Recruiting and John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success

A few weeks ago, my wife of 35 years saw my eyes fill with tears as I was watching TV. Fortunately, I was watching a basketball game, so she knew it wasn’t too serious. After 35 years, she knew immediately the cause, and responded, “Oh, that John Wooden fellow must be speaking again.” She was right. As far as I’m concerned, there is no finer person in the world than this former UCLA basketball coach.

If you’re not familiar with his Pyramid of Success, you might want to check it out. It starts with his definition of success: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” From this, he builds a foundation of success based on 15 core traits, including factors like skills, team spirit, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. The key is that all of the traits are required to achieve competitive greatness, not just a few.

And that’s the point of this article today. The same principle needs to be applied when evaluating candidates. How many recruiters, hiring managers, or members of the interviewing team think they can determine a candidate’s total suitability for a job based on some quick measure of just one or two core traits? For one thing, it takes much more than just one or two traits to determine competency and motivation to do the work. For another, if just one of these partial predictor traits is assessed incorrectly, a good candidate can be inadvertently excluded too early in the process. Even worse, since it only takes one or two no’s from anyone on the hiring team to eliminate a person from consideration, the chance of making the correct hiring decision is statistically very low. This is the fundamental cause of the most pervasive of all hiring problems.

And it’s not hiring someone who falls short of expectations — it’s not hiring someone who could far exceed expectations. Lack of assessment standards is also the real reason why it takes so long to find good people. Without good standards, we strive to find the common “perfect” candidate acceptable to everyone. This seems absurd to me, especially since most people are looking at the wrong criteria and then making superficial assessments while they’re doing it. Unfortunately, this is what most companies actually do. Why not institute a comparable pyramid of success for hiring based on the ten best traits that best predict success? Then why not train everyone on the interviewing team to accurately assess these traits? Finally, rather than using the traditional up versus down voting system, why not instead conduct a deliberative assessment, with everyone on the hiring team ranking these ten traits on a 1-5 scale?

This way, consensus is reached by giving everyone enough of the correct information before they vote. Collectively, this type of hiring process would have a profound impact on eliminating the number one hiring mistake of them all: not hiring the best person. Not to mention that you’d be able to reduce your time to hire by 50% by not having to do searches over again. Following is my top 10 list. It’s the one I’ve developed over the past 25 years to handle everything from staff positions to executive management. While it differs somewhat from the Wooden 15, it does a good job of measuring candidate quality and predicting on-the-job success. What do you think about using something like this?

  1. Ability to do the work. This includes technical ability and the potential to learn new related skills. I consider this a threshold trait. The person needs enough to do the work, but if he or she has much more than needed, the person could feel unfilled once on the job.
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  3. Motivation to do the work. This is the most important trait of them all. It doesn’t matter how much talent a person has: without motivation to do the work, little gets done. However, look for initiative and motivation in doing the work you really want done. Motivation in the wrong area gets stuff done you might not want done.
  4. Collaborative skills and working with others. Few people get ahead if they can’t collaborate and work closely with others. This includes things like cooperation, coaching others, and even willingly being coached by others. Look for all of these traits during the interview.
  5. Job-related problem-solving and thinking skills. Being smart in the right areas is the issue here. Good thinking and problem-solving skills are essential to planning, optimizing results, creating a vision, persuading others, and leadership. However, without the ability to execute or deliver results this can be a wasted skill. Too many intuitive interviewers overvalue this trait, assuming that if someone can think and plan and strategize they can also execute. Not true.
  6. Consistency in achieving comparable results. You want to observe a consistent pattern of achieving comparable success. Once is not enough when hiring someone for the long term. This trait covers numerous competencies and skills like persistence, responsibility, commitment and drive. Hiring one-time wonders is a common hiring mistake.
  7. Organizing and planning comparable work. You might want to call this self-management. This is an important trait that often gets overlooked. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiring a call-center rep, an engineer, a manager, or an executive: the ability to organize and plan out one’s work and execute it properly is a foundational skill. Too much supervision is required if you overlook this one.
  8. Personal growth and development. The best people constantly improve themselves. Look for a pattern of consistent personal development and then how the person applied these new skills on the job. Don’t ignore this one or accept excuses.
  9. Environmental and cultural fit. This is big. Look at the environment in which the person has excelled and what they excelled in. Then compare this to your job and your environment and culture. A mismatch here could spell trouble.
  10. Value and character fit. Figure out what drives the person to excel and where this drive came from. Excelling at work that a person likes to do is great. Excelling at something the person doesn’t like doing reveals character and commitment.
  11. Overall potential to grow. You’ll need to combine all of this together, look at the trend lines, add in leadership, assess the depth of the person’s thinking skills, and then adjust everything for the quality of the manager to come up with a ranking for this one.

There are probably better lists, but this one certainly does the job. Here’s a form you can download (my 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template) that captures this information. Email me ( if you’d like the advanced version we use in our training program and when interviewing and assessing candidates.

However, to make it as effective as possible, a few prerequisites need to be established. For one, every member of the interviewing team must know the real job. This is not the job description. Instead it’s a list of the tasks and challenges the person taking the job is expected to accomplish successfully. If you don’t know the job, you have nothing to compare the candidate’s past accomplishments and successes to. The reason the hiring ten factor success pyramid works for all jobs is that it’s based on a comparison to real job needs, not some artificial standard. I call these real job descriptions performance profiles. The second requirement for this process to work is to make sure that every member of the interviewing team has a pre-assigned role in the assessment process. Having each interviewing team member responsible for assessing just two or three of the above traits is a good start. Getting the person to overcome his or her personal biases is part of the training process. Making sure the person can accurately assess the traits is another.

My one question interview can help here. The third part of the process is the collective debriefing session. Recruiters should take the lead here. Go through each of the ten factors one by one. To keep everyone honest, the recruiter needs to fight emotions and soft feelings with hard facts. An “I don’t think the person would fit” feeling can be offset by two or three examples of the person working successfully in a similar culture with similar people achieving similar results. This requires names, dates, and specific details regarding the results achieved. Soon, you’ll have a reasonable and accurate representation of your candidate’s ability to meet all job needs. Not only will you more easily reach consensus this way, you’ll find a lot more great candidates you would have lost for the wrong reasons. Try this just a few times and you’ll quickly know what John Wooden meant when he wrote these words: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Look for this in yourself and in everyone you recommend to be hired. You can’t go wrong with this advice.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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