Posted by: OurKudos | April 10, 2011

What makes a great hire?

The last post was mostly on why you want great people in your organization. In this one, I ask “what makes a great hire?”

My perspective on this is somewhat contrarian. Unlike Google, I’m not looking for PhD’s or Ivy leaguers because I don’t really think that’s indicative of success. Sure, you’ve got to be well above average “book intelligence” to be either of those things, but does that guarantee that you’ll be a great addition to the team?

I’ll be honest, I’m an Ivy leaguer and one other person on our small team is as well, but I don’t think that has much to do with success. I saw plenty of classmates who were brilliant at theory but lousy at actually doing anything in the real world. To me, the name on the diploma means nothing.

The skills that lead to a great team member are almost never shown on a resume. Of course, you have to hire smart people with natural ability, but that isn’t reflected in grades. In my last company, all of my programmers were brilliant at coding and problem solving – I would have put them up against anybody at Google or Facebook today. But their GPA’s wouldn’t have even earned them an interview at those companies!

So if you can’t tell from a resume, how do you find these uniquely talented individuals? What characteristics do you look for?

In the last post, I noted that we’re constantly looking for the right people. You just don’t know where they’ll come from. It might be a Caigslist ad or a posting on a discussion group. They might answer a conventional job posting or they might be someone’s niece. You just never know until you meet them.

Corporate types are usually a disaster in this environment. Why? Because they’re used to rigid job descriptions and staffs full of minions to do their bidding. I avoid corporate people like the plague. Note that I’m  not saying that all people who work at corporations are bad, just those with the corporate mentality. You know the type.

People suited for entrepreneurial organizations have to be flexible and open minded. They may have worked in a big organization before but didn’t quite fit in because they think differently than their peers.  One of my favorite videos is this Apple commercial:

This may seem corny, but every time I watch this, I get teary. Seriously. I’ve seen it a dozen times and I cry every time.

But it’s tricky. In a small organization, you have to have great chemistry within your team. I don’t look for rabble rousers or people who are so passionate that they alienate others. No, I look for people who can both think for themselves and who have an ability to work really well with others. This requires the ability think flexibly.

The combination of being able to think different and be flexible is a tough one to come by. It’s easy to find people who are passionate about something. But often they see the world as black and white. It’s their way or you’re an idiot. And it’s easy to find flexible people who are just followers. But to find creative thinkers who are also open minded, that narrows the field considerably!

But wait, there’s more! When you work in an entrepreneurial organization you have to be a ‘doer.‘ You have to be a person of action who gets things done. So when I’m looking at a prospect, I want to see people who have taken the initiative to do hard things. Maybe they started a business of their own. Maybe they wrote a book. Maybe they’re a great athlete or musician. I want to see the ability to try hard things  and have the ability to follow through.

I stay away from those who just try new things but stop as soon as they get boring. These people can’t sustain their interest long enough to do great things. They’ll jump ship as soon as the initial excitement wears off. They’ll whine when asked to do something mundane. And they’ll poison the team. These are not the people who saved their marshmallows.

And finally, I look for something really critical – they have to be good people. Yes, good people. I don’t want an evil genius. I don’t want a non-caring person. I want a genuinely good person to work on our team. People who can empathize with others. People who live their life in a positive way. People who try to lift up others. Those are the people I really want to be with – both in life and in business.

To summarize, the type of people I want on my team:

  • Empathetic and caring – people who can see the world through another’s eyes and who care about others.
  • Marshmallow savers – people who delay gratification because they know the long term result is more important than the immediate pleasure.
  • Problem solvers – people of action who figure out how to get things done, even if they’ve never done it before.
  • Flexible – people who adapt to day to day needs. They’ll make coffee or take a package to the post office one minute and negotiate deals the next. “Job description” means nothing to them.

The type of people I avoid:

  • Rigid, corporate types – people who require a job description and know the only way to do things.
  • Complainers – people who complain do not move a company forward, they hold it back.
  • Marshmallow eaters – people who just ‘live for the now’ doing whatever feels good to them are a disaster in a startup.
  • Selfish people

What do YOU think? What makes a great hire? A perfect teammate? What type of people help bring a company to great new heights? What can send it crashing to oblivion?



  1. I should add, I don’t think that all companies should eschew job descriptions, specific responsibilities etc. People do need to know their primary responsibilities and somebody has to be in charge of things or chaos ensues. My primary point is that in the early days, everybody has to be willing to do just about anything in order to get the job done.

  2. I love this post! Very astute.

    I look for curiosity in prospective candidates. In my estimation people who are curious are the best problem solvers because they seek to understand the problem better and they’re usually open to seeing things in new ways. They’re also quick learners because they’re always taking in information and they don’t believe they already know it all.

    • Thanks!
      Curiosity -That’s a great observation. I absolutely agree with that. When I think back on some of the best people I’ve worked with, they’ve had a deep love of the unknown and desire to figure things out. Love it!

  3. Nice post. Some of the biggest screw ups in history were conceived, architected and executed by Ivy Leaguers. Billions of dollars are burned up, wasted on the start up ideas of Harvard Business School grads, who attract this kind of money because of their academic credentials. I’ve been pondering a bit about creative thinking lately, maybe I’ll write a blog post about it.

    • That would be cool! Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

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