How Do You Know A Great Person When You See One?

In the still-raging debate over my two posts about why "Great People Are Overrated," the one (and perhaps only) question that went under-discussed might be the most important question of all: How do you know a great person when you see one? Is "greatness" purely a matter of raw brainpower and technical virtuosity, or is it impossible to discuss individual talent without thinking about the team, the enterprise, and the very mission of the organization?

The front page of yesterday's New York Times offered an in-depth account of how innovators in one industry are wrestling with that very question. The piece reports on the radical new admissions policy at Virginia Tech Carilion, the country's newest medical school. The process "has enormous consequences" not for just for aspiring doctors, the Times says, but "also for the entire health care system."

Here's what the fuss is about. Rather than evaluate candidates strictly on grades, scores on standardized tests, and how they present themselves in an interview, Virginia Tech Carilion now subjects candidates to nine brief interviews "that [assess] how well candidates think on their feet and how willing they are to work on teams." The technical term for the process is the M.M.I., or the multiple mini-interview. The Times calls it "the admissions equivalent of speed-dating": nine eight-minute conversations about an ethical dilemma, on-the-spot decisions, even health-care policy that aim to capture who candidates are, not just how smart they are.

"We are trying to weed out the students who look great on paper but haven't developed the people or communications skills we think are important," said Dr. Stephen Workman, the school's associate dean for admissions and administration. "Our school intends to graduate physicians who can communicate with patients and work in teams," added Dr. Cynda Ann Johnson, the school's dean. "If people do poorly on the M.M.I., they will not be offered positions in our class."

Finally, medical schools are catching up to what best companies have known (and practiced) for years: Being a star performer is about more than just individual star quality. Indeed, companies that are incredibly selective about whom they hire — companies that have their pick of the best talent in their field — have learned to make their selections based on character as much as credentials. For these companies, who you are as a person counts for as much as what you know at any point in time, and you capacity to work in a great team is as important as your drive to be an individual star.

No company that I know of is better at testing for character than Southwest Airlines, which just published a fantastic special report on the ideas and practices that have allowed it to thrive for 40 years. Before you object to comparing getting in to an elite medical school with getting a job at Southwest, you should appreciate just how hard it is to be hired by America's most successful airline. Last year, the company hired fewer than 900 people, from 90,000 résumés! That's a lower ratio of admissions to applications than at Harvard.

Over the years, Southwest has elevated the practice of identifying its most valuable performers, understanding what makes them tick, and devising interviews, group exercises, and other techniques to probe for those same attributes in new employees. One of my favorites is called Fallout Shelter. Imagine you've applied to be a flight attendant. You show up for an interview and learn that it's a group session rather than a one-on-one discussion. Seated in a semicircle, facing three representatives from Southwest's People Department, you and 15 or 20 other candidates are greeted with a scenario: The bad news is that the world is on the verge of nuclear apocalypse. The good news is that you're in a fallout shelter. But the shelter is nearing capacity. It's your job, as a group, to reach a consensus about who else gets in. Then comes a list of possible occupants: a biochemist, a farmer, a teacher, an adventure-racing champion. Keep in mind, the officials add, that your choices will seed civilization for generations to come. Now get to work!

The candidates leap into action: Some people speak out fast and forcefully, others hang back and listen, someone steps in as a diplomat when tempers flare, someone else cracks under the strain. What's the point of the exercise? To simulate the challenge of keeping cool while flying at 30,000 feet in an aluminum tube filled with grumpy passengers and fidgety kids. The time compression, snap judgments, and group dynamics of Fallout Shelter are meant to reproduce the cabin pressure that all flight attendants confront (and have to master) on a daily basis.

As the group gets absorbed in its task, the Southwest judges watch intently. They're not looking for the right answer. They're looking for the right attitude. "It doesn't matter what solution the group comes up with," Sherry Phelps, who spent 33 years as part of the company's People Department, told me a few years ago. "What matters is how they're interacting with each other. Who's emerging as a leader? Who's soliciting other people's help? We're not interested in specific answers or a particular style. We're looking for what makes you who you are."

You don't have to create your version of speed-dating interviews or Fallout Shelter exercises to recognize the wisdom of both approaches. You can't measure the greatness of an individual without figuring out how that individual fits in to your team, your organization, and your overall mission.

So let me pose the question again: How do you know a great person when you see one?

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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