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
4. Work ethic
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.
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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.
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