The applicant walks and talks like a leader during the interview, but are they going to act like a leader each day they work for you? While telling the difference is more art than science, here are five things to look for during the interview process that can help you fill your organization with leaders at all levels.
When it comes to spotting leaders, pronouns are powerful. You can ignore applicant claims of being a “good team player” or “truly valuing collaboration” and focus on one thing: the ratio of “we/our” to “I/my” they use when you ask them about initiatives they undertook as part of a team. Look for those who highlight the collective: “we aimed to accomplish X”; “we identified the following priorities…”; “we succeeded in…”. Applicants know interviews are supposed to highlight their personal skills and accomplishments, but true leaders can’t help but focus on the team—it’s part of their DNA. Look for applicants whose “we-to-I” ratio is 2:1 or better.
2. Examples of Empowerment
Most applicants will have come through an education system that creates a mindset of scarcity: a world where achievements by others represents a personal loss of opportunity. This heightens the focus on competition and minimizes the importance of empowering others. Look for applicants who have proven immune to that worldview by remembering that leaders aren’t necessarily the applicants whose resumes demonstrate a track record of outperforming others—they are the applicants who can demonstrate that everyone who works with them outperforms everyone who doesn’t work with them. Employees who outperform others are valuable; employees who raise the level of performance of others are indispensable.
- “Tell me about two people you’ve focused on helping to develop: what personal goals did you assist them in reaching? How did you do so? Please be specific.”
- “Tell me about the last person you mentored. Why did you do it, and how?”
3. Personal Value Clarity
A great deal of time and money is spent identifying and communicating “core company values,” but when researchers examined the influence of values on employee pride, productivity, and happiness they discovered personal value clarity plays a significantly bigger role than organizational value clarity when it comes to bringing out the best in people. To put it simply: people who understand their personal leadership values make better employees.*
One of the great untapped opportunities for improvement in most organizations is a commitment by management to helping employees identify their own values so that they can begin to embed them into their work. Beginning to look for individuals for whom this is a natural instinct as part of the hiring process will begin strengthening your organization immediately.
- “Imagine someone followed you around for 30 days without your knowledge. If I sat them down at the end of the month and asked them to identify the key three values that drive your behaviour and decision-making, what three values would they identify?”
- Follow up: “Could you define what each of those values mean to you by completing the sentence: <VALUE> is a commitment to….”
4. Planners vs. “Hopers”
What sets great leaders apart from good leaders is this: Good leaders live their key values each time the opportunity presents itself; great leaders create opportunities to live their values. The former group hopes to live by a set of core principles, the latter plans on it.
The previous set of questions helps identify whether applicants understand the values they hope to drive them personally and professionally. What’s then key is to determine which (if any) consciously use those values to drive their behaviour and make decisions each day.
Applicants who do this are few and far between—when you find those who can quickly identify instances where their key values were used to drive important decisions, hire them, and quickly.
- “You identified <VALUE> as a key value in your life and defined it as ‘a commitment to <APPLICANT DEFINITION>.’ Could you give us a specific example of when you acted in a way consistent with that definition in the last 48 hours?”
- “You identified <VALUE> as a key value in your life and defined it as ‘a commitment to <APPLICANT DEFINITION>.’ Could you give us a specific example of a difficult professional decision you made that was consistent with that value?”
Individuals without self-respect get destroyed by their jobs. It might seem appealing to find an employee willing to work 90 hours a week and do whatever they’re told without question, but you’re far better off filling your organization with individuals who understand a fundamental truth: Leadership is not martyrdom, and they have a responsibility to themselves (and the company) to stand up for and take care of themselves.
Sometimes impressive resumes come about because of a genuine drive for fulfillment and self-satisfaction but take a moment to evaluate whether or not an applicant’s impressive list of accolades have emerged from a desperate need for external validation. That desperate need indicates a lack of self-respect and an employee who will eventually damage themselves and their colleagues (when people are empty they begin to pull energy and motivation from those around them). Those with real self-respect tend not to become empty: They treat their skill and motivation as renewable resources and prioritize adding value to their own lives. If the only form of validation an employee will prioritize is that which comes from your organization, they lack the foundational self-respect necessary to bring long-term value.
Remember that self-respect isn’t arrogance or cockiness—it’s a personal strength that makes those things unnecessary. Employees with self-respect set more effective boundaries and communicate needs and concerns more effectively to their supervisors. They will seek and receive feedback more effectively because they won’t see it as an attack and are more likely to empower others because they won’t see accomplishments by their colleagues as a threat to their own place within the organization.
- “What specific strategies for mental wellness and self-care do you employ?”
- “Can you give us an example of when you told an employer you were uncomfortable with or unable to do something they asked?”
- “What is one non-work-related goal you’re working towards? What are you specifically doing right now to reach it?”
*J. Kouzes and B. Posner, (2017). The Leadership Challenge, 8th ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017) 147.