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The Ultimate Guide To Hiring Original Thinkers

Adam Grant, the best-selling author of Originals, shares his secrets to hiring the right people to grow your company.

The Ultimate Guide To Hiring Original Thinkers
[Photo: Greg Rakozy via Unsplash]

Bestselling author and Wharton professor Adam Grant has spent years researching and interviewing originals. There’s the seasoned chief executive who cusses freely and challenges candidates to apply for jobs by tweeting at her. Or the author who tackles weighty topics like artificial intelligence and virtual reality with stick figure illustrations. And the former spy who founded an airline and is betting on Utah as the next big tech hub. In Originals, Grant shows how to identify, foster, and nurture nonconformists—here he expounds on how to recognize and recruit them in a startup setting.

As a former magician and Junior Olympic springboard diver, Grant is in the company of the curious, versatile brethren he’s profiled. But for those seeking conventional curriculum vitae, he’s got that in spades, too. Grant is perennially recognized as Wharton’s top-rated professor and has been named one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers. He’s spoken to and consulted with a range of organizations, from Google to Johnson & Johnson and from Pixar to the U.S. Army. A prolific writer, Grant is the author of Give and Take, an active blogger and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times.

In this interview, Grant explains why it’s imperative for early-stage companies to hire originals. He shares how he singles them out and delves into recommended questions and exercises that can help startups find and hire them.

The Case To Hire Originals At Startups

The initial act of founding a company is an expression of nonconformity. They must eventually convince others to join them, internalize that vision, and will it into reality. But isn’t it counterintuitive to bring other originals—who may buck their ideas—into the fold?

"It’s true that every leader needs followers. We can’t all be nonconformists at every moment, but conformity is dangerous—especially for an entity in formation," says Grant. "If you don't hire originals, you run the risk of people disagreeing but not voicing their dissent. You want people who choose to follow because they genuinely believe in ideas, not because they’re afraid to be punished if they don’t. For startups, there's so much pivoting that’s required that if you have a bunch of sheep, you’re in bad shape."

Here’s more of Grant’s thinking on why it’s so essential to bring aboard originals early in the life of a company:

To seed a resilient culture. By default, companies are built in the image of their founders, which is why it’s vital to proactively introduce diversity of thought. "A resilient culture has a certain amount of resistance embedded in it. Not so much to capsize it, but enough so that it doesn’t atrophy," says Grant. "What happens when startups get successful and grow is that they become more and more vulnerable to the attraction-selection-attrition cycle, where people of the same stripes are increasingly drawn to the organization, chosen by it, and retained at it. The way to combat that homogeneity creep is to proactively infuse the culture with originals who have the will and skill to think differently. It’ll put you in a much better position to continue innovating, not only on a product- or technology-level, but on all the decisions that go into running a company."

To anticipate market movements. The more you can internally mirror the evolving market you’re aiming to change, the better you will manage it. "As mentioned, if you only hire people who fit your values and business model, you're going to end up breeding groupthink and losing diversity of thought," says Grant. "That’s a great way to ensure that you’ll be left in the dust as soon as your world changes around you, competitors enter the market, or new technologies develop. You need originals to keep bringing fresh ideas that can challenge your current business model, your assumptions, and your principles. That accelerates your ability to adapt to—or better yet, initiate—change, as opposed to getting caught by surprise."

To repurpose dissent. From the company name to a go-to-market plan, the early stages of a startup are rife with big decisions. A diversity of thought on the way forward will mean some ideas will get scrapped. The key is to not let the owners of those ideas get left behind, too. "After Toy Story, Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull was worried that the animation studio would start following a predictable formula to get its big wins.

So as not to lose its originality, he brought in outside director Brad Bird. Bird convened all the disgruntled Pixar employees—the ones who are always whining and complaining," says Grant. "Instead of ushering them to the door, Bird’s instinct was that they’d be so dissatisfied that they’d think in new ways and try ideas that hadn’t been considered. He supplied a tiny budget and set them free. The result was a new illustration technique that’d keep Pixar’s standard, but could be executed more quickly and at a fraction of the cost. The proof in the pudding was one of Pixar’s blockbuster hits: The Incredibles."

If you’re five or 500 people, hire as many originals as you can. Yes, there are risks of hiring too many originals—but it’s even riskier to hire too few.

Where To Search For Originals And How To Spot Them

When Grant wrote his book, he collected data and stories of nonconformists to illustrate what it means to be original—not unlike an entrepreneur choosing a founding team to advance her vision. As he researched and received referrals, a few profiles habitually emerged. Here’s how and where he surfaced originals—and what tipped him off.

Unsung heroes. For each major innovation or movement, there are catalysts that fade into the background of what they create. The fire is brighter than the match—or it burns up with it. "I took examples of breakthroughs and traced back to pinpoint the unsung heroes. For example, I knew I wanted to write about the suffrage movement and who really drove that change," says Grant. "That’s when I learned of Lucy Stone. I had never heard of her—but there was likely no one more vital to the movement. You may not know of her because Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton eventually severed their ties to her. But she was the outright original for women’s rights, for which she launched newspapers, led conventions, and mobilized movements internationally. She was also the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in Massachusetts, keep her name after getting married, and become a full-time lecturer for women’s rights."

Insubordinates. It’s important to triage troublemakers, but in doing so, don’t miss an original in your midst. "Another approach that I took was to look for people who had engaged in very visible acts of nonconformity. I had a funny conversation with a military general where I asked for a list of people who were most guilty of insubordination," says Grant. "I had to add a qualifier. I said, ‘I want to know who was insubordinate but ended up actually being a great innovator.’ The person that annoyed middle managers but was valued by higher-ups. That led to a lot of really good names and a few crazy people."

In a startup setting, this may mean rewiring your thinking about those who have been fired. "Take Sarah Robb O'Hagan. She held senior roles at both Virgin and Atari and got fired at both. A deadbeat right? Afterward, she got a job at Nike and then became the president of Gatorade and Equinox," says Grant. "When she guest-spoke at my class, she swore six times in the first five minutes. Early on, she talked very openly about being fired and how devastating it was to her career, but how we should all be more willing to take risks and make mistakes. Sara doesn’t worry about pleasing others or fitting in. At Gatorade, she championed many ideas that nobody liked. For one, she said it shouldn’t be just a sports drink, but a sports performance company. Everyone hated those ideas . . . until they eventually rescued the brand."

Inward-facing innovators. People notice public, original acts, but nonconformists also turn their original thinking toward their teams, making a private, but equally profound impact. "One of the first names noted when listing nonconformists is Nancy Lublin. She’s taken an atypical approach to building and marketing her companies, such as Crisis Text Line. Who would have thought that you could prevent suicide using text messages?" asks Grant. "But, as impressively, she prompts her people to act originally by banning words such as "like," "love," and "hate," because, as a basic visceral response, they circumvent any critical thought. Saying why something is loved or hated inspires new, substantial ideas. She inspires originality in her people."

Another example that comes to mind for Grant is Wade Eyerly. "Wade not only worked in politics and the Defense Intelligence Agency, but also is a serial entrepreneur, most notably of airline startup SurfAir. How many people would've thought to do a flight over a distance that you could travel by bike or car? It’s a pretty counterintuitive idea that he brought to life," says Grant. "But it’s also his leadership practices that are highly original, as he hires almost exclusively non-local talent—often from Utah. Whereas most leaders want people who are local and easy to recruit, Wade believes that those who relocate for his company build their community around it, creating even stronger job embeddedness.

If you’re a founder building out your team, you may not have a wealth of time or data to suss out originals. It can be difficult to see if there’s substance beneath surface indications of nonconformity. Organized by three key attributes of originals, here are unconventional questions and exercises to use to help validate an original.

1. Challenges Defaults

How would you improve our interview process? "I find this question powerful for a couple of reasons. One, it's an opportunity to see if they’re willing to speak up. Two, it's a window into their thinking process. When they encounter something that they don't like, do they have the instinct not only to raise why it may be broken but also suggest how it can be better?" asks Grant. "It's a chance to learn about their tendency to share opinions that might be unpopular but beneficial. It gives you a little bit of perspective on their ability and inclination to improve their environment."

Tell me about the last time that you encountered a rule in an organization that you thought made no sense. What was the rule? What did you do and what was the result? "You’re not excited about candidates who just let it go. But you also don’t want somebody who says, ‘Yeah I saw this rule, marched into my boss’ office, argued, and quit over it," says Grant. "What you're looking for is somebody who says, ‘I saw this rule that I thought didn't make sense. I first did some research to figure out how it was created and why it was this way. I spoke to a couple of people who’d been at the organization longer than I had, asking if they knew what it was initially set out to do. If they didn’t know, I reached out to some people who have influence and sought their advice on ways forward to improve the rule and made a few suggestions on how. I got tasked to lead the committee to change the rule. We made a change and here's the evidence that we had an impact.’ That’s an original who’s learned to be a tempered radical."

Why shouldn’t I hire you? "In Originals, I talk about founder Rufus Griscom, who pitched his startup Babble to investors by listing three reasons not to invest in his business. Sarah Robb O’Hagan once opened her job application the same way, describing why she shouldn’t be hired. In one breath, she outlined which qualifications she didn’t meet, but also why she was suited to do it anyway," says Grant. "She challenges the job description and shows that she can bring something different than what a company thinks it needs. Part of why this worked is that, in one fell swoop, she shows extreme awareness: not only of her abilities, but also of the proposed requirements—and why some don’t really matter."

It’s your first few months on the job. What questions would you first ask and to whom? Presidential candidates are often asked what they plan to accomplish in their first 100 days in office, and hiring managers tend to evaluate candidates for leadership positions similarly. "This idea came from one of my collaborators, Reb Rebele, an applied positive psychology expert who leads many of our hiring projects," says Grant. "He observed that when new people are coming in, their first few months should be as much about learning as doing. Originals distinguish themselves by asking questions that no one else has thought to ask, and posing them to people who have fresh perspectives to offer. Ask candidates what questions they’d want to ask in their first two months on the job, and who their ideal sources would be. Listen for examples of open-ended questions—rather than just yes/no or testing-my-own-thinking styles of inquiry—as well as a willingness to draw from and challenge many sources of information. Originals are constructive contrarians. They're not just pointing out that the emperor has no clothes; they're also tailors."

2. Embodies A Multitude

Start at the bottom of the CV. Above the bottom margin of the last page of each resume is typically a line about a candidate’s hobbies, travels, or interests. "Look for people who have multifunctional backgrounds, multicultural experience, and wide interests. Most hiring managers focus on depth of experience, but breadth is critical for creativity," says Grant.

"In a study comparing all the 21st century Nobel Prize-winning scientists with their colleagues from their era, the breakthrough scientists were significantly more likely to be involved in the arts than the latter: twice as likely to play a musical instrument, seven times as likely to draw or paint, 12 times as likely to write fiction or poetry, and 22 times as likely to perform as dancers, actors, or magicians.

Curious people are drawn to self-expression, but there’s also evidence that training in the arts can help you see things differently as a scientist," says Grant. "In another study, the most innovative fashion designers were distinguished by experience abroad—not traveling or living abroad, but time working abroad—which gave them opportunities to incorporate new concepts into their designs. Originals are fusions of their varied interests. They are multidisciplinary makers, thinkers, and doers."

Look for diversity of role models—and distribution of their impact. "Asking a candidate what his role model would do is a way to assess how he thinks outside his own perspective. Yet how many people now are thinking from first principles by asking what would Elon Musk do in this situation?" asks Grant. "The challenge is not to get locked into one of those examples but to internalize and cycle through multiple people’s thought processes.

That’s actually the way that I was taught to contribute knowledge as a researcher. I’d review my work from the perspectives of a few of my mentors—Jane Dutton, Brian Little, Rick Price—and imagine what questions they would ask. Internalizing these perspectives leads to a more convincing set of ideas, often with new, original insights. That process helps you move beyond the limitations of your instincts. Originals find role models who think differently and can read about or learn from them directly."

Uncover their roads not taken. Originals are supremely prolific. The London Philharmonic Orchestra selected the 50 greatest classical music compositions. The list included six pieces from Mozart, five from Beethoven, and three from Bach. "To generate those masterpieces, Mozart composed 600 pieces, Beethoven created 650 and Bach produced over a thousand compositions. A broader study showed that the more pieces a composer created over a five-year window, the greater the chances of a hit," says Grant.

"One way to produce great, new ideas is to come up with more of them. But what we surface on resumes and interviews are a filtered set of ideas and interests—and likely those that led to desired outcomes. Ask candidates, ‘What did you try but ultimately give up on—and why?’ Look for those who demonstrate continuous curiosity, but a willingness to move on when the writing’s on the wall."

Make the candidate a culture detective. "Beyond asking how to improve the interview process: assess how candidates view your company culture," says Grant. "Two weeks before her interview, give a candidate three names of colleagues to reach out to learn more about the culture. Tell her that when she comes in, you want to know what’s working and what needs to be changed. You can also run this exercise same day if candidates are on site for a half-day or more. You can learn a tremendous amount from the adjustments they suggest, and the questions they ask your colleagues—and you might pick up some useful ideas along the way."

3. Demonstrates Insistence And Resilience

Present a problem, but leave out a piece of information. "Focus less on the content of their solution, and more on their attitude and fervor in attacking the challenge," Grant advises. "One of the things we know is that originality occurs at the nexus of curiosity and grit. So after clearing the technical parts of the interview, ask them to solve a problem in which there’s a helpful piece of information missing," says Grant.

"Consider data that they could eventually solve the problem without, but would arrive at a solution faster if equipped with it. Originals constantly ask questions as opposed to just giving answers. Once they've locked onto a problem, you want them to be resourceful and persistent in seeking the information they need to solve it. Originals don't give up in the face of obstacles; they find ways around or through them."

Evaluate the response to difficult situations. "In Give and Take, I covered the ways you can distinguish a selfish taker from a generous giver. Research shows that people often project their own motivations onto others. Takers tend to anticipate more taking from others because they start by asking themselves what they’d do. For example, when asked how common it is for people to steal from their employers, takers give higher estimates of theft," says Grant. "Ask candidates what they think the common response would be to various types of frustrating and dissatisfying situations. The originals are the ones who expect that people would be motivated to take initiative and change the situation."

In which job were you most miserable? Why and how did you deal with it? "This not only gauges attitude, but also reveals the triggers of discontent. If hiring originals, I want people who are frustrated by red tape more than people who are bored," says Grant. "People who say, ‘This work is boring; I hate it’ are less likely to bring originality than those who say, ‘I don't like it, but I'm going to fix it.’"

Notes On Evaluating Originals

Corral references until they’re candid. "References can be a rich source of information to use to identify originals, but one of my big frustrations with references is that they’re always glowing. Nobody ever gets a negative review. You have to put references in a position where they have no choice but to be candid with you," says Grant. "The easiest way to do that is to give them forced choices of two undesirable attributes. Try asking: ‘From your vantage point, if this candidate were going to rock the boat too often or not often enough, which is more likely?’ If you phrase the question correctly, it's not clear what the ‘correct’ answer is. But I’d suggest looking carefully at the ones who rock the boat too often as potential diamonds in the rough."

Use a prepared scoring key. "When seeking out specific qualities—such as those of originals—research supports evaluating responses using a scoring key. For instance, it’s much more effective to use a sliding scale to assess a person’s ability to challenge the status quo, than a yes or no answer," says Grant. "Consider rating them on a 1-5 scale. Originality stems from both novelty and usefulness, so we want to measure both of those factors independently. How novel are her suggestions? How practical? A third dimension might be also how the suggestions are communicated. Another is how eagerly the candidate is trying to please the interviewer—an indication that he or she may not be challenging enough. You are looking for multi-dimensional people, so your scoring rubric must accommodate that reality."

Identifying originals is only the initial step, but it’s a supremely significant one. It not only keeps you rigorous when forming your foundational team, but also indicates to candidates that you are an organization that seeks out and values original thinking and action. Originals are essential to help seed a resilient culture and respond to market diversity and movement. They are often unsung heroes, insubordinates and those who lean toward putting their creative ideas into action. To find them, pepper in Grant’s questions to test how frequently they challenge defaults, demonstrate perseverance and synthesize the multitude of sources around them.

"In my research on originals, I’ve learned of people who have used dogs’ chew-toys as erasers in a pinch or reimagined rollerblades as ways to tell time. These are minor, isolated examples, but they illustrate a greater force at play," says Grant. "The world is full of ordinary objects and ideas that are made extraordinary by people who have the capacity to repurpose and reapply them, MacGyver-style. It often starts with a slight recalibration in perspective followed by a small, but defiant act. It’s the originals who keep pulling on that thread—they instinctively know that that’s the difference between inspiration and innovation. Don’t you want those people building beside you?"

This article originally appeared on First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.

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