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Look For These Specific Traits in Every Job Candidate


Getting the right candidate or people on the bus is one of the most important responsibilities of a manager and leader. That’s why every manager — from the frontline to the CEO him- or herself — needs to hone their ability to spot talent and bring it into the organization.

Over my career, I have interviewed thousands of candidates. Here are the five traits I believe you should look for in every candidate you hire.

1. Exceptionalism

Does the candidate have a history of being exceptional? Exceptional candidates contribute much more to the company than the basic job responsibilities.

How do you identify exceptionalism? People who are exceptional have a history of being exceptional. If the candidate is a recent university graduate, you may think it will be difficult to evaluate his experience, but you can still look for signs of greatness.

Exceptional candidates were usually exceptional at a young age. They were captains of teams, won speech contests, or ran businesses while getting degrees. They were stars in some way. They have learned how to be great and have the passion for doing it.

2. Job-specific motivation

People should be excited by the opportunity you can provide. Is the candidate simply looking for a job to pay the bills, or is she looking for this specific opportunity at your company? Does the position fit into her career plan?

To deliver exceptional performance for the long haul, candidates need to feel that they will benefit from the job just as much as the company will from their performance. This won’t happen if the role is a poor fit right from the start.

3. Cultural fit

How can you judge whether an exceptional, motivated individual will fit in with your company’s culture? Ideally, you already have a high-performance culture that appeals to exceptional people. This gives you the added benefit of being able to hire a wider array of people who value creativity, openness, and talent over conformity. A focus on performance over politics means employees will tolerate differences in personality and perspective.

This doesn’t mean that cultural fit is not important when selecting candidates. It becomes more important to identify any cultural fit issues rather than to look for a candidate who fits a particular mold. Two issues to look at are the sizes of the companies the candidate has worked for in the past, and whether his personal values align with your organization’s.

4. Creative initiative

Creative initiative is the drive and ability to consistently think of ways to do a job better or contribute more to the organization’s success. During job interviews, it’s a red flag for me if someone tells me they were bored in their last job.

Another way to identify those with creative initiative is to ask questions that force them to generate ideas for action. For instance, “Let’s say you’re hired; what are you going to go do tomorrow, in the first week, or in the first month?” If people are really good at their jobs, they can give you a plan.

5. Value

The biggest mistake I see inexperienced hiring managers make is failing to understand the business value a candidate provides. It’s easy to forget that the fundamental reason to hire someone is that she will produce more economic value for the company than she costs. A person who receives $100,000 in total compensation must be twice as productive as a person who receives $50,000.

If you use a team interview approach, they will often choose the more expensive candidate because of her greater experience, without consideration of her relative value. Sometimes, the more expensive candidate is the right hire, because she can help you solve more problems that will lead to greater or faster growth. However, sometimes hiring two people at $50,000 rather than one at $100,000 is the right answer. You have to make these judgment calls carefully, and ensure your entire team understands the relative value of each candidate in the hiring process.

Each time you hire, you have a choice to either hire the best possible candidate or to hire whoever is most affordable or available. Look for talent always. Also, make sure you have a culture that encourages skills development, creativity, and job advancement. Otherwise, you risk wasting and losing the talent you worked so hard to recruit in the first place.

Picture of Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel has learned the value of great managers over a quarter century serving as CEO of both public and private companies. As CEO and cofounder of NetQoS, a network management software firm, he delivered 31 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth and a $200 million valuation. In 2010, Joel cofounded Cache IQ, a storage software company that NetApp acquired two years later. He is the author of two books, The CEO Tightrope and The Manager’s Tightrope—a complete guide to the manager’s role. He currently serves as CEO of Khorus, a company he founded to provide a business management system for chief executives.

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