As a CTO with multiple advanced engineering degrees, you might imagine I’d focus on a candidate’s education, mastery of knowledge, and relevant experience as key discriminators of a great hire; however, I’ve learned, after hiring hundreds of people and conducting thousands of interviews, that a candidate’s background and knowledge are at best mere table stakes, and worst some of the least reliable indicators of a successful hire. Coupled with over six years working 100% remotely as a technology executive, and having built from the ground-up remote-first technology teams, I can tell you with absolute certainty it’s your emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) — not IQ — that’s key to every successful career.
More to the point, whatever you lack in skill, experience, or smarts (IQ) can be remedied through time, money, and effort. What I cannot provide you — only you can bring this to the table — is whether you’re a fundamentally good person who’s disciplined, accountable, and authentic. These qualities are now all the more important in remote-first environments where working remotely requires great judgement and self-discipline. Here’s the 6 non-resume qualities I look for in every new hire, and how to determine if you possess them.
1. Self Awareness and Self Actualization
Self-awareness (do you know yourself?) without self-actualization (can you change yourself?) turns people into self-problem admirers; without these two qualities in combination you will not grow yourself professionally. We cannot improve what we cannot see: are you aware of your strengths and opportunities in yourself? Are you able to spot where you made a mistake, reflect, and then change your behavior the next time? Once you mastered these in yourself, then and only then are you truly ready to lead others.
Do you appreciate that none of us, yourself included, are perfect? Do you appreciate you are not an island unto itself, but deeply connected to a whole tapestry of people around you who are just as important as you? Without humility our mouths are bigger than our ears; and, no one learns anything when they’re talking.
Too often we think being “professional” means leaving our humanity, our frailty, at the door. I think this the least professional thing you can do: be someone you are not. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Be humble to your ignorance. Be compassionate to yourself and others. These are the qualities that are foundational to creating great cultures, and grow you as a leader.
Do you care about the people around you? Do you take time to get to know them? Are you able to help them when they are struggling? Will you be patient with them? Will you be patient with yourself? We are all works in progress. The only thing bigger than our ears must be our hearts.
Wisdom looks in all directions. Most solutions to your problems are not found in what was written by others. Are you constantly learning, digging in, and asking questions with an insatiable curiosity to understand the problems your company is facing, the challenges your team is struggling with?
5. More Ands than Buts
Truly curious, collaborative thinkers are constantly learning and unlearning things. They are never satisfied with their current understanding of the world around them. And when they interact with others, they love “ands” and abhor “buts.” Are you prone to talking over other people’s ideas with buts, or can you take another’s idea and add to it with an “and?”
6. Grit (Determination + Direction)
Work, like life, is hard. The right things to do are often the hardest things to do. Can you dig deep to find the will, the discipline, and resolve to stand-up everytime you’re knocked down till you finally succeed?
I want employees who face their ignorance (what they don’t know they don’t know) and are excited by the yet-to-be-seen future, eager to step into that unknown. They do not allow setbacks to become failures. They do so as a member of a team, a community, a company. They help others and they help themselves stand back-up and continue till they meet the needs of the business and our customers.
Now that you know the 6 qualities, you might wonder how to practically ascertain if a candidate has them. Normally I do not specifically ask questions related to each of these, as these qualities tend to cross-cut through an entire interview.
That said, if I wanted to understand self-awareness, humility, compassion, and grit then I learn the most by understanding what someone did in the face of a failure or mistake, or “Tell me about your biggest failure? What did you do about it and why?” It’s an intentionally open-ended question meant to allow you to ask follow-on questions. “If you could do it over differently, would you?” This can help see if they prize getting it right, or if they value more what they learned through the mistake than getting it right the first time. “If you had to do it now, how would you do it differently?” This can help you see if they have self-reflection, and the ability to apply what they’ve learned going forward.
On the other hand, if I want to understand their curiosity and collaborative nature, I would start with an open-ended problem that I’m very knowledgeable about, but which does not have a simple or even single, right answer. It could be as simple as, “If you could change one thing about our product, what would it be? And why?” They likely have fresh insights, but do they start with their idea to impress you, or do they first probe you to learn more to check their assumptions? When you add to their idea, do they get energized or defensive? Do you leave feeling like you learned something new about what you’re otherwise already intimately knowledgeable in? If so, it’s a good sign of a highly collaborative person.
Again, these 6 qualities will show up throughout an interview. You need to find opportunities to probe, even occasionally show a contrarian nature, albeit respectfully so, to suss out if the person has a healthy sense of self-worth and confidence, or if they are more interested in impressing you at all costs. It will take practice and a healthy dose of active listening to develop these interview skills, but they are well worth the effort to do so.
Six Qualities for Success
These 6 things are key qualities for any person I hire and retain. Not only will these qualities help you succeed in your career, they are also qualities that are requisite for every one of us to create psychologically safe work environments. With these qualities, no matter your degrees or experience or intelligence, I can guarantee you will be successful.