The “telltale heart” of great employees


In sports, they say what separates true talent from true champions is heart.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in hiring great employees is  knowing how to identify the heart aspects that reflect a truly special employee.  This applies to all levels, from entry to the C-level.

Unfortunately, most hiring practices look to fill skill levels, not attitude. Questions about attitude tend to focus on interpersonal traits, such as teamwork , dealing with difficult staff or working within political boundaries.

With this approach, companies fill for the present.  They look for square talent to fit square holes.  They get good people with good skills to fill good positions.  And the company runs smoothly.  That is, until they go out of business, beaten by more innovative and customer-focused competitors.

So how does a company look for that champion level employee – the one who will bring a contagious passion for excellence?   Who has the heart to champion and lead the company to continuous and focused improvement?

Where is the company’s heart?

First, it depends on the company’s willingness to rock its own boat and their acceptance for the risk that comes from being a market leader rather than a commodity.  Do they want to create a culture of change (even small, steady change) and the challenges that come with that vision?  If so, then they may be ready to look beyond skills and explore the heart of their employees and applicants.

There are many ways to screen for such employees.  Initial interview questions should reveal impact, not just talent.  They look at both internal and external contributions.  “How have you helped increase sales for your company?”  “How have you made your company a hero for your customers?”  “How have you made heroes of other employees?” “When have you created conflict by standing up for the good of your customers or in expanding the company’s mission or vision?”  All employees will have had the chance to step up and address these types of opportunities.  Only a special few will have done it.

But there’s one key question

The true heart of a champion, however, may be revealed by one telltale question.   It will tell you the potential they bring to your company’s future growth.  The question to be asked, in regard to a project, assignment or task, is simply, “WHY did you do it that way?”

There are two ways they can answer.  Which way they choose will reveal their heart and passion.

The most common answer involves their capabilities or the constraints they faced.  Such answers might be, “It was most expedient.”  “It fit with the company’s policy.”  “It fit the company’s brand.” “It was how I was instructed.” And among the most dangerous, “It is how the company always does it.”  Or “It was the best I could do with the time available.”  These are  excuses, not reasons.   They are explanations for why things should be acceptable when they are just good enough.

The second, but more rare, answer involves the objective or goal behind their work.  This answer shows that the purpose outweighs the process.  In this case, answers will include, “It delivered what we know is most important to our customer.” “It helped to differentiate us and make us a hero to our clientele.”  “It was the most dramatic way to increase sales.”  “It helped another department to be more effective.”  “It helped develop another employee.”  “It had the potential to test or break through to a new level of service, image or sales.”

These are not excuses.  These are reasons with a purpose.  They reflect an employee who will always look at the big picture and the big opportunities.

This telltale evaluation does not only pertain to new hires.  How current employees respond to “why” will reveal their perspective as well.  But be careful of what you find. It may also uncover the standards that have been set in the culture as to what is acceptable and what is expected.  If employees give excuses rather than reasons, they may not realize the vision of the company or the expectations of their role.

A company of champions creates a groundswell of innovation and passion to excel.  It is a culture where iron sharpens iron.  It is an environment where marketing and sales takes on a higher aspiration and every department seeks to provide a competitive advantage.  If your company isn’t hiring or expecting every employee to have a heart of a champion, perhaps it needs to ask itself, “Why are we doing it this way?” And truly take your answer to heart.

Want to rock the boat without getting fired?