Hire Candidates With These 5 Traits — or Prepare to Perish

Take 30 seconds to read this passage from this year’s Global CEO Study from IBM. You’ll find it either unsettling or reassuring based on your recruiting practices.

For years, organizations have been embroiled in the so-called war for talent. The challenge has historically been a shortage of particular skills. But today, it’s virtually impossible for CEOs to find the future skills they will need — because they don’t yet exist. Bombarded by change, most organizations simply cannot envision the functional capabilities needed two or three years from now … CEOs are increasingly focused on finding employees with the ability to constantly reinvent themselves.

So, was that statement chilling or encouraging? If you hire based on skills only, I’d understand if you’re feeling a cold sweat coming on. Many of the skills listed on the resumes of the last dozen people you hired could be passé by the next presidential election.

But if you hire beyond skills and personality and hold out for certain character traits (which I preach in my new book Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer, where I have a the complete list of character traits plus 258 Tremendous Interview Questions), you have actually future-proofed your organization.

To ensure your team can adapt, hold out to hire candidates with these five character traits. I’ve also listed key questions you should ask during your pre-employment interviews.

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  1. Ambition: Is driven by desire to realize personal potential and improve self, your organization, and society. Key Questions: What would you like to be doing in two or three years? What’s your career goal in 10 years? You’ll need to ask follow-up questions to validate the candidate’s initial response, which could be an Interviewing 101 answer. But after this conversation, you’ll have a decent gauge if the candidate plans to transcend your organization or just collect a paycheck.
  2. Ongoing Education: Engages in a lifelong process of introspection, searching, self-improvement, learning, and knowledge application. Key Questions: What books have had the greatest effect on your career? Part of emotional maturity is acquiring self insight; give me an example of something you recently learned about yourself. Nobody is prepared for that second question. The most common answer I hear is, “Ummm … hmmm … well …” You learn that some people just aren’t committed to bettering themselves. They’re living and working, but not really learning.
  3. Responsibility: Is decisive and self-reliant; a dutiful grown child, sibling, spouse, parent, and employee. Key Questions: Tell me about a recent split-second decision you made on the job; why you made that decision, and how things turned out? Give me an example of when you made a mistake and fell short of your outcome. The first question will uncover if the candidate embraces critical thinking or reacts with emotion. During the candidate’s response to the second question, you’ll learn if they take 100% responsibility for a situation, rationalize the problem, or deflect accountability. If they can’t think of a time they made a mistake, that’s a red flag that the candidate lacks …
  4. Humility: Is willing to admit personal faults, apologize, accept criticism, and give credit where credit is due. Key Questions: Give me an example of you changing your behavior for work reasons. How do you feel about the level of recognition you currently receive? You may be wondering how humility will help your company adapt for the future. If employees aren’t humble enough to embrace true transparency and quickly point out where they are failing, they won’t change course when necessary. The first question can uncover if the candidate is quick to admit, accept, and address shortcomings. The second question can elicit a variety of responses, ranging from “I do the work of five people and nobody appreciates it” to “I can’t take sole credit for that accomplishment — my teammates played a big role, too.” During a recent manager meeting at my company, an operations manager who was praised by the sales managers said, “Thanks, but you guys are the ones with the hard jobs. I really admire what you do and have learned from you.”
  5. Perseverance: Maintains focus and single-minded persistence in spite of obstacles. Exhibits endurance. Takes the long-term view. Key Questions: Many obstacles can prevent an organization from achieving its goals; tell me about a time when you met such an obstacle. Can you give me an example of a time when you had to solve a really complex problem that required multiple steps across weeks or months? Some of the best business advice I’ve received from a fellow company president is simple: “It’s a journey.” These questions will reveal if the candidate has the ability to endure journeys and minimize frustration along the way. At my company, we aim to hire juggernauts — people who are unstoppable because they provide steady, consistent force until an outcome is achieved.

With all these questions, be sure to ask for a second example (one instance of a behavior doesn’t constitute a trend) and ask “why?” so you gain a deep understanding of the purpose of the candidate’s action or thinking.

Happy hiring!

Jim Roddy is the president of Jameson Publishing and author of the book “Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer,” which features hiring lessons, interview best practices, and recruiting strategies for managers through the perspective of a cancer-surviving executive. For more information on the book, go to http://www.HireLikeYouJustBeatCancer.com.


31 Comments on “Hire Candidates With These 5 Traits — or Prepare to Perish

  1. Where is the proof? Many things are plausible and quite possible correct. But why guess? There is ample scientific, real evidence on what predicts performance. Use that. We do.

  2. Jim: Very basic BBI techniques used by people who know how to listen and ask questions. This tactic needs to be used along with other techniques to minimize hiring failure.

  3. Interesting article! As technology is constantly changing, hiring for specific skills can become harder. It’s difficult to know what skills you’ll need in the future, or even or next week. But if you hire candidates with the skills you need today and adaptable personality attributes you should be in a good position to find a future superstar. Just make sure to find out how willing they are to change and grow in the interview, whether it’s in person or through online video.

  4. @ Paul: well-said. It doesn’t have to work, it just needs to sound good and SELL. Remember my recent comments about the purpose of most ERE articles is to self-promote? If I may be so bold, perhaps when someone writes an infomercial or advertorial (where the goal is to sell the product or services of the author), it can be labeled as such, by the author, the ERE editors, or our Gentle Readers….


    Keith “Self-Promoting in a Different Way” Halperin

  5. I think these are excellent traits to look for in a candidate. I work with Job Seekers everyday in my firm and I can tell pretty quickly if they are going to be they type of employee who can evolve with a company. However, these traits are simply good ones for longevity- they are imperative when looking for quality hires. None of those listed above are particularly new ideas, but it’s an excellent reminder of what to look for when creating job descriptions and interview questions, as well as directed candidates who are asking me what they can do or say to show they are a high caliber job seeker.
    Ken Schmitt

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments — I really appreciate the feedback.

    PAUL: Are you referring to pre-employment testing? If so, I agree tests are valuable but I don’t think they replace the decision-making process. They are a strong complement to the Q-and-A interview. I’ve learned over the years there’s no substitute for a competent manager getting closer to a situation.

    KEITH: I’m hoping you can help me understand your comment better. Do you see my article as having the purpose of self-promotion? Sure I mention my book but that’s only about 30 words of an 800+ word article. I think we have to expect some level of commercial promotion from the the ERE contributors because we’re providing information for free. If everybody who read this article would like to send me $10, I’d be happy to not mention my book. 🙂

    KEN: I agree that hiring for these 5 traits is core to a general organizational success, not just to future-proof your business. If you hold our for a team with strong character, they will attract candidates with similar traits.

  7. These are really good traits to look for. I personally believe that traits such as these and soft skills come to make or break the career of a professional especially as he moves up the ladder. Detecting these early on when hiring can help you make good long term personnel decisions for your company. But the question is how does one verify them in a data-driven way in the interview process?

    For this very reason we have started a service called http://www.digmybrand.com to make the lives recruiters and hiring managers easier. We are enabling people to list out the traits and skills they have – both soft and hard and invite their close colleagues to vet those. It does not replace the interview process but provides supporting data to dive deeper into traits that you see missing but are essential for the role.

    The resume, cover letter, screening and interview processes today are old fashioned, error prone and time intensive. As the number of applicants for each job position grow making the right choices becomes even harder. It is time we start thinking about how we revolutionize hiring and make it more robust.

  8. @ Jim: I think you are using the article as a means of selling your book, just as Kirti is using his reply to sell his service, and I use my comments to sell ME. As I occasionally say:
    “Would those of you seeking a free and open exchange of relevant and useful recruiting information please get out of the way of the rest of us who’re trying to make a buck or two off you?”



  9. @ Jim. I think you are using your article to try and sell your book, as Kirti is using his reply to sell his service, and as I use my comments to sell ME. As I have said:
    “Would those of you here on ERE seeking a free and open exchange of non-self-serving recruiting information please get out of the way of those of us trying to make a buck or two off you?”



  10. @Keith, your responses are on target.

    I find quite a few issues with the statements in this article–many have already been identified and I do not want to rehash what others have stated very well.

    However, I would be interested in how a CEO is going to explain to his/her shareholders the spending of significant amounts of revenue on talent that does not exist yet? One would not need an egg timer to clock the CEO’s departure.

    Unless anyone wants to spend a significant amount of time in court for “illegal hiring practices”, you might want to re-think those “pre-employment questions”. I believe it would be advantageous to remember that only those skills/qualifications related to or required “to do the job” should be asked of the candidate.

    Granted, I am aware that there are many people who ask questions that should not be asked–but, why encourage it?


  11. @ Merlynn: Thank you.

    @ Jim: I went to your LI Profile below. You have been a successful publishing executive and before that a magazine and newspaper publisher. While you have probably successfully hired substantial numbers of people in your time, ISTM that does not make you an expert on effective hiring in general (which the tone of the article implies), though if you restated your experience as being a guide to hiring people in your segment of the publishing industry or even as a guide from the perspective of a SMB hiring executive, that would be valid.

    Finally, I’m glad to hear you are a cancer survivor- my mother and grandmothers weren’t.

    Stay Well,



    Vendor Working Group Chairperson & Board Member

    Nonprofit; 1-10 employees; Retail industry

    July 2010 – Present (2 years 4 months)
    Jameson Publishing

    Privately Held; 51-200 employees; Information Technology and Services industry

    December 1998 – Present (13 years 11 months)

    Jim has 2 recommendations (1 report, 1 partner) including:

    3rd Douglas C., Managing Editor, Jameson Publishing
    2nd Tracey Lugo, Global Marketing Communications Manager, BlueStar

    Espy & Roddy Ink

    July 1993 – December 1998 (5 years 6 months)

    Publisher of SportsLook magazine and the Millcreek Independent Beacon newspaper

    Jim has 1 recommendation (1 report) including:

    3rd Christine D., Freelance Writer, Millcreek Independent Beacon

  12. @Merlynn: My take on it is that if you had to bet on one of two CEOs and the choices were between CEO X who held out to hire employees with ambition, ongoing education, responsibility, humility, and perseverance vs. CEO Y who didn’t care about hiring those traits, I’d bet my money on CEO X.

    @Keith: I draw from more than just my own personal experience. The ownership, management, and HR teams at Jameson Publishing and our sister organizations have shared our collective experiences (from retail, grocery, services, manufacturing, employment firms, military, non-profit, consulting, automotive, etc.) with each other plus studied and communicated with a variety of hiring managers and business owners, drawing from their experiences to form what we consider best practices. I just happen to be the person who was tasked with communicating those best practices and expanded that into my book. I still consider myself a student of hiring, and plan on learning from others for the rest of my life.

    Thanks to both of you for your interest!

  13. @Merlynn: Though Jim’s 5 points are not new to anyone who knows how to conduct interviews, as I mention in my initial comments above, you are way off base here. I personally work with CEO’s who choose to spend money on talent that doesn’t yet exist. That’s what it means to be PROACTIVE. Have you ever looked at the costs of turnover? I have and do and it’s huge…as in millions. It costs far less to align and “fix” issues prior to them becoming issues.

    Secondly, his questions are not illegal. True BBI is done this way. It is what I recommend and train my clients to do.

  14. @ Jim: Thank you for clarifying. I appreciate it.

    @ Carol: ISTM that one of the secrets to corporate success is APPEARING to be somewhat (but not too much) innovative, while actually not going beyond the conventional tried-and-true. It’s one thing if you own/control the company, but quite a different thing if you don’t…



  15. @Carol, I am going to have to disagree with you in terms of the definition of “proactive”–but that is in part what this forum is about sharing different perspectives and ideas. I am very familiar with employee turnover and its cost to corporations. Hiring ermployees with skills that are not or will not be utilized (or projects that do not come to fruition)is also an issue that can result in employee turnover.

    I will also have to disagree with your position about interview questions. While, there is not a “law” which cites or clarifies specific questions related to “soft skills” as illegal. This does fall under the umbrella of hiring practices and discriminition.

    As an overview, a former colleague has just been through a very unpleasant legal process. The company he works for liked using what it referred to as “thought provoking and insightful interview questions”, similar to, if an ice cream what flavor, among others. A candidate who was not hired file suit (California–land of the lawsuit). Although the company supported its process citing that these questions were to assist in employee and team interaction, essentially determining employee soft skills and fit (which is a big “no-no” word–employee match–yes, employee fit–no). The result was not positive for the company.

    As I indicated in my initial response, there are many people who ask questions that should not be asked–and have never had an issue. My point was to provide information that there are risks–people can choose to do whatever they like–but they should also be aware of possible consequences.


  16. Kiran: I wouldn’t say there is one ideal answer because there are so many varying situations. For example, my company has two offices in Western PA. If a candidate says his ambition is to be a turnaround expert for a company and move from city to city every couple years, he’s not a fit for us. But at GE or Mercer Consulting, those answers might be the perfect fit.

    There are of course some answers that I think are always incorrect — “I have no ambition”, “I’m the smartest guy I’ve ever met”, or “I give up easily” — but the correct answer for your organization should be determined by you.

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