2 Truths and a Lie: How to Interview & Identify Superstar Employees

Chris Mikolay
Jan 6 · 5 min read

A team of high performers who work well together will make your organization nearly unstoppable. But even one bad hire will lower morale and waste opportunities. So why have so few of us been trained in the art of interviewing and identifying great candidates?

It took me too long to take the hiring process as seriously as the candidate looking for the job. After hiring superstars and making plenty of mistakes I’ve realized Two Great Truths and One Great Lie about hiring.

Truth #1 — The interview neither begins nor ends when the candidate is in your presence

When a candidate arrives in my office and we sit down to talk, one of the first questions I ask is, “How did you prepare for this interview?” This question will tell you (1) how serious the candidate is in her job search; (2) how much homework she has done; and (3) how thorough and resourceful she is. It will also demonstrate how she makes decisions and what she’s looking for her job and career.

Superstars, those employees who are worth 10x the average employee, are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. They’ll not only thoroughly research your company, they’ll try to understand your industry and its challenges, they’ll be ready with questions, and they’ll even have learned about you. Recognizing when someone has gone next level in her preparation for the interview is a great initial sign.

In addition to what happens before the interview, there’s plenty more you can and should glean from a candidate after the in-person (or phone) conversation. Rather than sending me the customary thank-you email, I almost always ask the interviewee to follow up by completing a simple project. For example, I might ask the candidate to spend time thinking about how autonomous vehicles might impact my organization, and to follow up with a brief email outlining his thoughts. This process gives you direct insight into a candidate’s communication ability, whether he can follow directions, how he thinks, and whether he’s interested in the job.

Alarms bells should go off in your head if a candidate arrives unprepared or his follow through is weak. Conversely, a superstar employee might be nervous in an interview but knock it out of the park both before and after the actual interview — by far a better indicator of work performance.

Truth #2: You better know what traits you’re looking for

As I built one of the teams I lead now, it occurred to me that the highest performers were all very inquisitive. They had a natural curiosity for improving our models, asking “what if” questions, and taking it upon themselves to learn. I therefore decided that “curiosity” was a trait important to identify when interviewing prospective candidates, and I’ll ask behavioral based questions designed to reveal it.

  • “What is your approach when facing a challenging situation?”
  • “What’s the last thing you really geeked out about?”
  • “Tell me about a time you had to be creative to solve a problem.”

Curious people are good problem solvers, and they’re also interesting, and you’ll see them light up when answering these kinds of questions whereas less inquisitive people will have a tougher time answering them.

Another trait I have found common in the overachievers on my team goes by many names: grit, tenacity, or as I like to call it, “high agency”. The term was described by Eric Weinstein on Tim Ferriss’ podcast this way: “When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something? So, how am I going to get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?”

Steve Jobs, with his “reality distortion field”, is a famous example of high agency maximized. Jobs would bend reality to his will. Of course, most candidates aren’t Steve Jobs, but trying to identify whether someone is resourceful and sees a problem as an opportunity is a characteristic I actively look for. Did the candidate pay his way through school? Can she give you a good example of how she overcame an obstacle?

Now, excelling at different jobs requires different characteristics. An actuary, for example, should be great at math, analyzing disparate data sets and understanding various modeling techniques. However, your experience might tell you really great actuaries are able to clearly articulate difficult concepts. You’ll therefore want to first identify if the candidate understands the fundamentals, and then try to ascertain his ability to communicate what the data means.

When hiring, you should know what qualities set apart the best performers in that role*, and then design your interview to look for those characteristics.

The Lie — You should hire the best available candidate

Let’s assume you have 3 candidates who on paper look like a possible fit for your role. You interview each of them and determine the first candidate is a “5” on a scale of 1–10, the second is a “6”, and the third is a “7”. If you’re simply looking to hire the best of these 3 available candidates, you’ll make an offer to the third. I would go back to the drawing board. You owe it to your company and your team to find people who are going to knock it out of the park, so don’t settle for the best available if you’re not sure that person is going to be awesome. Be more resourceful, use the networks you and your team have, or re-write the job posting if you’re not getting the right candidates.

I have found, more often than not, if I’m on the fence about someone, or if I’m under time pressure to hire and I value expediency over fit, it’s a mistake. It may cost you a few extra months and some additional stress on your team while the job remains unfilled, but that is better than unwinding the error and starting over once you realize the new hire is not who you thought he was.

*The National Accounts team at my company actually studied what traits led to high performance in their group. They determined those with high abstract reasoning scores on our HR screening test, along with high degrees of accountability, rigor, tenacity and inquisitiveness, were almost certain to overachieve. We have now designed our interview process around evaluating these characteristics.

Chris Mikolay

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I’m just a guy, staring at a keyboard, asking it to write something interesting.

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