An Expert Reveals: What's the Most Important Trait to Hire For?

Business.com / Hiring / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Companies look for many traits when hiring employees. Leadership, confidence and flexibility make the list, but there's one standout trait.

When I was an MBA student, I had the privilege of mentoring several first-year students as they searched for an internship.

One of these students, Jacob, dreamed of interning at LinkedIn. 

Even before the MBA program started, Jacob was proactive in networking with professionals and learning about LinkedIn.

We both thought he’d get an interview, and he was well-prepared for it. But when the recruiting team selected the eight individuals for a first round interview, Jacob did not make the cut. He was severely disappointed.

Despite this setback, he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Jacob politely reached out to the recruiting lead to tell her that LinkedIn was his number one company, and that if an interview slot should open, he would love to be considered.

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The day before the interview, Jacob got a phone call. One of the candidates had backed out. They wanted to meet with him. He impressed the interview panel and was invited to a final round interview. He did all he could to prepare, but, to his great disappointment, Jacob was not given an offer. He still wasn’t ready to give up.

Once again, Jacob explained that LinkedIn was his dream company and that if anything changed, he would love to be reconsidered.

He stayed in touch with the HR team, and a few months later, Jacob received a phone call from a LinkedIn recruiter. An internship spot had opened and she thought he’d be a great fit. Jacob went through several more interviews and his persistence finally paid off. He got the offer.

What Is Grit?

Many words can be used to describe Jacob’s approach to the internship recruiting process. But the one I find most fitting is a four-letter word we don’t hear often enough: grit. 

Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out… Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.” Individuals with grit can look at a tough situation, ignore the obstacles they are unable to change and instead focus their energy on what they can control.

Why You Should Hire for Grit

Companies look for many traits when hiring employees. Leadership, confidence, flexibility, teamwork, and raw smarts frequently make the list. But in my experience, grit trumps them all. 

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According to Duckworth, grit is a better predictor of success than anything else. Grit wins over IQ, EQ, raw talent, good looks, physical health, and education. Gritty people view unmet goals not as a setback but as an opportunity to learn and grow. They are more likely to endure through a difficult project and hang in there when difficulties arise.

Talent is not enough for success, and Duckworth’s research shows that there are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent. 

As crazy as it may sound, more than half of voluntary turnover happens within a year of new hires’ start dates. The direct and indirect costs of hiring, onboarding, and training new employees are significant. Do you want someone who will quit when his new job isn’t all he expected or when things start getting tough? No? Then hire for grit. 

How to Identify Grit

A quick scan of a candidate’s resume or LinkedIn profile won’t reveal her level of grit. Since grit is the blend of passion and perseverance, let’s look at how we can identify both of these attributes in job candidates.    

To gauge a candidate’s ability to persevere, consider asking questions like:

  • Can you tell me about some of the obstacles you overcame to reach your present position?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you came close to failing but you pushed through?
  • How do you maintain a positive outlook when the challenges seem insurmountable?
  • What is something difficult that you mastered and how did you go about it?

Identifying a candidate’s passion is the other side of the coin. And it’s not just passion for life, but passion for your company and the kind of work they will be hired to perform. A question such as, “Why do you want to work for our company?” may reveal some insight, but a better gauge of passion may come from nonverbal cues witnessed throughout the recruiting process.

What can you learn from the candidate’s body language? What has she done to learn about your company and the position? Has she reached out to connect with any of your colleagues? A candidate’s behavior may tell you more about her level of passion than her response to a scripted interview question.

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Additionally, the clearer you are in your culture and how it differentiates from other companies, the clearer you can identify passion in job candidates. It’s not just a matter of hiring employees with grit, but hiring employees who will be gritty for your company.     

In today’s workplace, almost all companies struggle to hire the right candidates and to retain them once they’re hired. Too many hiring managers only seek out candidates who worked at premier companies or graduated from top-tier universities. You’re better off hiring employees who are passionate about your company and who will persist when times get tough. You’re better off hiring for grit.

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