The 5 Traits All Top Performers Share

Hiring great people is one of the biggest challenges leaders face. Look for these 5 traits and you'll find employees who aren't just good, but exceptional.

There’s one mistake I made earlier in my business life when it comes to people: only hiring when there was a defined need. One day, I realized that if we could afford it, it’s just as important to hire exceptionally talented people even when you don’t have an opening. On occasion, when we found a gifted person, an A player beyond doubt, we’d hire her and “park” her in the organization. At first, we would just give the person something to do. Always, after a few months, she was working 10-hour days and making a big contribution. Inevitably, we found an important role for her, or she found it on her own. I never regretted hiring an A player.

What do I look for? Five key things, in this order.
1. Intellectual firepower
2. Values
3. Passion
4. Work ethic
5. Experience

I always put brainpower first because intellect is the most important of the raw materials we work with. From intelligence comes thoughtful analysis, asking the right questions, good judgment, and better decisions. I want the smartest people I can find to join our organization. High-potential people like to be with other high-potential people. When I interview candidates, I’ll often ask them to bring me through their lives. I want to know what their family history is. I want to know how well candidates performed in high school and college. I want to know whether they also reached beyond their academic potential to demonstrate some leadership potential.

Frankly, I want to know if their grade-point average (GPA) was 2.7 or 3.9 out of a possible 4.0. Even if they’ve been out of school for many years, a GPA can represent four years of evaluation, not a sixty-minute impression during a brief interview on a busy day. It may not be necessarily true that a 3.9 GPA will be better than a 2.7, but the odds are with you. Just like the manager of a baseball team who puts a right-handed pitcher on the mound to face a right-handed batter in a crucial at-bat, I play the odds.

So I’m looking for the Phi Beta Kappa, the captain of the debating team the president of the student council. It’s no coincidence that seventeen presidents of the United States, thirty-seven U.S. Supreme Court justices, and 131 Nobel laureates have been members of Phi Beta Kappa.

I’m also looking for the person who rose quickly in another organization and was rewarded with an important leadership job. What challenges did that executive overcome to get something meaningful done? How did that person apply his intelligence to the job to make something happen?

My hurdle for brainpower is high, but once it’s jumped I’m on to the next most attribute of success: values. Ultimately, all the intelligence in the world isn’t going to help a person who lacks basic integrity and compassion for other human beings. I’m looking for honesty, decency, respect, kindness, generosity, and consideration.

Getting a fix on a person’s values is admittedly difficult. Values are easier to discern once you have a person on staff, but much harder to recognize in an interview. You have to sense them. I can pick up some fairly good clues by the way candidates speak about their parents, their teachers, their role models in life. I want people who have been inspired by others, who are generous in giving credit to those who made a difference in their lives. I’m looking for people who want to help others in need, who have demonstrated kindness and consideration to the disadvantaged. Some of this may be subtle. It’s what you can interpret from tone of voice or a face lighting up. But this tells me a lot about a person’s purpose in life.

Passion has become an overused word in recent years. Still, it’s the level of enthusiasm and interest in work and life that makes someone stand out above the rest. It’s a fire that burns deeply within us. Once tapped, it can bring you to places that few other people can go.

Unlike values, passion is easy to spot. You either have it or you don’t. There is a spirit or fervor in people who have passion. You can often feel their energy. They also are infectious team members. They ignite the passion in others. They get others to care as much as they do about accomplishing the possible and the seemingly impossible.

My fourth hiring attribute is work ethic. I work hard. I do so because I’m passionate about the work I do, and I feel good when I’m highly productive. I expect the same from the people we hire. We want people who embrace work, who understand that it’s not something you do only to earn a living, but rather something that can help define who you are in this life.

During interviews, I try to get a feel for people how have a strong work ethic. You get that from learning they worked during high school and college, whether they worked weekends, what they sacrificed at times to work instead of play. At some level, work is about sacrifice: giving up some time with your friends or your family to perform your job at the highest possible level of excellence.

Finally, we come to experience. Experience, though important, is the last of the five things I look for because it’s something you can provide your staff. We can’t give them more intellect, better values, passion, or a strong work ethic. But we can give them experience by providing an opportunity to learn a discipline or a job. That’s why we can make a compromise when it comes to experience, but never on the first four.

When I recruit talent, I want to be as sure as possible that the person I’m hiring has all of these attributes. That requires patience and work. And then I will do whatever it takes to bring that exceptional person on board.

Find more hiring tips by subscribing to the Fast Company newsletter.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from It’s All About Who You Hire, How They Lead…and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader, by Mort Mandel and John Byrne. Copyright 2012.

--Morton L. Mandel is a self-made billionaire, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. With his brothers, Jack and Joseph, he cofounded Premier Industrial Corporation in 1940, eventually merging it with Farnell Electronics in a $3 billion deal. The three Mandel brothers also established the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, which funds numerous social leadership initiatives all over the world.

John A. Bryne is former executive editor of BusinessWeek, former editor in chief of Fast Company, and author of ten books, including the New York Times bestseller Jack: Straight from the Gut with Jack Welch.

[Image: Flickr user Sebastian Mary]

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20 Comments

  • Chris

    Excellent piece, in a way it states the obvious.  But confirms what many people know. Do wonder if the GPA should be so central in the assessment of intelligence.

  • ShockPanda

    I hope the only people you hire are 4.0 GPAs and Ivy league grads...more capable individuals for the rest of us. 

  • Jkantor

    You identify 5 essential attributes of good hires. However, as a psychologist who has done executive coaching for over 20 years, I know first hand that those 5 attribute while necessary, are not sufficient to succeed in an organization. Whether needing to be a valuable team member, manager, leader, etc., the ability to effectively work with others is essential. Social acquity, likability, respectful attitudes and behavior, good communication skills and other components of EQ, separate out rising starsnn

  • Shawcys

    @RKERI your sentiments echo what I was prepared to respond. As a psychology professional, I will attest that putting an emphasis on GPA and "intelligence" is restrictive and and narrow.

  • Binoy Mathew

    To-Look-For List is  very impressive in the current days. Though the list sequence varies from one entrepreneur to another, the presence of each element will give valuable resources who stick to the firm long term. Also the discussions going on are very informative. 

  • Hip Hop Anonymous

    Yes, the whole GPA thing is really off. Some people just don't learn and function in a structured learning environment the way others do—in many ways, it's just a game, and some people don't play the game as well. Intellect should not be measured by GPA.

  • jjk

    GPA is important, but more an indicator of work ethic (and perhaps, Values) than intellectual firepower.

  • Abc

    "We want people who embrace work, who understand that it’s not something
    you do only to earn a living, but rather something that can help define
    who you are in this life."  It's a sentence like this that makes me glad I'm long out of the corporate world and away from assholes like the ones who wrote this article.

  • Zoe Cassandra

    The most important point of this article is the first one: hire excellent people when you find them, not when you need them. However a company or hiring manager might define excellence can obviously be debated, and will vary from company to company, e.g., a large corporate enterprise needs different qualities in its employees than a startup.  Jim Collins would likely agree.

  • Cheryl Erickson

    I agree with Rkrei in not putting too much emphasis on gpa and school.  I have grade 11 and never did well in school or my past, unless it was the school of life.  I am self-taught at everything I have done and I have held Senior Administrative roles and more.  More meaning fancy titles given to me in recognition of the many roles I perform.

    I have consistently been awarded/recognized by top companies as an outstanding perfomer who has made several contributions. 

    I also disagree that it is the hours an individual puts into the position which defines their work ethics or passion.  Efficiency and streamlining make long hours unnecessary, even when undertaking a heavy workload, as balance is also important in maintaining a consistent high performer reputation.

    I do agree with many of the other traits you have posted, and thank you for bringing up this topic.

  • HRGURU

    I would agree (although I have tested with a high IQ and Wonderlic score I don't feel intelligence=job success). I was in university from age 18-23- with little to no life/work experience. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA and was VP of my student counsel (lots of socializing and freebees) but one of my years I had a 2.2. GPA. Why? because I was lazy? because I lacked intelligence? No personal issues in my life and an adjustment to different approaches. If you could spew out the expected answers you got excellent marks. If you were a self thinker you didn't (in MANY classes). To me education just shows you can tow the line and finish. In my experience (I am not a self made billionaire unfortunately so what do I know) attitude and experience were key indicators of performance success. People that learned on the job, put in the hours and had good common sense could excel at anything and didn't spend time telling me the latest flavour of the month leadership book they had read that was now the bible of all leadership practices.  Can you do the damn job, do it well, be innovative and flexible and take accountability? If yes, then you are the right person GPA/degree be damned.  I think if thorough analysis was done with regards to trait correlation to success we'd see certain traits that may include intelligence - GPA in my opinion is not one of them. I learned everything I know now through the experiences I had, the difficult challenges I faced and my ability to keep calm through it all.

  • Martin Breckenridge

     Although I agree with some points, I have always found it very disturbing that our government is saturated with frat boys.  Just because you come from a fraternity does not necessarily mean that you have star talent qualities.  It could just mean that your fraternity is very old, rich, and is deeply connected.  Just because you are the son of a CEO does not necessarily give you the qualifications to his/her business.

  • Ron

    Yes! So true!
    Friends in high places cannot cover your ass your entire career! I'm sick of the entitlement demonstrated by these types of overly-connected entry level professionals. 

    They saturate the job market with good-on-paper, poor-on-performance cube fillers. Although, that is a result of spoiled, privileged children who have not had to earn what they have. 

  • Lisa Marie MacDonald

    Nice article.  One point I'd like to mention is that an estimated 35% of entrepreneurs in the U.S. show signs of dyslexia.  Dyslexic's are often brilliant, out of the box thinkers – the type of leaders todays organizations are looking for, but they often don't do well on standard test formats. This is because their brain is physically wired differently from the majority of most people.  It wouldn’t be an issue - except our education system is not designed to accommodate the way they learn and think; it is instead designed for the majority. Most are not diagnosed until later in life so many have difficulty completing graduate/post graduate studies, so they also might not have the depth of education you would be screening in.  So, while academic achievement is a reasonable indicator of intelligence for some candidates, it is certainly not a good indicator for all. I am however in agreement with the 4 other traits as you have described them.

  • Patrik Malmquist

    Where did you get that 35% of entrepreneurs in U.S. show signs of dyslexia? Would like to read more about that! Self dyslexic but has always just seen that as a flaw.

  • Rkrei

    please don't put too much emphasis on gpa. intelligence is measured in many ways, and I would suggest that gpa does not do it justice in many circumstances. 

  • Tim Prunyi

    Mort/John,

    This is spot on and useful to anyone. I recently landed a client because I am an Eagle Scout. He didn't even look at the competition after he saw that on my resume because character really does count.

    Another example was when I applied for a sales position that didn't exist. Like you said, they created a position for me. In fact they created 3 positions, and a friend whom I recommended got the second position as well. This is an example of how passion (we call this form of passion "chutzpah" back in Jersey) can really make a difference. 

  • Steve Ardire

    > 1. Intellectual firepower 2. Values 3. Passion 4. Work ethic 5. Experience

    Good list of 5 but I would change/add as follow

    1. Fluid Intelligence 2. Values ( Integrity first ) 2. Passion ( but with clarity & conviction ) 4. Work ethic ( must be proactive and team player )  5. Experience ( who cares what you did in past....what can you do for me now ? )

  • PG

    Past experience does matter. I would consider it a road map to the present and help you to know what to expect in the future.

  • Dave Barton

    As an employee I'm always cautious when two potential bosses refer to themselves in the first person singular...