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

February 17, 2020

Ray Kroc, the man 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.”

Ray was right: No one builds a great company alone. That’s why successful business leaders know that finding, nurturing, and retaining exceptional talent is the key to ensuring their companies thrive. 

To help you follow in the footsteps of giants, we rounded up interviewing tips shared by some of the world’s most influential business leaders. Here are questions they ask, attributes they look for, and tactics they use to spot transformational talent.

1. Spanx founder and CEO 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 (pictured above) knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a great hire, especially when it comes to hiring executives for her own company. One of her favorite interviewing strategies is to step back and see how the candidate fills moments of silence — including what questions they ask. 

“You can learn the most about a person by the questions he or she asks or doesn't ask,” Sara explains. “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.”

If you don’t feel comfortable leaving gaps in the conversation, be sure to leave time at the end of every interview for candidates to ask questions. If you don’t, candidates may leave feeling uncertain about the company or role and you may miss out on some key insights about them, like what they’re most passionate about. 

Sara also has another piece of advice that has inspired the likes of Richard Branson: Great leaders should hire “for their weaknesses.” In other words, to create a well-rounded company, business leaders need to recognize and communicate their own strengths and shortcomings so their recruiters can find talent to fill those gaps. 

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

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 CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t grow the tiny startup into the biggest retailer on the planet without a lot of support. He’ll be the first to admit that: In a 1998 letter, Jeff told shareholders that it would be “impossible” to be successful in the internet space “without extraordinary people.” 

The letter also outlines three critical questions that Amazon hiring managers should ask themselves to determine whether a candidate will contribute to Amazon’s ongoing success. They are: 

  • 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?

Amazon says the guiding principles behind these questions are still integral to its hiring process. The first two are all about figuring out whether a candidate will have a positive influence on those around them — an important cornerstone of the company culture.

“The bar has to continuously go up,” Jeff emphasizes in the letter. “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!’”


Related: 3 Lessons from Amazon’s Very First Job Post


The last question may be the most interesting. Jeff explains that he’s looking for people with “unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us.” And it doesn’t have to be related to the job at hand. For Jeff, that’s not the point.

“One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion,” he says. “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. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella looks for people who create energy and clarity

In a 2015 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said he looks for two things in new hires. 

“Do they create clarity?” Satya asks. “Do they create energy?” 

Satya later expanded on this approach during a talk at the University of Chicago, where he completed his MBA. The ability to create clarity, he argues, is a core aspect of leadership potential. There won’t always be a clearly defined plan, so he looks for candidates who can cut through ambiguity and get everyone on the same page. 

“The people who are capable of getting into a situation where there is in some sense panic,” Satya says, “and who can bring first clarity on what to do next — that is invaluable.”

Energy is another trait that Satya wants to see in people, particularly leaders. He wants people who are sincerely enthusiastic about their job, even when things aren’t going entirely to plan. After all, this kind of attitude can give everyone else a boost. 

This all ties into a third trait that Satya highlights during his talk — the ability to succeed in an “over-constrained space.” Since there will always be some constraints on a person’s work, like time or resources, Satya needs to know that employees will keep driving success, rather than giving up too easily. 

“Life is an over-constraint problem,” he explains. “So you can’t say, ‘You know what, I’m just waiting for you to remove all the constraints, and I’ll be perfect.’”

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

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

This is a habit Lesley picked up after working in the publishing industry for many years. She’s well aware of the industry’s challenges, and she makes these challenges very clear when she interviews candidates — especially younger candidates who are early in their careers. In doing so, she’s able to set the right expectations, which can help improve retention in the long run. 

“I’m not polite any more,” Lesley says. “I tell the prospective employee that publishing environments can be hard to work in. 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.”

Brendan Browne, LinkedIn’s Head of Recruiting, is another proponent of “un-selling” opportunities to candidates. According to Brendan, this practice builds trust — and tests the candidate’s grit and resilience.

5. 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 incredible team he’s helped to build using this simple hiring philosophy: Look for optimistic people who take risks and aren’t afraid to fail.

“You can’t be a pessimist,” Bob says in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “When you come to work, you’ve got to show enthusiasm and spirit. 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.”

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,” he says. "If your boss is Eeyore, do you want to work with someone like that? Oh, bother.''

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

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

  • integrity
  • energy
  • intelligence

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

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


Related: The Most In-Demand Hard and Soft Skills of 2020


That said, Warren believes a combination of these traits is essential in a truly great hire. Energy ensures they’ll take initiative and add value, intelligence is all about solving problems and innovating, and integrity keeps them honest. If a candidate doesn’t possess this golden trifecta, you may struggle to mould them into the type employee you want.

"IQ, integrity, and energy cannot be taught,” says Penny Herscher, director of numerous public company boards and a proponent of Warren’s hiring philosopher. “I believe these are innate attributes found within certain individuals. So if these attributes are not easily noticeable early during the interviewing process, then they most likely won't be there once the person is on board.”

7. Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express, probes for intellectual curiosity and teamwork

For Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express and current chairman and managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst, intellectual curiosity is one of the most attractive traits a candidate can possess. That means being open to hearing other perspectives — otherwise, they may prove to be narrow-minded or a one-trick pony. 

To assess intellectual curiosity, Ken asks, “What are some of the things you have done that you think were out of your comfort zone?”

“People have a different way of talking about their comfort zone,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “But what you can start to glean is, from an intellectual standpoint, how open were they to different ideas and views? And you can challenge them on some things, and you can be contrarian and see how they will respond to that.”

Once Ken is satisfied that a candidate is intellectually curious, he likes to ask, “If I were to talk to someone about you, what would be three areas that they would cite that would be instrumental in your success?” He says candidates will answer this question in one of two ways: By telling you what they want you to hear, or by revealing what qualities they personally view as most important to their own success. Either way, their answer will give you a good indication of whether they value collaboration and teamwork

“Some people will give you the list of what they did and they’ll use ‘I’ a lot and ‘this is what I did’ and ‘I had to do this,’” Ken says, “and they don’t talk at all about what they were able to do to motivate and inspire people to accomplish the objectives.”

8. AMD’s Lisa Su aims to hire people who want to make an outsized impact

When Lisa Su, president and CEO of multinational semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), first began managing people, she says she didn’t give a great deal of thought to understanding what made her teams tick. Since her own motivation stemmed purely from the projects at hand, it never occurred to her that other people might find motivation in other places. It took her then-boss to make her see that everyone approaches work a little differently — a lesson that’s influenced her hiring decisions ever since. 

Today, Lisa is careful to find people who will thrive in the fast-paced and competitive semiconductor industry. Despite being a Fortune 500 company, AMD is smaller than its competitors, so Lisa looks for people who “want to take a risk, do something very special in the industry, and fight the battle with less resources and more freedom.” 

To identify candidates who’ll be motivated by these challenges instead of being demoralized by them, Lisa emphasizes that they’ll “learn a ton and make a big impact.” That’s not for everyone — but to some, it’s everything. 

She also asks simple questions like “Why are you here?” Since she wants to get a good sense of a candidate’s hunger and passion for the work, she’s wary of candidates who try to spin their answers in a way that feels inauthentic. If they talk openly about the risks and challenges they’ve undertaken in their career, rather than playing politics, they’re probably well-suited for the job.

“We are fighting a big fight,” Lisa says. “So if you are attracted to a very stable, easygoing job, this is not that.” 

9. 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 approaches hiring in the same way you might put a basketball team together. You don’t want to recruit players who are “all point guards,” even if they’re the best at what they do. On the court and in the workplace, you’ll get more from a team that has diversity of thought, perspectives, backgrounds, and skills.

“I look for people who make me somewhat uncomfortable,” Sallie explains. “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.”

10. Zappos’ Tony Hsieh considers how well a candidate treats everyone around them

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, believes you can learn just as much about a candidate from the way they treat others as you can from the way they act in the interview itself. That’s why after a candidate comes in to interview, Zappos’ recruiters will always reach out to other people that the candidate interacted with. 

"A lot of our job candidates are from out of town,” Tony explains. “We'll pick them up from the airport in a Zappos shuttle, give them a tour, and then they'll spend the rest of the day interviewing. At the end of the day of interviews, the recruiter will circle back to the shuttle driver and ask how he or she was treated. It doesn't matter how well the day of interviews went, if our shuttle driver wasn't treated well, then we won't hire that person." 

This approach was born from Zappos’ friendly company culture and its mission to provide exceptional customer service. If a candidate is inconsiderate to those around them, then they might become an inconsiderate employee. 

Even after a candidate receives a job offer, Tony is still invested in making sure they’ve got manners. Zappos puts every new hire — not just customer service representatives — through a four-week call center boot camp. There, they receive training on the company culture, customer service philosophy, and more — all before spending some time on the phones interacting directly with customers. 

This training not only allows new hires to learn new skills and find out more about other departments, but gives Zappos another opportunity to ensure its a good fit. 

"It's pretty hard to fake your way through that entire four weeks," Tony points out.

Develop your own secret recipe for hiring success

Every leader looks for different skills and characteristics in an employee, so these approaches might not all work for you. But they should help you start thinking about what your company values most in its people — and how you can hire for it. 

Let your mission and core values lead the way. If you build every part of your hiring process around these central pillars — from the things you emphasize in your job descriptions to the interview questions you ask and the factors that drive your final decision — then you can’t go wrong.

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*Image from Fortune Live Media