5 Signs That a Job Applicant Has a Lot of Potential

August 3, 2016

Recruiters who want to hire great people have a daunting task ahead: identifying potential success before they’ve proven how great they can be.

For instance, would you have been able to pick out Leonardo da Vinci’s potential before he became the artistic mastermind who gave us the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper? Would you have given him a chance? In other words, how do you know someone has great potential even before they’re given the opportunity to prove it?

Bill Murphy Jr. of Inc.com found himself asking this question, so he did some digging to see whether the most successful people had anything in common in their cover letters. Below are the top five traits Murphy says you should look for when weeding through stacks of resumes for your next great hire:

1. They know what you need, and they show that in their application

Whether the job you’re offering is the candidate’s dream job or not, the bottom line is if they want the job—and they’re serious about it—they should have taken the time to research a few things about you, the requirements of the job and what you need from them.

Even Leonardo da Vinci understood this basic rule. Before he became the great artist and inventor, he was just another guy looking for a job in Italy. So in 1483 or 1484, da Vinci sent his cover letter to Ludovico Sforza, then the de facto ruler of Milan, who was looking for military engineers.

We know da Vinci has many artistic talents, but for this role, he knew that he needed to play up his engineering skills. In fact, he doesn’t even hint at the fact that he’s an artistic genius until the end of the letter. For example, in his cover letter, which is featured on the blog Letters of Note, da Vinci writes that he can bring “into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below":

1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, in the course of the siege of a terrain, to remove water from the moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders and other instruments necessary to such an enterprise.

As if those first two paragraphs weren’t impressive enough, da Vinci went on to talk about his skills and “methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.” Not surprisingly, da Vinci got the job and a decade later, it was Sforza who commissioned him to paint the famous The Last Supper.

2. They admit their weakness, but are also able to turn those weaknesses into opportunities

One of the most telling indicators of success, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant in his new book Originals, is the willingness to admit to your potential weaknesses and the ability to explain how you can turn them into opportunities. Are you able to be upfront about the qualifications that you don’t meet, yet at the same time, explain how you can do the job regardless?

The following example might be too adorable, but it certainly gets the point across. At the prime age of six, Sam Pointon sent in his cover letter for a position as the Director of the National Railway Museum in the UK after hearing that the former director was retiring. Although young Pointon didn’t meet the position’s qualifications, the museum realized his potential and appointed him as the Director of Fun. Here’s his letter:

“I am writing to apply to be the new Director of the National Railway Museum. I am only 6 but I think I can do this job. I have an electrick train track. I am good on my train track. I can control 2 trains at once.  I have been on lots of trains including Eurostar and some trains in France. I have visited the museum before. I loved watching the trains go round on the turntable. On the other side is a picture of me. Hopefully I can come and meet you for an interview.”

3. They know how to stand out with unconventional application methods

Whether it’s sending recruiters resumes so delicious, they could eat it up or ones that are 15-pages long on SlideShare, candidates with serious potential know that to stand out from the competition, they need to break a few rules.

Case in point is Robert Pirosh, who before winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the war film, Battleground, was just another copywriter aspiring to be a screenwriter. In 1934, he left his job in New York, set out for Los Angeles and sent all the directors, producers, and studio executives he could think of what’s probably still deemed one of the best cover letters ever written. It went something like this:

“I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "V" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve.”

“I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood. I ... still like words. May I have a few with you?"

It wasn’t long before Pirosh landed a job at MGM and later, wrote for the Marx Brothers.

4. They make it clear who they are from the get-go

When people are upfront and honest about who they are early on, it can come off as too aggressive or “available,” especially when applying for a job. Recruiters aren’t used to the forthright, no B.S. approach since typically, there’s a little more “recruiting” that happens. The consensus is that, if things come too quickly and easily, there might be something off with it.

But, if you don’t mind the directness and the candidate’s skills match what you need, there’s often serious talent there. Consider this: Direct candidates make it clear who they are from the beginning, you know exactly who you’re dealing with and, as a result you don’t waste your time on someone who’s not interested.

In 1958, Hunter S. Thompson tried this approach with his letter to The Sun, but he was too direct for the Vancouver-based newspaper’s editor. Thompson went on to get his start at the Rolling Stone before later becoming a household name. A part of his letter is below:

“I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I'd also like to offer my services. Since I haven't seen a copy of the "new" Sun yet, I'll have to make this a tentative offer. ... Unless it looks totally worthless, I'll let my offer stand. And don't think that my arrogance is unintentional: it's just that I'd rather offend you now than after I started working for you."

5. They show authenticity

Finding talent willing to be authentic with you from the beginning is a hard task to accomplish. The ones who are will stand out from the rest and will, ultimately, be good for business. What does authenticity look like? Something like this:

In 1942, a young man name Patrick Hitler had recently arrived in the U.S. after fleeing from Germany and wanted to enlist in the U.S. military. As you can guess, he was denied permission based on the fact that his uncle was Adolph Hitler.

Nonetheless, the young, new American was determined, so he wrote a sincere letter to President Roosevelt that read, "I am the nephew and only descendant of the ill-famed Chancellor and Leader of Germany who today so despotically seeks to enslave the free and Christian peoples of the globe." He went on to say that he wanted to repay the “great debt my mother and I owe to the United States” and "see active combat as soon as possible and thereby be accepted by my friends and comrades as one of them in this great struggle for liberty."

He was eventually cleared by the FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, to serve and did so in the U.S. Navy as a medic.

The big lesson here? It’s one thing to be able to hire great talent. But true innovation starts when recruiters are able to identify potential talent. Would you have seen potential in Leonardo da Vinci? Would you have given Academy Award winner Robert Pirosh a chance in his early days? Recruiters who think outside the box and have a recruitment process in place that enables them to identify potential talents, they’re the true innovators. And they’re the ones who usually win big.

*Image by Jason Trbovich

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