Interviewing for Potential
Potential: currently unrealized ability. From Latin “potentia” meaning “power”.
A person’s ability to perform is based on their potential to succeed. Potential is the ability to be effective long term. Trajectory is the progress one has made on the path to reaching his or her potential. Performance is the act of tapping into our potential — it’s a side effect of potential and trajectory.
We use contractors to increase our short term performance. We hire so that we can increase the long term potential of our company. So why do we focus on performance when we interview candidates? Shouldn’t we evaluate candidates on their potential to succeed long term rather than their ability to perform short term?
Potential to Succeed
Almost all skills and knowledge become obsolete eventually. This is especially true in technology, where in a span of a few years things can change drastically. What sets people apart is their ability to change, adapt, and evolve before it’s required. Those who proactively obtain new skills and knowledge have the highest potential to succeed.
To determine a candidate’s potential to succeed start at the end and work backwards. If you hire someone and they are successful, what does that success look like? The answer may be different between junior and senior candidates, but the strategy is the same. Consider what they need to accomplish in their first six months to be deemed successful. Chances are it means acquiring skills and knowledge that they currently do not possess. Their ability to learn, communicate, and collaborate are critical, regardless of experience.
People can be effective in a myriad of ways. Seek out those who would be an effective addition to your team. Your interview questions should focus on determining their potential to succeed.
- Why are you better now at what you do compared to six months ago? Determine how they have increased their potential. The best answers are about being wiser. Acquiring knowledge/skills is the first step. Leveraging that knowledge/skill is the second. Converting knowledge and experience to wisdom is the final step.
Learning from one’s failures can also make someone better at what they do. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them. Being better isn’t just about successes.
- What are you currently working on getting better at?
Knowing their biggest weakness only matters if they are doing something about it. The second part to this question is asking how it will make them more effective. They should be able to articulate how their efforts will have an impact.
- Tell me about the last article/video/talk that really intrigued you.
See if they are leveraging the community to increase their potential. This should reveal curiosity, initiative, and proactive learning.
- What do people come to you for help/advice about?
See if they are increasing the potential of others. For junior level candidates you could ask what they go to others for. Being able to ask for help/advice is a skill often overlooked.
- Do they have the ability to say “I don’t know?”
If they can’t say “I don’t know,” they probably won’t ask for help, and their potential is limited. As the interviewer, you should be able to come up with a question about some esoteric but interesting piece of knowledge. They should show curiosity as to what the answer is. The worst candidates show arrogance and hubris.
- Why is your team better because you are on it?
A team that collaborates has high collective intelligence and thus high collective potential. The best answer will be about how they contribute to the team rather than how they personally elevate it.
Junior level candidates do make a team better; otherwise why are they on the team? At the very least they increase the capacity of the team.
“The only true way for any of us to grow and to truly fulfill our full potential, is to work and help others do the same.” — Simon Sinek
Plotting a Trajectory
Trajectory is the progress one has made to reaching his or her full potential. Potential will always be unrealized without the right trajectory. A person with high potential and on the right trajectory will be performant. If not now, then soon because of his or her trajectory. Their level of performance is a function of how long they have been on the trajectory to reaching their full potential.
In order to maintain a trajectory, one must know what is holding them back. What are the anchors that are preventing them from moving forward? What is preventing them from building up speed and setting a good cadence? Maintaining trajectory requires constant effort and adjustment.
“Continuous effort, not strength nor intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.” — Winston Churchill
Candidates who are aware of their own trajectory will be able to make course corrections. A course correction is probably the reason they are interviewing. The best candidates will envision their future self and plot a path to become that person. Without the goal of reaching for one’s full potential, trajectory is usually meandering and random.
The learnings from our past experiences are the fuel for our trajectory. The more fuel we have, the better our trajectory can be. The wisdom gained from a solid trajectory is the bridge between potential and performance. Trajectory is the leading indicator of performance.
- Why are you going to be better at what you do six months from now?
See if they are aware of the trajectory they are on and if it’s the right trajectory. Similar to the potential question, the best answer will explain how they will leverage and apply what they are getting better at.
Becoming a better cook doesn’t matter unless you’re going to cook.
- What was the last thing you learned about yourself that you didn’t know before?
This reveals how self-aware they are as well as how their trajectory has helped them grow. Even simple answers (“I don’t like mushrooms”) can be revealing. They’ve known themselves all their life; why did it take them so long? Delve into how they came to their realization.
- What would you have done differently on a recent project?
See if they have been learning and gaining wisdom. Nobody is perfect; they should know that. They should be able to reflect, analyze, and critique their own work.
- What is your trajectory? What was your last course correction and why?
A bit more in depth than “why did you leave your last job?”. For junior candidates and interns their course correction may be their major in school.
- You’re only as good as your next accomplishment. What are you accomplishing next?
The best answers articulate a vision and/or strategy. The more interesting answers aren’t related to their career, but are still revealing. Perhaps they are going to take Improv classes so that they can learn to be comfortable speaking in front of a room (i.e. leading meetings).
Performance is an indicator of where someone is on their trajectory to reaching their full potential. Performance determines how productive a candidate can be in the near term. The focus is on execution and the ability to get things done rather than being on the lookout for new opportunities.
Productivity = Performance
Effectiveness = Potential+Trajectory+Performance
Performance is the easiest and most tangible variable to measure. Performant people get X number of tasks done in Y amount of time. They are the ones who are perceived as the most valuable. In a company with high potential and a solid trajectory, they are extremely valuable — BUT you need people to create that potential and set the trajectory in order for the performers to succeed. Performance without trajectory is called improvisation.
- Describe a part of a project that you owned. How did you measure success?
There is a big difference between following specifications and taking ownership. One doesn’t have to have own a project to take ownership of their part.
People with a sense of ownership will be able to articulate what the project is, why it is important, and how it will have an impact.
Is success defined by completing tasks or the impact of those tasks? Output vs outcome.
- Describe a project that was not a success. Who is to blame for that lack of success?
The correct answer is that everyone involved contributed to the lack of success. Bonus points for saying blaming is not productive. The use of the word “blame” is purposeful in this question.
- Which is more important building things right or building the right thing?
The correct answer is that it depends. See if they have the right perspective. Security and transactions are always about building things right. MVPs are about figuring out the right things to build.
- Why are you effective at your job?
See if they describe being productive or effective. The best answers mention teamwork and influence. Junior and senior level people are effective in different ways.
- What is a bad way to implement X?
See if they know what not to do. Test for practical intelligence. We’ve all done something that seemed like a good approach at the time, but eventually proved to be incorrect (i.e. anti-patterns).
The state of the company, team, and product should determine the level of performance required from a candidate. Larger companies typically have more flexibility in hiring candidates with high potential, meandering trajectory, and low performance. These types of people are typically interns, recent graduates, and/or junior level people. Resources (i.e. mentoring) can be allocated to increase their potential and accelerate their trajectory so that they will be performant.
There is stiff competition for A-players/rockstars/ninjas. Everyone is looking for them. If you can’t compete for the A-players, be practical about the types of candidates you are trying to attract. Expand your candidate pool by looking for people who have potential and are on a trajectory to become A-players. They will transform as your company grows and evolves.
You don’t have to hire the best in the world — just those that have the potential to be the best.
Potential, Trajectory, Performance
All of these questions can be used for any candidate for almost any role. The junior level candidates will have answers that are more thoughtful, senior level candidates should be more confident and concise in their answers. How they answer a question is just as important as what their answer is. Junior level candidates should draw from their life experiences, senior level from career experiences. There are no wrong answers, but there are answers that will show a lack of potential and trajectory.
Hiring is about increasing your company’s potential and accelerating its trajectory and ability to succeed. In looking for people to hire, look for potential, trajectory, and performance. If they don’t have the first two, the other one will disappear. Performance is mostly a side effect of Potential and Trajectory.