The 3 Most Important Traits You’re Overlooking in Candidates

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In the more than four years that Inter (formerly Junto) has been in business, we’ve hired over 50 people for full-time and freelance roles. Thirty-five of those people are still part of the team. The rest either quit or were let go.

For us, 2019 was a particularly difficult year for hiring. We let go of a few people who weren’t the right long-term fit, and a few other employees quit. In the midst of a lot of good fortune for us, it was a discouraging year on the HR front. So, we started to focus on rebuilding our hiring process. We became obsessed with outlining the traits of a great hire and how to vet for those traits.

Along the way, I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player, which describes the core personality traits to hire for: humble, hungry, and smart. (I prefer “emotional intelligence” as a better descriptor than “smart.”)

These three traits have become the backbone of our hiring process. After years of struggling, our team finally has a process that works. Today, I want to share that process with you.

I’ll start by breaking down how we look for each of these traits in a potential hire. From there, I’ll delve into our team’s favorite questions to ask to vet for each trait.

Before we proceed, I should note that humility and emotional intelligence are, in my opinion, difficult to uncover through a specific series of questions. These traits emerge most clearly in the ways applicants respond to other seemingly unconnected questions. That’s why I’ve included an additional list of broader questions below to help shed light on those traits in a potential hire.

Vetting for Hunger

In an ideal world, you’ll take each applicant through a few rounds of interviews. While it can be useful to vet for all three skills in each interview, I like to focus 80 percent of the first interview on vetting for hunger and getting a sense of the applicant’s ideal role.

Our favorite approach to vetting for hunger is gauging someone’s level of interest in the industry they’ll be working in or the hard skills they’ll practice every day. Some of the questions we ask include:

  1. What blogs/YouTube channels do you regularly follow? (And a follow-up about 2-3 articles from the blog they’ve recently read and enjoyed.)
  2. What industry trend are you most fascinated by? (And a follow-up about what they expect will happen next based on that trend.)
  3. What is your preferred set of digital marketing tools? (And a follow-up question about how they use each tool.)

When hiring for hunger, it’s essential to follow up with why, what, and how questions. Most people in any field can string together a handful of popular blog names. Those who really follow a blog should be able to reference specific articles that have stood out to them. The same can be said of industry trends.

If we don’t sense a level of interest from the candidate regarding industry trends or publications, we step back and try to understand what they are hungry to learn about. Someone who has spent 12 months as a web developer may not be passionate about web development yet. However, if they spend their nights and weekends reviewing websites and playing Sudoku, there’s a good chance they’ll fall in love with building websites from start to finish.

Tangential hunger won’t be sufficient for someone stepping into a senior-level role, but it can indicate a good candidate for an entry-level position. If you’re not experienced in the area you’re hiring for, bring in a specialist who can help with these questions.

Vetting for Humility

As I mentioned earlier, humility and emotional intelligence are trickier. Vetting for both of these traits requires you to read between the lines a bit. However, there are still some important tips that can help.

My favorite test of humility is seeing how an applicant speaks to their successes vs. their team’s success. This is where I see a broad question like “Tell me about your career” being most valuable. Pay attention to how they talk about their wins. Asking questions about their accomplishments, and seeing how much credit they take for them, is one of the fastest ways to snuff out people who lack humility. Sometimes, “leading the overhaul of X” really means they spent an hour working on it when another team member asked for their help.

Delve deeper with “what” and “how” questions to see how much detail the candidate can share about their accomplishments. Those who can answer granular questions likely did the work. If they struggle to speak to any of your follow-up questions, there’s a good chance that they played a smaller role and are trying to take the credit for their colleagues’ work.

Our head of web development, Dylan Dunlop, loves to ask people to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10 with various coding languages. He then asks follow-up questions about those languages to gauge their experience. This is a good way to see whether someone’s perception of their own expertise is aligned with reality.

Vetting for Emotional Intelligence

We break emotional intelligence into three areas: self-awareness, emotional perception, and compassion.

Self-awareness refers to whether the applicant understands themself and their emotions. Some of our favorite self-awareness questions are:

  1. What do you need in your day-to-day environment to be the best version of yourself?
  2. What kind of people annoy you? How do you deal with them?
  3. How would you describe your personality?

Look for detailed answers to these questions as a sign of greater self-awareness. On top of that, ask yourself whether the candidate’s description of themself matches the person you see in front of you.

Emotional perception deals with an applicant’s ability to recognize the strengths, weaknesses, and emotions of others. Here are a few questions I like to ask to vet for emotional perception:

  1. If you could give your former boss one piece of advice for better managing their team, what would it be?
  2. Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult colleague or boss. How did you handle the situation?

David Freund, a partner at Inter, likes to throw a few non-verbal cues at applicants to see if they pick up on them. For example, look down at your watch as if checking the time. Does the applicant pause to ask if you’re crunched for time?

Compassion deals with how someone conveys their emotional intelligence. This trait is essential because it tells us whether a candidate uses their emotional perception for good.

At its best, compassion will bleed through the entire interview process in the way that a candidate speaks about their former boss, coworkers, and past clients. At its worst, lack of compassion will show in the applicant badmouthing their former employers and colleagues.

Watch out for people with strong emotional perception who lack compassion. They have the potential to manipulate others and create a toxic environment.

Other Questions We Recommend Asking

Many of our favorite questions help us vet for multiple traits. Here’s a breakdown of a few additional questions we’ll often ask:

1. What Did You Like Most and Least About Your Most Recent Role?

A candidate’s areas of interest and how they speak about colleagues will prove invaluable in understanding who they are as a person. Additionally, take note of how their most recent role may compare and contrast with your company in terms of culture and size. Does the candidate seem to enjoy working at a large company with more repetitive work or a smaller company where they’ll be forced to wear multiple hats?

2. What Would Your Ideal Role Be 2-3 Years From Now?

Is the candidate eager to grow into a new role, or would they prefer to stay in the same role and become an expert at their craft? Neither answer is objectively right or wrong. However, someone who loves writing blog articles eight hours a day may not be the right fit if you’re expecting them to grow into a managerial role as soon as possible.

3. What’s One Area That Needed Improvement in Your Department at Your Last Company? How Would You Have Fixed That If You Had Full Authority to Rebuild the Department From the Ground Up?

As they answer, ask yourself whether this is an issue they’ve thought about before. Many people will be able to come up with an okay answer after a minute of thinking. Those who have an immediate answer and speak with passion are the most likely to have a problem-solving mentality and hunger to grow in their role.

It took us four years to build a vetting process that helps us find the right people. It’s far from perfect, but searching for these three traits has been one of the keys to our team’s success to date.

Take a look at the top people on your team. Do these traits describe the things that make them great? If not, what core qualities do people need to excel in your company? Whatever they are, make them the focal point of your vetting process.

Pat Ahern is a partner and growth strategist at Inter.

By Pat Ahern