When I was a young professor, I invited a very successful entrepreneur to speak to my class. One of the questions was, “How did you learn to hire the right people?”
His response: “I made a lot of mistakes ... on my previous employer’s nickel.” In other words, he learned how to hire by making loads of bad decisions early in his career. By the time he started his own company, he knew more about what to look for and ask and made fewer mistakes.
Even when people learn through mistakes, it’s still a tough call to find the right people, especially when it comes to assessing the less-tangible aspects of job candidates. With the recent talk about how organizational leaders try to find people who “fit” the culture, how do you assess that? How do you know if a person is passionate about your company or industry? What’s the way find out if a candidate has innate curiosity that will help her identify new problems or areas to pursue for the company?
I’m about to start a new project and have been reading about how the great interviewers ply their craft. One of the very best is Cal Fussman, who for years wrote a column for Esquire magazine called “What I’ve Learned.” In an interview with HBR.org, Fussman mentioned that many CEOs have approached him to learn how to “find passionate job candidates.” As they say, we know how to figure out if a person can do the technical parts of a job, but how can we find out about passion or curiosity?
Fussman told them about an interview he’d done with rapper and entrepreneur Dr. Dre. During the interview, Fussman asked Dr. Dre how long he had gone without sleeping to finish a project he was deeply committed to. The answer, “72 hours.”
In essence, Fussman was asking about passion: When a person has the drive, curiosity, and ability to lose himself so much that he forgets to eat or sleep, he’s passionate. By asking the sleep question, Fussman got at that question, indirectly but very clearly.
My takeaway is that Fussman suggests asking candidates to talk about times or projects when they have lost track of time and forgotten to eat or sleep because they were so involved or excited about a project. That’s having passion, or the drive and curiosity to solve a problem or complete a project.
Fussman’s question strikes me as a good one to ask ourselves as well, on a regular basis. Are there occasions that inspire or enthrall us so much we lose track of time? I doubt our whole lives could be that exciting, but are there ways to have more of that in our work or lives and less of the drudgery and mundaneness?
This column has been updated to correct the spelling of Cal Fussman’s last name.
Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University; firstname.lastname@example.org