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What unique traits do executives seek when hiring?

Every business leader has different goals, and what they’re looking for in a candidate is even more diverse, so learn from these ten execs what makes them tick when hiring.



Hiring practices of varying executives

If you ask ten executives what they look for when hiring that other executives miss, you’ll get some pretty interesting answers that are both helpful to job seekers and business leaders alike. Learning from others’ practices can shed light on your own, so we set out to find ten extremely different types of executives in various industries and asked them about their own hiring practices. They spilled the beans below when we asked them what traits they seek when hiring that others likely miss?

Can a candidate handle permanent whitewater?

Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons which has been connecting music students and music teachers for seven years said, “There are a few things that we’ve always looked for as a company. Number one, is the applicant genuinely friendly and smarter than most? Those are two traits that go a long way in the development of the type of culture that we want here and that demonstrate a candidate’s ability to work independently or in a group. We look for the ability to be comfortable with what I call “permanent whitewater.” In a start-up, there’s no smooth sailing. This is constant whitewater rafting. We’ll ask ourselves, does this person value safety too much? Would change make them uncomfortable to the point that they couldn’t perform? They need to be able to accept risk, to accept change.”

Cox added, “Finally, we’re looking for a cultural fit. Is this the type of person I would enjoy spending time with? We spend much of our time here at work together. If there are people who are wicked smart with great degrees from great colleges but they are unpleasant to be around, I want nothing to do with them. At the end of the day, I want to build something incredible with incredible people. Jim Rohn once said that you are a product of the five people with whom you spend the most of your time. We spend a lot of time at work and we want to surround ourselves with high performing team players to continually raise the overall intellect of the company.”

I look for personality

Scott Lerner, Founder of natural energy drink company, Solixir said, “The number one trait I look for is personality. I look for this more than experience and educational background. Does this person have what it takes to help drive growth with our company? To sum it up, does this person have the “it” factor no matter how young or old they are?”

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Body cues and behavior are critical

Benn Rosales, Founder and CEO of AGBeat said, “When hiring, I am always looking for someone that is as focused on details as I am. I am looking at a candidate’s interpersonal communication skills, and at everything from how polite they are to their general demeanor. I’m looking for signs that their work ethic is superior and that their attitude toward making this company amazing equals my own. Body cues and behavior is just as important to me as what is on their resume.”

One in three employees have been entrepreneurs

Nell Merlino, the woman who started Take Our Daughters to Work Day and Founder of which focuses on women entrepreneurs, said she looks for “Diversity of talent, connections, ages, ethnicity and entrepreneurial spirits. Over one third of the people who have worked for CMI have started their own companies.”

Seeking will over skill

Iggy Fanlo, CEO of Lively (an activity sharing device connecting seniors with their family) said their company looks for “will over skill.”

“Having super talented folks is great; having world class experience is great, but we feel that desire and commitment is more important. In many ways, it’s just like Lively, where we feel the social side of aging (connection) is more important than the physical and medical,” Fanlo said.

The smallest things tell the biggest story

Noelle Federico, CFO of stock photography agency Dreamstime said, “I pay VERY close attention to details… incorrect spelling and incorrect grammar in resumes, template documents that weren’t edited correctly and still have the word sample text lines in them, if the applicant did exactly what we asked when submitting the resume and cover letter. During in-person interviews I look for things like chipped nail polish, runs in nylons, ripped or stained clothes, messy briefcases, unkempt appearance in general, strength of handshake, mannerisms when being asked a question, attitude toward a woman executive etc.”

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Federico added, “All of these details will paint you a picture of someone that tells the “real” story… almost anyone can look good on paper and these days it is extremely hard to tell who and what is really over there until sometimes it is too late—however, those minor and small details will tell you if your applicant cares about their appearance and presentation, will tell you about their manners as a human being and how they treat other people and whether or not they listen and pay attention to details. It took me many years of going through the hiring process before I learned that the smallest things would tell me the biggest story.”

Ability to work in a fast-paced environment

Paul Aitken is the CEO of borro, which provides short-term personal asset loans against fine art, jewelry, cars, fine wine, etc. “I always look for new people who have the ability to work in a fast-paced and ever-changing environment. The environment here at borro is very different to most corporates. I would say that my management style is supportive yet demanding and so I expect people to come up with ideas, use initiative and try stuff out. One of the things that I find most enjoyable about setting up a new company is working with new people and building teams.”

Getting candidates in a different setting

Sanjay Sathe, founder and CEO of RiseSmart, which offers outplacement and career transition services, said that he likes to meet people in different settings.

“Certain behavioral traits do not display themselves in a formal office interview, so if you really like the candidate and want to progress with an offer, it will be helpful to meet the candidate in a social or casual setting. Their guard is down and they will be more open, so you should be able to gather more insight into the candidate and their personality. I also like to introduce the candidate to team members by taking them out for a meal together. That way you can see team interactions and you’ll have multiple people giving you feedback on what they learned. It is critical to invest more time upfront in the hiring process so you don’t regret the hire later.”

Sathe added, “Collaboration is critical in companies, and I try to get more information through all the touch points in the interview process. You might have the most talented person, but if they cannot genuinely collaborate with others and contribute to a team, you have a problem. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the candidate to be a part of your team. This is particularly important in a startup. If that self-motivation and inherent sense of urgency is not there, then it can be problematic. Make sure the candidate’s ego is in check. This can be a deal breaker. Organizations do not have places for folks with an “I, me, myself” attitude. The more senior you are in an organization, the more humble you should be.”

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Two jobs from now

Donna Horton Novitsky, CEO of Yiftee (local gifts, on-the-go) had some unique insight. “I like to know what a candidate wants to do two jobs from now. That tells me what they should learn in the job I’m hiring them for and how we can help them meet their personal career goals. If all they want is a paycheck, I’m not interested. I like to see the ambition.”

Looking for a commitment to the mission

Nancy A. Aossey, President and CEO of International Medical Corps said, “There are many things that a C.V. won’t tell you about someone, so I try to look beyond the C.V. and focus on what motivates a candidate, his or her aspirations and what environment they would thrive in. I need to be able to have an authentic conversation with them. The work that International Medical Corps does can be very challenging, so I want candidates to have a good sense of what they are getting into and what kind of people thrive in our culture. I try to set the ground rules for the conversation and candidly explain the organization—its culture and challenges.”

Aossey also said, “I strive to choose people who bring talent and leadership to their own positions – but just as important, have the ability and willingness to groom others and bring out the best in them. I look for people who are willing to learn, so I try to get a sense of how they handle certain situations and whether they can reflect on their actions and how they learned from them. I’ll also ask, “If I were to speak to colleagues or supervisors who weren’t on your reference list, someone whom you didn’t always get along with, what would they say about you?” This causes people to think about themselves in a different way. If you don’t have self-awareness, you’re always going to be outward-looking and blame others for any difficulties. There are a million reasons why we might not be able to get something done, but the question is, what can we do about it? Likewise, there will always be difficult people to work with, but ultimately it’s a matter of taking responsibility and doing something about it.”

Aossey concluded, “Our work takes a certain personality, beyond a commitment to the mission. You have to look past the obvious skills that candidates might bring to the table and focus more on their approach and how they’re going to work with others in difficult situations.”

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Written By

Marti Trewe reports on business and technology news, chasing his passion for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to stay well informed in the fast paced 140-character world. Marti rarely sleeps and thrives on reader news tips, especially about startups and big moves in leadership.


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