6 of the Most Successful Business Leaders Share Their Secret to Discovering Great Talent

May 3, 2018

Ray Kroc, who grew McDonald’s into the hugely successful global franchise it is today, famously said, “you’re only as good as the people you hire.”

This belief is not a shock to any successful business leader—nobody can build a great company alone. The question is: how do you find these great employees?

Here is a round up of the questions, attributes, and quirky tactics six of the most successful leaders use to tell if the person they are interviewing could be their next transformational hire:

1. Spanx founder Sara Blakely takes a step back and lets candidates ask the questions

As the founder of Spanx and one of the world’s most influential businesswomen, Sara Blakely knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a great hire, especially when it comes to the executives in her own company.

To make smart hiring decisions, one of Sara’s favorite tips is to take a step back during interviews and see what the candidate says, including the questions they choose to ask.

“You can learn the most about a person by the questions he or she asks or doesn't ask,” says Sara. “So I let the candidate ask. I make sure I'm quiet for more than half of the time during our interview, and I also make sure there are a few awkward moments of silence. You usually hear the best stuff in those moments.”

Sara also inspired Richard Branson with her idea that great leaders should hire “for their weaknesses.” In other words, business leaders need to know their own strengths and shortcomings, then find top talent that fills in the gaps.

“I surround myself with people who have knowledge and talents in areas where I might not be so well versed,” adds Branson.

2. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos seeks candidates who will positively influence the people they work with and bring a new strength to the company  

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos didn’t grow Amazon from a tiny startup into the world’s largest internet company without a lot of support from great hires, and he’d be the first to admit that. And since the 1990s, he’s asked his hiring managers to rely on three critical questions to help them decide whether they’ll contribute to Amazon’s success:

  • Will you admire this person?
  • Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?
  • Along what dimensions might this person be a superstar?

These questions are hardly random, either. The first two questions both help Jeff and his teams determine whether a candidate will be a positive influence on those around him, an important cornerstone of their company culture.

“The bar has to continuously go up,” adds Jeff. “I ask people to visualize the company five years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, ‘The standards are so high now—boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!’”

But it’s the last question that’s the most interesting and quirky. Jeff is looking for a skill or interest that contributes to the company culture and workplace—and it doesn’t have to be related to the job at all.

“One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion,” says Jeff. “I suspect it doesn't help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge.”

3. Lesley Jane Seymour, former editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, is brutally honest with candidates

Recruiters are used to selling roles to candidates, but for Lesley Jane Seymour, former editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and More magazine, a little bit of “non-seduction” can go a long way in the hiring process.

That’s especially true in the publishing world where Lesley works, which is known for its challenges, especially in recent years. When she interviews candidates—especially millennials and younger prospects—Lesley makes these challenges very clear, which she believes helps her weed out entitled candidates with unrealistic expectations.

“I’m not polite any more. I tell the prospective employee that publishing environments can be hard to work in,” says Lesley. “I tell them it can take four years instead of two to advance. If they are still sitting in the chair across from me when I’m finished with this non-seduction, I figure they must really want the job.”

Similarly, LinkedIn’s Head of Recruiting, Brendan Browne, also recommends that hiring managers “un-sell” opportunities to candidates in order to set expectations. According to Brendan, this practice builds trust and tests the candidate’s grit and resilience.

4. Disney’s Bob Iger seeks out optimists who aren’t afraid of failure

Since he took over as CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company in 2005, Bob Iger has tripled the company’s annual profit and quadrupled its stock price. And at least some of that success has to be attributed to the team he’s fostered with a simple hiring philosophy: look for optimistic people who take risks and aren’t afraid to fail.

“You can’t be a pessimist. When you come to work, you’ve got to show enthusiasm and spirit,” says Bob. “I believe in taking big risks creatively. If you fail, don’t do it with mediocrity—do it with something that was truly original, truly a risk.”

To be fair, Bob doesn’t just hold his hires to this high standard—he makes sure that he meets it as a leader, too.

"No one wants to follow a pessimist,” says Bob. "If your boss is Eeyore, do you want to work with someone like that? Oh, bother.''

5. Warren Buffett looks for three key traits, but integrity is most important of all

From his quirky daily habits to his time management skills, billionaire investor Warren Buffett is known for his unique approach to business success—and his hiring philosophy is no exception. Buffett looks for three key qualities in every potential hire:

  • Integrity
  • Energy
  • Intelligence

And though energy and intelligence are major factors that Buffett considers critical to predicting a new hire’s success, it’s that first one—integrity—that he’s especially focused on.

Think about it: Someone with low intelligence may be a hard worker, but they’ll never be the visionary innovator you need to drive your business forward. An employee with low energy, on the other hand, may be smart and honest but still fail to add value. And an employee with high energy and high intelligence, but low integrity, is worst of all—as smart and effective as they are, they could be cheating your business.

“If you don't have the first, the other two will kill you,” says Buffett. “If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

6. Sallie Krawcheck, former head of Merrill Lynch, focuses on hiring a great team, not individual stars

For Sallie Krawcheck—formerly the head of Merrill Lynch and now the CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a digital investment tool for women—the key to hiring the best people isn’t about looking for, well, the best people.

“Ask the question ‘How do you hire?’ and you most often get an answer that concludes with ‘and that’s how I find the best person for the job,” says Sallie. “That’s not how I hire. I don’t look to put the best person in the job. Instead I look to put the best team together, and that can be a very different exercise.”

Sallie looks at hiring as a little bit like putting a basketball team together. You don’t want to put together a team that’s “all point guards,” even if they’re all the best at what they do. You’ll get more from a team that has diversity of thought, perspectives, and backgrounds.

“I look for people who make me somewhat uncomfortable,” she continues. “I look for people with qualities and backgrounds that are additive to—rather than the same as—the rest of the team. Hiring in this way may make the workplace less ‘comfortable’ for the team, but that is exactly the point.”

*Image from Fortune Live Media

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