How To Hire Your Organization’s Capt. Sullenberger

Some would argue that the only thing that predicts success in a job is actual success in that job. But there’s one important interview question you need to ask if you want to place a person in a position to succeed, a question that would have predicted Capt. Sully had the potential to be not only be a great pilot, but a hero.


Captain Greg Davis is an outstanding fishing guide. I went out with him early one morning off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, and came back a few hours later with several fish so big that I needed help just holding them up. Most other guides came back that morning with nothing.

What makes Greg such a remarkable guide? If you were hiring guides, could you predict he would be a star?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could predict the areas where we would be most likely to shine? Where we would be stars? What if we could predict which song we should sing — and on which stage — to truly reveal our inner Susan Boyle? Well, we can.

On January 15, 2009, Captain C. B. Sullenberger made an emergency landing of his fifty- ton passenger aircraft, softly gliding it onto the Hudson River in New York City, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. Miraculous? Or predictable?

What do we know about Captain Sullenberger? Before the landing that exposed his particular brilliance, could you have predicted he would have the skill, the presence, the leadership to become the star that he is today?

Earlier in my career, I spent four years working in a management consulting company creating models to use in hiring people. Our clients, mostly large, public companies, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on research we performed in their companies to predict who would be a star performer.


Here was our process: We interviewed both star and average performers in a client company and identified the characteristics that distinguished the stars from the rest. Then we helped the company interview people and hire the ones who fit the model.

Sounds reasonable. But it’s not. It’s tremendously expensive and time consuming. It requires intensive interviews that demand a great deal of skill; it’s only as effective as the person doing the interviewing and hiring. And even if you have the money, time, and skill, you end up hiring past stars, not future ones.

Some would argue that the only thing that predicts success in a job is actual success in that job. That’s why financial services firms hire close to ten times the number of analysts they need and then, a year or two later, keep the ones who succeed and let the others go. Of course, that’s even more expensive and time consuming than our modeling process.

There is a much cheaper, easier way to place a person — you or anyone — in a position to succeed. Ask one question:

What do you do in your spare time?

In Captain Sullenberger’s case, the first clue that he would become Captain Sullenberger the hero is that, in his teens, when most of his friends were getting their driver’s licenses, he got his pilot’s license. What did he do for fun? He flew glider planes, which is basically what he did when he landed in the Hudson River with no engines. Extracurricular activities? He was an accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association and worked with federal aviation officials to improve training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies.


As a boy, he built model aircraft carriers with tiny planes on them, careful to paint every last piece. Perhaps that attention to detail explains why he walked through the cabin twice, making sure no one was left behind before he escaped the sinking plane himself.

But here’s the thing: Given his personality, it is unlikely that you would have discovered any of this without asking directly about it. When Michael Balboni, New York State’s deputy secretary for public safety, thanked him for a job done brilliantly, he responded in the most unaffected, humble way, “That’s what we’re trained to do.”

Even if you had learned about all of Captain Sullenberger’s activities, you might have considered his obsession dysfunctional. Wouldn’t you rather hire someone well rounded? Someone who has interests beyond the particular?Someone who might be a better communicator?

But people are often successful not despite their dysfunctions but because of them. Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand your obsessions and you will understand your natural motivation — the thing for which you would walk to the end of the earth.

Greg Davis, my friend the fishing guide, is on the water fishing with clients six days a week. Can you guess what he does on his one day off? 

This is an excerpt from 18 Minutes, by Peter Bregman. Copyright 2011 by Peter Bregman. Reprinted by permission of Business Plus. All rights reserved.


[Top image: Flickr user prayitno]


About the author

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm which advises CEOs and their leadership teams. He speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live