6 Characteristics to Screen for When Hiring Top Talent: The Diane Hessan Hiring Checklist

A startup’s first hires are crucial. These are the people who will lay the foundation for your company culture and who will take your business to the next level. If you’re a four person company and one person isn’t high-performing, you’re a C+ organization at best.

As a founder it’s your job to focus on building a team that supplements, rather than duplicates, your skill set. Your team must be comprised of individuals who have bought into your vision and who are excited about making a major impact—and as you scale, they will become key to attracting additional talent.

Hiring can become even more challenging when your company is growing rapidly. Google is a great example of a company that chose to make hiring for culture a priority as it scaled rapidly. They have a keen sense of what they are and what they value, and as a result are well-known for their robust interview process and curve-ball questions. Despite having upwards of 50,000 employees, this superpower is as famous for it’s “Googley” culture as it is for its products.

At Startup Institute, we’re trying to crack the hiring code. What differentiates a rockstar candidate from a “good” one? What attributes do these top performers possess? How do we screen for the right characteristics?

To answer these questions we surveyed over 200 executives and entrepreneurial leaders to learn what qualities are the best predictors of success at rapidly growing companies. According to this research, the top six characteristics that you should be screening for are:

1. Desire to learn

The shelf-life of knowledge today can be measured in months — so knowing how to learn and doing it, constantly, is crucial. These employees are insatiably curious and coachable. They have mindsets of continuous improvement and actively seek feedback.

2. Ability to thrive amidst ambiguity

Look for people who are resilient, and can take initiative, assuming a role as a leader through uncertain and stressful circumstances.

3. Passion

Passionate employees love what they do, have high personal standards, and work hard — and smart — to see their goals realized.

4. Scrappiness & Grit

These people exhibit the persistence, confidence, and can-do attitudes to make things happen, and are able to deliver results with limited resources and information.

5. Excellence at collaboration

Highly collaborative individuals are motivated more by the performance of a cohesive team over their own glory. They build strong professional relationships through trust and communication, and by showing appreciation for the contributions of their coworkers.

6. Willingness to put the company before oneself

The desire to be a part of something bigger drives these people to take ownership over projects and make decisions in the best interest of the business.

Granted, screening for culture skills in a new hire is easier said than done. According to Startup Institute CEO Diane Hessan (formerly, Founder and CEO at C Space), Part One is to get clear on which culture skills are most important to you:

“This is actually really important because so many people screen for those skills just by intuition. For instance, they’ll say, ‘I just have a feeling that she would fit in with our values.’ Borrowing from our research at SI, one of the characteristics of successful employees is the ability to thrive in really unstructured and unclear situations. You can ask whether they have ever been in this type of situation and what they did. Of course, if the candidate comes to the interview with a printed copy of the job description and wants to go through it with you line by line, that is probably a sign that they need more structure than your startup can offer.”

Hessan also emphasizes the importance of focusing on diversity in building a high-performing company:

“The verdict is in: When you have diverse perspectives and relationships, you have the potential to be significantly more innovative, to grow more quickly, and to have a much more inspirational organization. When everyone in your company is the same gender and color and age, you are boring. Diversity shakes up our brain cells. And, on a practical level, if you want to hire great people and you only have a bunch of young white men, for instance, you will have a hard time finding other talent. They’ll feel like they don’t fit in.”

How can startups prioritize diversity when the current climate is already demographically-biased?

“You just have to work harder to find the other candidate pools and to attract them to your company. If you needed a developer yesterday and you have only great candidates who are white and male, then you hire. But you then have to acknowledge if there is a problem, and you have to decide that it’s unacceptable. Then, you should take proactive steps to find more diverse candidate pools before you’re under fire again. Many great tech companies have committed to doing this actively – Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, Citrix, Intel and more.”

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Christine Zimmermann
Christine Zimmermann
Content Marketing Manager

Christine Zimmermann is the content marketing manager at Startup Institute. Startup Institute trains innovative and passionate people in the skills they need to be high-impact employees at startup and scaleup companies. Follow Startup Institute on Twitter @StartupInst.
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