You're asking the wrong question.

The recipe for a strong, autonomous and effective team beings with the right ingredients. For servant leaders, there's one question that's critical to the interview process, and it's usually a question no one's expecting.

Professional woman's portrait.
A servant leader should never consider hiring someone for whom growth isn't a top priority, someone who's only ambition involves more authority or more money. Instead, you're looking for someone you'll be able to effectively serve, someone who inspires you.

I have yet to meet the human being who genuinely enjoys the interview process. If you work for a non-profit organization or you're an entrepreneur, you may find yourself recruiting for open positions, interviewing, and making hiring decisions without much support. Even in a corporate leadership role, you've probably had to draft job descriptions or hiring guidelines.

Around the World in 80 Days

No matter what role you're in, I imagine you'll find the following experience uncomfortably familiar:

  • A positions becomes open somewhat unexpectedly.

  • You post the position and then sift through hundreds of resumes, many of which are a waste of everyone's time.

  • You narrow the field of applicants and conduct a half-dozen interviews.

  • You take a deep breath, decide to stay positive, and interview a half-dozen more.

  • You still can't find the right fit. You're already over deadline, so you settle.

  • 6 months later, you're still second-guessing your hire.

  • You begin to avoid the hiring process whenever possible, resolving to do whatever's necessary to keep your best employees and then putting up with the rest.

It's not always like this, of course. I've met HR professionals who are highly proficient when it comes to dynamic recruiting and efficient hiring. But let's be honest:

Despite all the talk of hiring the right people, few of us can say definitively what that means.

The Perfect Team?

I once worked alongside a junior executive whom we'll call Johnny. A lot of people wanted to work for Johnny. He cultivated the idea that it was a privilege to work on his team, a team that was known for its cohesion and ability to solve problems.

You can imagine my surprise upon learning how many of my colleagues disliked Johnny and his 'perfect team.' They inspired significant, though hushed, animosity from much of the company. At times, this ill will erupted into open, even explosive conflict. They considered themselves special, privileged. Working with them was often an exercise in humility: their schedule took priority and their priorities took precedence.

Johnny even employed an assistant who served as a sort of hit-person, whose function was to cut through bureaucracy in pursuit of the team's goals. You may be thinking, "Where can I get one of those?" Stop it. You can imagine the frustration this caused the rest of the company.

If you want an organization to function smoothly, you cannot have a single group that functions well at everyone else's expense.

Johnny was the embodiment of everything a servant leader aspires to avoid. He believed his work more clever, his time more valuable, and his instincts more accurate than his peers'. He believed himself to be a principled and inspiring leader, but he had no qualms about throwing a colleague under the bus when it served his ego.

A Single Question

Johnny's approach to hiring is where his infamy becomes relevant. He recruited with a single question in mind: "Does this person make us better?" I found the approach inspiring at first, as much because of its simplicity as in spite of it.

Most of the recruiting gauntlets I had experienced were more focused on patching the present than preparing for the future.

It wasn't until later that I recognized how Johnny's approach to hiring was a root cause of his team's conceited expectation of privilege. It doesn't take much imagination to follow their logic: it's important to find people who make us better because we are better and we deserve them. Don't get me wrong—there are good reasons to hire someone who's better than you in one area or another (feeling entitled to better candidates isn't one of them). But even someone who's better than you is going to need to grow.

I have argued that most management techniques can be simplified into two different leadership mentalities. If you have decided—and decided definitively—that Johnny is not the type of leader you want to be, you'll have to take the opposite approach. Instead of asking whether a recruit is going to make you better, ask yourself:

"Am I willing and able to make this recruit better?"

There's always room for growth, but how likely is it that this individual is going to be a stronger, wiser version of him or herself a year from now? Two years from now? Can you imagine yourself being naturally motivated to help them become healthier, freer and more autonomous?

You'll notice the question has nothing to do with finding the right fit or maintaining the status quo. It would be foolish to try and find someone who is fully developed and already formed into the mold you're looking to fit. Human beings thrive only when they're growing; a servant leader should never consider hiring someone for whom growth isn't a top priority, someone who's only ambition involves more authority or more money.

"Now wait a minute," you may be thinking; "A large majority of the 200 applications I plowed through last night are from unqualified applicants. I could make them all better!" The question is not "could I" but Am I willing and able to? There are two parts to the question: Am I willing? and Am I able?

Am I Willing?

Assuming you've already committed to a serve-first approach to leadership, this half of the question is at least as much about your applicant as it is about you. You're going to end up in service to whomever you hire. There are a few ways to ascertain whether that is something you can stomach with any potential hire:

1. Take a Tour

Joe Matar over at Brazen suggests an office tour should be on every recruiter's hiring checklist. In breaking out of the formal and fundamentally awkward hot seat interview, you'll get the opportunity to observe how a potential team member interacts with your colleagues. Are they comfortable and friendly? Do they ask questions and build rapport? Are you picking up on a sense of curiosity and openness, or is there a stiffness in their body language and attitude?

2. Buy Lunch

Glassdoor recommends conducting some or all of an interview at an off-premise lunch. It's another way to assess an applicant in a natural setting for which they're likely less prepared. Is he or she relaxed? Genuine? Confident? The Glassdoor team points out that a minimum level of nervousness is not necessarily a bad sign; it may be an indication that your candidate really wants to work for you. Recent studies suggest that anxiety, well managed, can actually improve performance, so you'll want to try and gauge how well your interviewee handles his or her apprehension.

Glassdoor also points out that a meal is an excellent opportunity to evaluate a candidate's propensity for basic human connection. Does the conversation flow, or are you having to prop up the exchange by yourself? Is there any chemistry? If not, is the interviewee able to shift the conversation to an area in which he or she is more comfortable? (I once had lunch with a socially inept recruiter. After 10 uneasy minutes, I began peppering the man with questions about his experience at the company. We were both immediately more comfortable, and I ended up getting an offer.)

3. Assign Homework

Rather than guessing what it will be like to work with someone, Adam Bryant (of the New York Times' excellent Corner Office series) proposes putting the potential mentor-mentee relationship to the test. Don't just ask for a writing sample, ask the applicant to answer a question or two in writing. You might, for example, ask them to draft a strategic plan for your team or organization.

You can even ask for a proposal to solve a real-life challenge you're trying to address. While you won't necessarily be able to prepare an assignment like that in advance, you will get to observe his or her thinking in an area that's top of mind for you. You shouldn't have much difficulty figuring out whether your candidate shows interest in the problem, resourcefulness in understanding it, and strategic thinking in attempting to solve it.

You'll find no shortage of ideas for questions and assignments; this article from People & Culture is a good place to start. Anther tip: Bryant recommends allowing your candidate to choose their own deadline so you can gauge their time management and the level at which they're prioritizing your organization.

Am I Able? -or- Are They Willing?

The second half of the question Am I willing and able to make this person better? involves trying to figure out how willing your candidate is to grow. Many people believe their abilities are fixed and their skills are unlikely to improve much after their mid-20's.

Growth is difficult, it can be confusing, and it requires a willingness to leave one's comfort zone on a regular basis. One must be proactive in pursuing their own professional development via mentors, coaching, training and new opportunities. It also requires humility, which can be one of the most difficult attributes to find in candidates who are otherwise competitive and well-qualified.

Individuals with this quality, which Carol Dweck called a growth mindset in 2006, are generally more open to feedback and coaching, are eager to take on new challenges, and are likely to be more resilient in the face of setbacks.

“It’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.” ― Carol S. Dweck

Many, including Dweck, have suggested asking the interview question "What were your greatest failures?" An interviewee's answer to the question is supposed to give you a good idea of whether they're oblivious to their weaknesses, a quitter, or someone who learns from and let's go of their failures. Personally, I prefer to avoid traditional interviews altogether whenever possible. It's simply too easy to prepare answers to questions like this in advance.

Try this instead: ask your potential hire to paint a clear, descriptive vision of the person they want to be in 15 years. You'll know immediately whether this is something to which the candidate has given any thought. If they have, you'll most likely be given an intimate picture of their goals, their values, and the importance they place on growth.

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. ― Zig Ziglar

Someone who hasn't given any thought to their own vision of growth will stumble over the question. This doesn't mean they'll be a bad hire—I wouldn't necessarily expect a 22-year old to have an immediate and creative answer, but I'd be far more likely to hire the man or woman who does.

Remember, you're not looking for someone who's so focused on personal growth that they won't need any support—those are the sort of people who are likely to prioritize their own growth at the expense of your team and your organization. You're looking for someone you'll be able to effectively serve, someone who you'll enjoy supporting, and someone who inspires you.

In my experience, it's best to avoid at all costs the Johnny's who think they're special. Hire instead the ones who plan to be.

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