hiringmanagementorange juicepersonal development

Common Traits of the Best Employees – Part 1

Recently, I had high velocity Mexican with one of RevZilla’s 2008 summer interns. His name is Jake, and he’s awesome.

He was one of our first two interns, before any full-time hires and he was unpaid. We had no idea how to manage people at that point, so we couldn’t really get mad at him or the other guy (Jesse who is also awesome) for watching a lot of World Cup that summer.

Our conversation was a mixture of comparing notes on both of our climbs up career mountain and looking for the common insights and shared pattern recognition along the way.

I always find these conversations rewarding as they are a mixture of sharing, coaching and self-reflection focused on helping the next class of achiever achieve. He’s 10 years my junior and these types of meetings are some of the most enjoyable recurring moments I have had in my time since leaving RevZilla daily operations.

Of the many things we talked about, he did ask me one pretty pointed question which spawned a great discussion and this post.

What were the most important commonalities of the best employees or hires you made over the last decade?

He was looking for a sanity check and potential booster for self-development in the hopes of further accelerating his own trajectory. Some more grease on the wheels of upward mobility and personal growth, if you will.

For me, I believe that the team is everything as it relates to the success of the organization post product market fit. I have spent inordinate amounts of time looking for patterns and discussing this with people over the years.

As we dove into the weeds, we both jotted some notes down which turned into this list of some of the best traits of the best hires I ever made, both as a manager and as an executive. As the title of this post implies, here’s the first round in no particular order.

The best follow through consistently. The best are asked something once and in the moment or later on get the clarity they need to ensure they know what complete looks like. They do the work to ensure they capture the ask accurately and keep management abreast of progress until finished.

This is the opposite of the “black hole effect,” where unless things are spelled out and given with a due date to someone, the ask, large or small, vanishes into the black hole of a wasted discussion, wasted meeting and/or feel good happy talk. Nothing is more frustrating than having to say to someone, “Remember our conversation? I have it in my notes. What happened to that? Where is that? That never got done? etc.” You can imagine this may happen at junior levels, but shockingly, it can happen at the senior level, as well, albeit sometimes with different root causes.

This is so simple, but it’s amazing how often people at all levels can think that agreeing in the moment and then flaking out later can be OK.

For managers: This can be vetted during the totality of the hiring process in how people interact with you, schedule with you or HR and by looking for attention to detail in their responses and communications. Ref checks help here as well – granted you can get to the right refs (another post for another time).

The best are self-starters. This may seem like follow through again, but it’s slightly different. The best, when asked for A, B and C, also come back with an opinion on the related D, E and F. They discovered when doing the original A, B, C work, the necessary next elements – so they just did them. Self-starting demonstrates drive, common sense, commitment and ability. It’s also a big sign of promotability when as a manager you find yourself pleasantly surprised not just by the quality and consistency of someone’s work, but also by the scope adjustments which make it that much more impactful and actionable. On the flip side, if I have to spoon feed you tasks and next steps, regardless of a hire level, the machine (or me) is probably on a path to eating you.

For managers: Look for a potential candidate’s side projects or responsibility outside of work. Also internal promotions in title and responsibilities over time within previous companies is a great indicator. I even asked questions about early jobs back to teenage years. “You got promoted to Assistant Manager at DQ when you were 16? Great.” In many cases the self-starter traits show up early in life.

The best list their career as their passion. This one is more related to early hires and individual contributors from a manager’s lens, as more senior hires tend to have checked this box implicitly, or they would not have made it to senior positions to begin with.

Relating to the 3 most important focuses and/or passions in someone’s life, I’m fine with family as #1 (mine is) and potentially one other thing accompanying career to round out the top 3. If someone’s list does not have their work at or near the top of their list after family, it’s a problem. The best hires are engaged and constantly evolving in and out of the office. Their work and their craft is their passion, their focus and a source of joy, interest and satisfaction.

Millennial or not, beware those who do not aspire to commit to climb the tough climb, achieve, improve, learn, grow and ascend. I’m not saying that people should not have a healthy life full of things that they enjoy to make them happy and satisfied, but I am saying that if career is not a primary focus, it’s a problem. Hiring people for important roles who are “offering you their time” to enable the long list of other things outside the office are probably great people, but they will be a roadblock to company speed, engagement, productivity, morale, and will spend lots of time scorekeeping  – and if you let them – will hire more folks like them, perpetuating a walk-at-the-bell or clock-watching mentality.

On a positive note, there are plenty of slower and safer companies where they will be very happy. Those opportunities don’t change much and should allow someone to max their vacation time at 10 weeks per year. Great for them, their work-life balance and someone else’s team, just a deal breaker within a more progressive and change-fueled environment.

For managers: Look for passion about work which shows up in who they read, what they read, who they follow, what projects or clubs they do outside of the office and their approach to staying relevant and leveling up, etc. Is their career a HUGE part of who they are as people or is it just something they do? You want the former.

The best ask a ton of great questions. The best come to you consistently with excellent questions demonstrating 1) they are exploring, curious and driven to expeditiously understand what they don’t know about their role, the industry and the org etc. and 2) their ego or fear is not getting in the way of them leading with what they do not know.

A quick indicator of a potentially bad hire at any level is a lack of intelligent questions, which could stem from a lack of ability, lack of engagement, an overwhelming fear of not knowing or an ego that can’t stand to be anything but perceived as perfect or omnipotent. Smart cookies realize that asking lots of great questions maximizes the learning curve and time to impact. It also offers a moment to show insight and, just as important, a moment to endear themselves to the person they are asking for help. If the goal is to quickly build a bond, ask someone for help. Or, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you want to make a friend, ask a favor”. Same principle.

For managers: Does a potential candidate come loaded for bear during all stages of the interview? Did they do their homework on the company? Are the questions insightful and show higher level thought and interest? During the first 30 days post hire, are they looking to “drink from the firehose,” filling your interactions with lists of pre-captured questions? Or are they giving off a vibe of oversimplification and “don’t worry I got it” or “I’ll figure it out eventually”? Are they trying to understand the customer, company and their role or just their role? When things are discussed where it’s clear they have no mastery, do they want to dive in with you to figure it out even if it’s beyond them, or just feign enough knowledge to hopefully end the discussion without revealing how much they don’t know?

Thanks to Jake, for a great question over high velocity Mexican which led me to cataloging my thoughts more formally.

This was a fun brain dump that turned into thoughts for those thinking about accelerating the early part of the climb. It also hopefully offered some pattern recognition for those who are in positions of vetting, hiring, coaching and managing people.

This was the first four. More to come….