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How to Quickly Spot the 3 Traits of High-Performing People

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Identifying high-potential people is relatively easy. Hiring them is more challenging. You’ll need to offer a high-potential assignment, not a laundry list of prerequisites and generic responsibilities.

In a recent post, I suggested that the 30-minute exploratory phone interview was a prerequisite for hiring any great person, especially those who are not looking for another job. This type of phone screen begins as an informal conversation between equals. After a few minutes, you say something like, “We have a number of senior-level openings, but let me first get some sense of your background. If one of the opportunities seems like a significant career move, I’ll give you some details, and if you’re interested in pursuing it, we can schedule a more in-depth call.”

Even passive candidates will agree to this type of conversation, at least for five to 10 minutes. During this time, it’s important to conduct a quick work history review to determine general fit for one of your open positions. As part of this review, you look for the Achiever pattern. An Achiever is someone who is in the top 25 percent of his or her peer group. If you know what to look for, you’ll spot many clues in a few minutes. A person may have been quickly assigned projects above his or her current level, for example, received some type of special recognition, or been promoted more quickly than expected.

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If you find an Achiever who fits one of your open jobs, you’ll then need to give the person a quick overview of the position and describe one or two major challenges involved. If the person is interested in considering the opportunity, ask him or her to provide an example of some major accomplishment that relates most closely to the biggest challenge. This is the Most Significant Accomplishment question in thePerformance-based Interviewing process I’ve been using and advocating for the past 30 years. As part of the fact-finding associated with this question, look for the following three traits of all high-potential people:

  • Zooming: Zoomers have the ability to dig deep into a problem to figure out the root cause and then zoom out to figure out the best solution among various alternatives. The best of the best Zoomers are multifunctional in perspective and consider the strategic and tactical consequences in their evaluations.
  • Swimming: Promotable people have both the ability and desire to take on broader technical, team, and project responsibility. Most often these are the people who have been thrown into situations that stretched them. Emerging successfully builds confidence. In subsequent interviews, ask the Most Significant Accomplishment question multiple times to determine how deep the person can swim. The best haven’t stopped swimming.
  • Leadership: In my view, those who demonstrate leadership not only have the ability to visualize a solution to a problem but also have a track record of implementing successful solutions. Many of these include assignments where they’ve been asked to swim in the deep end of the pool. In subsequent interviews, ask the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern to understand the candidate’s leadership ability.

Identifying high-potential people is relatively easy if you know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, too many recruiters and managers move into high-pressure sales mode as soon as they’re spotted. This is a great way to quickly end a promising conversation. Instead, slow down and listen. The only way you’ll excite a high-potential person is by offering a high-potential assignment. And the only way you can provide a high-potential assignment is by crafting a position that best fits the person’s needs, not by force-fitting the person into some skills-laden and ill-defined job. More important, if you do this for everyone you hire, you’ll find a lot more high-potential people than you ever imagined existed.