The Other Side of Experience, Part 4: Potential and Teamwork

This a four-part article series for forward-thinking recruiters that explores six candidate attributes that should be considered while interviewing ó as opposed to relying on experience as the sole criterion (or standard) in the hiring process. The rationale of looking beyond experience was outlined in Part 1 of this series, and I urge you to read the essential explanations and reasoning behind this line of thinking before you move on to reading this last part. For a quick review, the attributes to be considered in “The Other Side of Experience” are as follows:

  • Attitude
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Productivity
  • Communication skills
  • Potential
  • Relationship/teamwork capabilities

This article, Part 4, will cover potential and relationship/teamwork capabilities. Potential Potential is as intangible an asset as one can seek, but its presence in a candidate speaks volumes about what the future might look like. Potential is that certain feeling you have about a candidate that tells you this is a good hire. That’s because potential is not so much about what a candidate has done as it is about what you believe a candidate will someday be able to do and how it will impact your organization. Most recruiters know that potential is tough to get their arms around and quantify in a clear and specific way, but the best still look for it in every candidate they consider hiring. When trying to evaluate potential, consider the following as good signs:

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  • Strong academic background. This is a must. I would rather hire a person that has no college degree but stellar grades in high school than a master’s level graduate who barely squeaked out of the university doors. There is always a good reason for a poor grade here or there, but there is rarely a good reason for an academic record that is a car accident in disguise.
  • A track record of achievements. Candidates that are high potential are high potential for a reason. They started a debate team in school, founded a Toastmasters Club, or were the youngest person to ever teach a course on programming in Java. The achievement itself is not that important, but there has to be something there that demonstrated a burning desire to succeed ó to make a commitment to a cause or endeavor and to see it through to the end. This is a candidate who I appreciate having in front of me.
  • Strong preparation for the interview. Ask the candidate what they know about your company and the industry. The candidate should have done significant research and have fundamentally correct answers. Those with good potential understand that it’s better to be prepared for an opportunity that never arises than unprepared for one that does. Preparation is critical to success, and the candidate with real potential will jump on any opportunity to be at their best. (Shouldn’t we all?)
  • Willingness to ask questions/offer ideas. Candidates with potential are not afraid to ask questions and offer bold new ideas that will challenge the status quo. Most industry change is slow and painful; it is tough to make sweeping changes when, as an expert, you spend so much time with like minded people breathing your own exhaust. Pose a problem to the candidate that is endemic to your industry and ask for a creative solution (example: Telecommunications has become almost pure commodity. How would you suggest we change this and find new revenue streams?) The answer is almost academic. You need to look for bold and creative suggestions that offer a solution and back it up with sound reasoning. Understanding how a candidate thinks is very helpful in the decision making process.
  • Demonstrating passion for industry/position. Candidates are very often excited about either the opportunity to be involved within a given industry or a specific position within a given organization. Look for a level of excitement from the candidate that sets them apart from the rest of the pack. Candidates with passion very often come to work with a desire to achieve and make things happen that exceeds that of the average employee. Turn more of these candidates into employees and you could build a company that contains fewer employees who just wanted a job and more employees who came to create a great organization.

Relationship/Teamwork Capabilities Look for these traits when it comes to evaluating teamwork and relationship capabilities:

  • Willingness to take action. Look for examples of things the candidate has undertaken that demonstrate an ability to go above and beyond the standard expectations in that person’s life. I once interviewed a candidate who started a canned food drive in college that fed over 50 families each week and ran the entire program from his dorm room. Not bad for someone in an age demographic that usually has what some might think as better things to do with their time. (Michael Dell started selling computers from his dorm room in college, and that model turned into a sweet little business.)
  • Demonstrating a high level of commitment. Commitment is seldom an essential part of the interviewing process, and that is something we need to look at more closely. When times get tough, commitment is one of the few things that separate those who hang in there from those who either leave or become unproductive. Look for something, anything, where the candidate gave 100%; stuck to it, no matter what; and stayed until the job was done. Speaking for myself, at the age of eighteen, I used to unload freight cars in the Bronx during the summer from 3:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. I thought that the job was going to kill me. To this day, I am proud of my having survived that most difficult ordeal.
  • Relationship/teamwork. The ability to get along with others and work productively as part of a team is vitally important if you are looking to be successful, get ahead, and develop new skills. (The diversity of thought, experience, and know-how are part of the dynamics that make teams so very powerful.) I have seen groups of average people, in a team setting, accomplish Herculean tasks. I have also seen geniuses that can’t play well with others sit in their offices and accomplish virtually nothing. You keep the second group, and I’ll take the first group anytime. Teamwork and relationships is what makes things happen. I would never hire a candidate as a direct employee who was not a team player. I suggest you consider the following in looking for teamwork and relationship capabilities.
  • Listening to opposing viewpoints. People who do not listen carefully to opposing viewpoints are usually not good team players. Listening to opposing viewpoints with an open mind is a critical part of the dynamics of teamwork and relationship building; people need to know they are being heard. Those who do not listen are usually shut out and quickly feel isolated, unappreciated, and devoid of value. The Darwinian dynamics of teamwork usually cause this scenario to end poorly. Ask candidates how they deal with differing opinions from the team and ask for examples.
  • Demonstrating tact in disagreement. This is a first cousin of listen to opposing viewpoints and spilling hot coffee in the lap of the disagreeing party is not a way to strengthen the team. The candidate who claims to listen to opposing viewpoints but responds by telling other teammates that they are dumber than dirt will also soon be history. No good team will accept this dynamic and no-good relationship will be formed as a result of this type of attitude and behavior. Ask the candidate what it is that makes them tactful and how they utilize tact in everyday differences of opinion.
  • Supporting other team members. Members of a team who do not support each other do not really comprise a team. They are nothing other than a band of people that happen to work together. That can be okay, but that is not a team. Members of a team know that their individual work is not done until the team’s work is done. A team member who completed his or her tasks should immediately ask the rest of the team one simple question; who needs help with their work. On the other hand, the team member who is falling behind should scream for help as soon as they see that there is a problem as opposed to twenty minutes before deadline. Look for this type of person when making a hire; ask questions about the meaning of teamwork and look for examples of supporting the team in previous positions, college or civic organizations.
  • Managing conflict. Conflict in the workplace exists for all of us, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Its presence demonstrates that people with diverse experiences and ways of thinking really care about their work and wish to exert their influence, ideas, methodology, and philosophy on the workplace result. Managing conflict is not for the faint of heart. It requires the employee to put aside their ego, personality and politics in order to do what is best for the organization. Ask candidates, point blank, how they deal with conflict in the workplace, and as always, look for examples. Beware the candidate who tells you they do not encounter conflict in the workplace. They are not from this planet.
  • Managing relationships at all levels. Organizational structures are different today than in years gone by. Most companies have been reconfigured and as a result have fewer levels between the people on top and the rest of the company. Employees must be able to make and manage relationships up, down, and laterally. Employees that have the ability to form and manage relationships will bring more to the organization and will get more out of it in return.
  • Remaining positive under stress. Stress in the workplace is not going to go away, ever. This is unfortunate, because stress wears us down, causes us to make mistakes, and if not managed, can send us to an early grave. The methodologies employed to manage stress are varied, but remaining positive is a great coping mechanism. Its presence will bolster everything from productivity to morale to overall quality (besides, a positive attitude is simply better than a negative attitude). Explore how candidates you interview remain positive in the face of stressful situations. It is a worthwhile effort; they will be confronted with stress from their first day on the job until their last, so you might as well find out how they cope before they become a part of the team.

In closing, let me reiterate that solid experience is an important asset to look for in a candidate. It will always remain central to the hiring process. That being said, I suggest that you recognize there is more to a successful hire than just experience. I propose that all who recruit look closely at the six other areas outlined in this program to support the decision making process as it pertains to hiring. I have seen far more candidates fail in their positions because of things having absolutely nothing to do with experience alone (such as not being able to work well with others or being uncommunicative, for example). Experience can always be added to and developed on the job. Unfortunately, some of the other areas mentioned in this program can be slightly more difficult to develop (ever try to change someone and create a better attitude? This is no easy task?). Keep this in mind the next time you make a hire ó because a bad hire, no matter how experienced the candidate, is still a bad hire. Let’s be realistic. Judging the softer skills that candidates possess is not easy to do. It is as much an art as it is a science. We are so used to focusing on experience and matching qualifications with specifications that we very often equate experience with a great hire, and this is not always the case. However, if you can instill the above mentioned thoughts into your assessment while interviewing, you will have a better understanding of the candidate’s people skills, style, and overall outlook on the workplace. Armed with this information, you can make more informed hiring decisions and hopefully build a better company because you are hiring better employees.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


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