When I was 20 years old I worked at GM as a co-op student in their tech center in Michigan. While working on the engine dynamometer, I met Bob and Hank. They were technicians of the highest caliber. Both were Cessna pilots. I tagged along a couple of times and for my birthday at the end of the summer Bob asked his instructor (he was getting an instrument rating) to give me a lesson. I couldn’t stop there and when I had my own funds a couple of years later I got my pilot’s license in California where I moved after graduation. There was nothing quite like the challenges of reading maps, mastering the radio, understanding the plane and knowing that controlling that airplane was in my hands. The learning curve was steep and worth it.
Years later I’ve mastered much that has involved starting from nothing and ending with taking control. The skill of learning something new is the most valuable arrow in my quiver. Nothing beats the adrenaline around figuring something out especially when the stakes are high. While I continue to learn even after decades in the working world, I see others in the workplace who are not so willing to jump into something new. Often, managers and recruiters bias toward hiring those who have been there and done that. Some proven skill is necessary but not sufficient. The best employees are those who are curious, unafraid and driven to learn. When hiring, look for and ask about these things:
- Adaptability – Ask your candidate to tell stories of transition. Dig when you hear about something that was tough to overcome. What did she or he do when placed in an unknown situation? International travel, cross-functional projects and joining companies involved in a new technology are fertile grounds for stories of adaptability.
- Growth – An exceptional candidate will show a track record of jumping into new challenges. There is value to longevity in companies and roles but be careful when someone has only moved on when forced. A curious learner will look for ways to stretch and will not be satisfied in a stagnant job. When relating accomplishments, a learner will enthusiastically talk about the journey. Ask questions. (e.g. What challenged you in that job? What skills were mastered? How are you better prepared now because of your history? What attracts you to this job?) Answers should point to a growing set of skills and experiences and an aptitude to learn and change.
- Emotional Intelligence (EQ)- This term was developed by Daniel Goleman in 1995. The book by the same name describes EQ as an ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions and to use that knowledge to guide thinking and behavior. This is closely correlated to learning agility especially as it relates to how you react to your own emotions. Fear can be an inhibitor to learning. Recognizing those butterflies in your tummy as something you’ve felt before and have worked through keeps you going forward. It is easy to let those feelings of uneasiness slow down your growth and learning.
- Curiosity – The most valuable colleagues with whom I’ve worked have an insatiable curiosity. They aren’t stuck in their pay grade or functional slot. They reach outside of their comfort area to ask questions and to understand context. They sit at the lunch table with others in the company and learn about projects, technology, marketing launches, financial challenges. They combine their EQ with their curiosity to pull out information from others. They sincerely want to know what is going on outside of their cubicles. Hiring someone with this trait will land you a cross-functional connector. That person is worth her weight in gold.