chapter 2, I write:

      “If you can identify the mission, the purpose, the driving force behind why your company exists, and if you can build your company around that why, then you can attract people who share that purpose, and who will want to work there because of what it says about them. People like that work harder, longer, and for less pay than people only working for a paycheck or to advance their careers.”

      Thanks for the great comment!

      — Jay

  2. Bill Roddy (@billroddy)

    Great post. Smaller firms tend to be much better at this sort of thing because culture and fit are so important when there are less people on a team. I would also add that these points are equally true for prospective candidates. I’ve often coached friends to remember that they are interviewing the company just as much as they are being interviewed. Either the company or the candidate making the wrong decision can set the process back many months.

  3. Interesting post. I Absolutely agree with the above mentioned points. We should have all the qualities to survive and enjoy our office life..

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