Never Hire People Without These 3 Characteristics

I’ve been fortunate enough to have hired hundreds of people over the course of my career. Now, I’m certainly not an HR expert, and hiring is not a fool-proof system. However, looking back, my most successful hires weren’t those with a specific degree, experience, or intelligence level (a.k.a. the ones who looked the best on paper). They were simply the best ones for the job, regardless of their background.

That's right, I’ve hired people with backgrounds in sports, military, government, education, and hospitality. In fact, I would say well over half of the marketers I've hired didn't previously have classic marketing experience, rather they fit the right profile. Having a concise profile for the job and looking for specific characteristics has consistently provided the best results, an idea that has been highly influenced by the bestselling book on effective hiring, called Who

My most successful hires weren't the ones who looked the best on paper... they were simply the best ones for the job. –Tim Kopp

So what’s the magic formula? Sorry, and I'm sure you know this, but there isn’t one. When I stepped back and reflected on my most successful hires, literally all of them had the following characteristics:

Exceptional Communication Skills

“Communication skills” can often be misunderstood to simply mean someone who’s an extrovert or someone who’s good at giving speeches. And while public speaking skills are a great asset to have, the ability to clearly communicate with others (both verbally and in writing) goes much deeper.  A great communicator conveys their message in a variety of situations while remaining:

  • Proactive. This means professionals who can keep a pulse on projects and share key needs, updates, and need-to-know information—without being asked—to the right people with the appropriate frequency and succinctness.   
  • Flexible. People who are fluid thinkers and flexible workers aren’t just great to have around when projects and priorities change. They’re also great at communicating those changes to others, and sharing the most important information in a way that’s of value to the rest of the team.
  • Team-first. I’ve seen the best, most cohesive teams emerge by keeping each other regularly informed about projects at hand. Having a sense of what others in the department (and broader company) are working on provides greater context for your work and ensures that it has impact.

Ability to Problem Solve

On the surface, having the ability to problem solve is not one you’d think of first for most roles. Yet, having an open mindset and insatiable desire to learn is essential for any new hire. The best marketers must have the ability to be placed in vague or challenging situations and problem solve their way to the shoreline. There is often not a clear playbook to follow. Problem solving skills and “street smarts” can be learned in a wide range of roles and responsibilities. Further, these individuals often attack problems in the same way, with the ability to:

  1. Break the problem down and analyze it
  2. Determine what information or resources are necessary
  3. Ask for help to obtain those resources when needed

On many levels, all problems (big or small) share common characteristics. Being able to break those problems down into bite-sized action steps is a talent that can be learned by continual exposure to a variety of issues.

Heart for Leadership

When I was CMO at ExactTarget, our Connections 2013 user conference theme was “Lead From Within.” Acknowledging that leadership can take many forms, we were extremely intentional about conveying our belief that anyone—whether in a management position, C-suite role, or summer internship—had the power to lead in an impactful way.

The best leaders may not always have the right answer to everything, but they usually have the right question. –Tim Kopp

Instead of hiring just for people who are good at managing others, I’m always on the lookout for candidates who can effectively lead others. This manifests in what I call “servant leadership”—understanding and anticipating the needs of others while showing humility in one’s actions. This often includes: 

  • Taking ownership. The best leaders are the ones who finish what they start. When no one else will, they’re the ones who run to the problem and put out fires instead of running away. Leadership is usually not glamorous—it takes getting your hands dirty and often putting others before yourself. Don’t see that fire in a candidate who otherwise looks good on paper? Reconsider.  
  • Using resources well. A strong leader knows what he or she is good at—and what they’re not. Instead of trying to do everything on their own, a leader surrounds themselves with the best possible team of people who are even smarter than them. The best leaders may not always have the right answer to everything, but they usually have the right question.
  • Humble confidence. Effective leaders exercise what I call “humble confidence.” Instead of needing credit and appreciation to stroke their ego, humble leaders focus on the team and the outcome achieved. Yes, sometimes leaders need to step in and call the shots. But it’s also important to know when to step back and let others take the reigns.

Contrary to the popular notion of a “born leader,” few enter the world knowing how to lead. In my experience leadership is “caught”—not taught—from observing others and having regular exposure to other effective leaders, while learning, observing, developing, and leading with your own unique style. Like everything else in life, you learn by doing, not simply by reading books on the topic. People who know themselves well exude authenticity and have the highest likelihood of attracting others (I’m reminded of leaders like former ExactTarget CEO Scott Dorsey). These are the leaders you will run through walls for. This is also why I think it's as important for new hires to first evaluate the leaders they will be working for as closely as the company itself. 

 Which of these three characteristics is most important? Well, for me, all of them—the perfect candidate possesses a combination of each. Instead of relying on the “best” candidates that a tall stack of resumes might yield, dig a little deeper in the hiring process to understand the core characteristics of a potential employee. 

Tim Kopp is a General Partner with Hyde Park Venture Partners, an early stage VC focused on Midwest software startups. Tim previously spent 6+ years as CMO of ExactTarget, where he helped grow revenue from $47M to over $400M – ultimately resulting in a $2.7B exit to Salesforce.