The most important leadership skill is, clearly, the ability to make great people decisions, to put people in the right seats and to rigorously take them off the bus when you have to.
Jim Collins during a Charlie Rose interview
I agree that selecting the right personnel is one of the most important responsibilities of a CEO. CEOs should be personally involved in recruiting and hiring the best talent, because this more than anything else gives an organization a competitive advantage.
But how do you judge real talent? I have already discussed on this blog how to gauge creative initiative in job candidates. There are three other traits that I look for in every candidate I hire: exceptionalism, motivation, and value.
Unfortunately, many people equate talent with job knowledge. Knowledge is not particularly important in many jobs: People hire knowledge when they want someone to come in and get the job done without a lot of coaching or bother on anyone else’s part. Knowledge can be taught. Talent is what is important.
Exceptionalism: Look for patterns of success
What I always look for in a candidate is something that tells me they are exceptional, or that they would be exceptional in their job. It’s something that tells me they will contribute a whole lot more to the company than just those skills needed to do the job at an acceptable level.
How do you identify exceptionalism? Well, people who are exceptional have a history of being exceptional. Tiger Woods showed exceptionalism at a young age and won three junior U.S. Opens before going on to professional greatness. He didn’t just show up on the golf course one day and start beating everybody. Look for patterns of exceptionalism in the person’s past.
Identifying exceptionalism in recent college graduates
If the candidate is a recent university graduate, you will probably discount his academic experience and ask, “Well, what job experience does he have?” The exceptional candidates were exceptional in university. They were the captain of the swim team, won the speaking contest, or interned at Goldman Sachs. They became a star at whatever they tried.
Look for exceptional accomplishments even prior to college: They programmed robots at 16 years old or were the national gaming champ. When you see these kinds of things on a resume or you discover them during an interview, you may not know how this has anything to do with your company, but you know the candidate is exceptional.
Exceptional people apply their skills to all facets of their life
Somebody who has learned how to be really good at one thing knows how to transfer those skills into being really good at something else. That is the point. My wife is a competitive triathlete. She is swimming now, because her basic strategy has always been, don’t drown and make up your time in the bike and the run. And so she’s been training with all these master swimmers and told me, “God, all these people are VPs and CEOs.”
Think about it. I mean, if you’re 45 years old and you are out there in the pool an hour every day being one of the best in the country at swimming, you’ve got some discipline. You probably honed those skills while in school, so you doubtless also had access to a good education. And if you’ve got education and discipline, you’re probably going to be pretty good at what you do, right?
Discover their story
Exceptional people demonstrate the fact that they are exceptional over and over again. So always look for that on the resume and during the interview: What story can they tell you? What have they done to convince you that they are exceptional? Always look for people who are the best at whatever they do. They will apply those skills to your organization in kind.
In my next post, I’ll cover what I mean by motivation and value as two other essential traits.
The 5 Traits All Top Performers Share (Fast Company)