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Acing the Interview: 6 Tips for Spotting Superstar Talent

Top-notch employees are out there. How leaders can hire the right people every time.

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At the financial services company I head, we have hired almost 3,000 new employees over the past five-and-one-half years and I can tell you this: The best way to spot a future superstar in an interview is to think of yourself as a guide, not a border guard, who can lead the candidate to look into themselves, reflect and discuss things that are important to you and your company. Has he overcome adversity? Has she identified aspects of her current work situation that could function better and worked toward improving them? 

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Make no mistake: For an employer, the stakes can be very high. Hiring the right person can take a company or a department to another level. Hiring the wrong one can be a years-long process of unraveling mistakes. 

Some tips for getting it right the first time:

1. Hire for passion.

Many job openings attract a pool of competent candidates, people who have checked off the right boxes and could probably do a job well enough. But real passion shows through in the “extras” they offer. This is easier to spot if you are promoting from within -- it’s the person who used his or her downtime to make follow-up sales calls, or create a better fulfillment flow, or take a night course. But even in an external applicant pool, the job-seeker with passion will show through in the above-and-beyond extras they put into their work. Look past the resume and let the candidate tell his or her story going above and beyond. A good interviewer can draw this out -- if it’s there.

Related: The 7 Deadly Sins of Hiring

2. Hire for curiosity.

How to spot curiosity? This is when a candidate shows he or she can look out the window as well as in the mirror. There isn’t much a prospective employee can’t learn about a company on the internet these days, including how satisfied your current employees happen to be. All the available information online not only helps attract better talent to a company, it also allows a company to instantly weed out the casual or superficial applicant: Just how deeply has the candidate looked into your company? Ask: “What specific aspects of how we approach our business appeal to you?” Or: “Much has been written about our recent initiatives in your area of interest. What do you think about them?” The superstar candidate has not only studied-up -- that is just square one. He or she has also used the wealth of available information to drill down and form a point of view about any company he or she wishes to join, a coherent argument about where he or she would fit in and be a benefit there. Expect an interview with this candidate to be a two-way conversation. That curiosity and tenacity is likely to come to work with this candidate.

3. Hire for fearlessness.

A job seeker can shade a lot of things on a resume, but once he or she is interviewed certain things either prove out or they don’t. Look for a sense of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement. It’s about a drive to succeed, yes, but it’s more personal than that. Is the candidate naturally curious, always looking to know more or perform better -- not just in work situations necessarily, but with hobbies, family life, personal skills? There is an element of personal fearlessness to this: Is he or she too afraid to fail to explore new avenues or reach a little higher? It really can’t be faked.

Related: How to Hire Like a Pro

4. Hire the cyborg.

No, no -- not a robot. This is joking, in-house shorthand (via "Star Trek," if you must know) for a certain way of thinking, a turn of mind we highly value: Can an executive or other job candidate perform a three-step process: 1) Absorb new learning 2) Integrate that learning into existing plans and practices, and 3) Do it at speed. In today’s marketplace, this is a fundamental skill set: You need sharp-minded dot-connectors. Without it an otherwise promising candidate may be a non-starter.

5. Listen to your people.

This seems obvious, but it is overlooked all the time as executives up the line overrule or unconsciously filter out conflicting opinions on job candidates. Even seasoned executives may have blind spots at assessing a recruit who is a whiz at presenting himself, for example, or the opposite, the diamond in the rough whose talents aren’t so obvious. (I admit to being easily swayed by charismatic presenters. And, sometimes, a winning performance during an interview doesn’t translate into success on the job.) There’s a reason companies do more than one interview; just remember that the company once hired those frontline HR people because they are smart, too.

6. Hire the whole person.

In every industry superstar talent will have a wealth of options. Increasingly, employees want more than a paycheck, benefits and interesting work. They want to spend time in a place that rewards them financially -- yes -- and socially and emotionally as well. One thing that makes a company stand out as a future employer is the comfort factor: Is the workplace one employees will enjoy returning to day after day? It’s important to hire talent that will be a good fit for the culture in place. When they look in the mirror, do they see their “brand” tethered to yours? To attract the best talent, foster a culture, starting at the top, that embraces the diversity and fabric in employees’ lives. Not bringing your “whole self” to work is exhausting, as I like to say. It is drag on a workforce that may be less visible to the people in the executive suite than it is to ambitious job-seekers asking around. Encouraging employees to be themselves -- and meaning it -- is incredibly energizing. 

Related: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees

The superstar talent you need to succeed at the next level is out there right now. Chances are that those stars are looking for an opportunity like yours, whether they realize it yet or not. Search widely; choose wisely. Because, soon, you will be holding oars in the same boat.

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