At a startup, every hire is crucially important. Many founders—especially early on in a company's life cycle—do not have the luxury of seasoned human resources professionals or recruiting companies to help aide in key hiring decisions. It's critical that founders can be confident they are choosing the right people for the job.
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While there's no perfect profile of a startup employee, it's generally accepted that the best candidates are flexible, passionate team players. However, there's another trait that is arguably the most important of all: curiosity. Entrepreneur magazine agrees. Harvard Business Review has called curiosity “as important as intelligence," noting that curious adults are more tolerant of ambiguity—which any startup founder knows can be part of daily life when growing a business.
The two questions below can help hiring managers quickly assess both the curiosity and composure of applicants to determine whether or not a candidate will thrive in a startup environment.
Look for Life-long Learners
First, ask, “What's the last thing you taught yourself to do?" This question is key for a few reasons. First, it's unlikely that the candidate has prepared an answer for it, so you'll get to see him or her think on his or her feet. Second, it's not a question for which there is a “right" answer, so candidates are less likely to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear. Third, the answer itself is incredibly telling. It gives you an insight into who the candidate is as a person and what his or her interests are. More importantly, it's a great gauge for not only how curious, but also how creative and motivated a candidate might be.
If the candidate tells of a new skill he or she learned for work, dig deeper to find out if this was a new skillset he or she asked to learn or if it was assigned by a supervisor. Find out if the learning happened during work hours or on the candidate's own time. If the new skill described is non-work related—for example, learning a new language, learning how to knit or learning to play an instrument—ask follow-up questions to find out how committed the candidate has been to his or her new craft, and what spurred his or her interest in learning the new skill.
Candidates who have learned a new skill on their own time, unrelated to their roles, are likely to be better candidates because they may have higher CQs, or Curiosity Quotients. Curiosity Quotient measures are a key indicator of a candidate's potential for success, just like its better-known counterparts Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ).
See If They Can Perform With an Open Mind Under Pressure
Once the interviewer is sufficiently satisfied that the candidate is appropriately curious, he or she should ask the second highly-important question for any candidate. Not only is it a natural progression, but it gives the interviewer the opportunity to observe how the candidate thinks under pressure and how good of a leader he or she will be. The question, which can be posed as more of a comment, is this: “I'm going to leave the room for three minutes. When I come back, you're going to teach me how to do something. Anything at all."
How the candidate reacts in the first five seconds after hearing this question is key. If he or she immediately peppers the interviewer with questions—"What kind of thing can I teach you?" or “What are the parameters?"—he or she probably isn't a great choice for a startup. That's because founders are generally looking for candidates who figure things out on their own, rather than asking questions for guidance. Also, almost any follow-up question is going to add non-existing parameters, meaning the candidate has unnecessarily limited the scope of his or her creativity and potential for success. You've posed it as a completely open-ended exercise. The key response to look for in a strong candidate is something along the lines of, “Okay, great!" without any physical signs of extreme stress.
After asking the question, excuse yourself and leave the room for three minutes. If possible, observe the candidate's body language while you're out of the room. Does he or she seem calm or agitated? Return after three minutes, sit down, and say, “I'm back! What are we learning today?"
The actual “skill" taught by the candidate is much less important than his or her demeanor during the exercise. You're looking for someone who remains calm under pressure and can convey information in a smart, organized and succinct way. It's the perfect litmus test for how a candidate will respond to a real-world scenario when he or she has to think on his or her feet, with little preparation and (likely) no existing game plan. His or her communication style will also be a window into how he or she will work with other members of the team when explaining tasks.
Hiring curious, creative candidates who think quickly on their feet will position your business for success. Use these two simple questions to give your startup an edge up the next time you add to the org chart.