This just might be the best question you can ask a job candidate

Years ago I asked a client, a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, where the prestigious investment bank found its best candidates.  Expecting to hear Harvard Business School as the answer, I was surprised to learn his preference was for any athlete who made it to the Olympics.  “Given a choice I’ll take an Olympic athlete over anyone,” he said.

This answer becomes obvious as soon as you consider it.  If someone can muster the focus, harness the discipline, and accept the sacrifices necessary to reach that goal, chances are good that he or she can pull off anything you might have in mind.

Unfortunately, we don’t all come across that many Olympic athletes in our hiring process.  But just this week, re-watching a video of Randy Nelson, Pixar University’s Dean, I heard an idea I like just as much. Nelson’s thought is this.  If you want to hire someone to do something truly innovative, chances are you won’t find it on a resume.

Why?  Because if the job you have in mind really is innovative, it hasn’t been done.   So you need to look for a parallel predictor of success.  And, according to Nelson, what you’re looking for is mastery. It can be mastery in anything: music, mountain climbing, even origami, I suppose.   Mastery implies you’re dealing with a candidate who has set his or her mind not simply to accomplish something, but also to get to the top.  In fact Nelson believes that no one will achieve mastery in the job if they haven’t achieved it somewhere else.

I’ve already started asking the question, “Can you tell me something you’ve mastered in your life?”  I haven’t heard a great answer yet.  Then again, neither have I offered anyone the job. What’s the best question you ask candidates?  Or perhaps more importantly, if you’re the candidate, what’s your answer?

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Phil Woodford
Phil Woodford

I think for a lot of jobs, the candidates just need to be able to walk in a straight line and cover up their tattoos. If they've mastered these basics, they're in.

moira
moira

Can a person ever truly master something? Even Olympic athletes stumble and fall sometimes.

edwardboches
edwardboches

Ashley,
Good points. Also read Gladwell's book and found it to be true. In my case, the most successful people I have ever hired were those who came from less than privileged backgrounds. The fact that that they had to "master" self-sufficiency and financial responsibility at a young age and learn that there was no one else to lean on except themselves somehow ignited their determination and propelled them to succeed.
Edward

Ashley (commqueen123)
Ashley (commqueen123)

Edward, interesting food for thought re. job candidates and mastery. Fits in some ways with the 10,000 intense hours of work in a field/subject matter that Malcolm Gladwell mentioned in his book Outliers as necessary for mastery. I have also noticed that everyone who has worked for me who was Phi Beta Kappa in college have been among my best staff, and I think that attaining Phi Beta Kappa reflects a certain mastery. It's not merely being smart/having intelligence, but also mastery over how to get As in college--what it takes to get an A in a class under any situation and from any professor.

edwardboches
edwardboches

Patrick,
Good point. Can't all be Olympic athletes, but as Cody points out, there are other things we can master.
Edward Boches

edwardboches
edwardboches

Cody,
Great answer. And if I got that from a candidate in an interview, I would start listening to him or her even more. You are right. Too few people (myself included) have mastered that one.
Thanks
Edward Boches

Patrick
Patrick

I really like this idea of mastery for interviewing an applicant. I suspect nothing in an olympic athlete's life would have the same level of excitement but they would likely bring that drive for elite level excellence to any goal they established. On the other hand you can't build an organization with nothing but superstars, so I'd like an athlete who made a division one team in any sport for example. I can see why Goldman Sachs would go for the Olympic athlete. They are basically a cuthroat dog eat dog business, so you want the fittest, period.

cody pomeray
cody pomeray

If asked in an interview “can you tell me something you’ve mastered in your life?”

I would respond "listening."

Most people pretend to listen while actually thinking about what they're going to say next. It's amazing how much insight into people (or clients) you can gain just by really listening to them.

edwardboches
edwardboches

This is a more interesting dialog than I expected. Thanks. Lots of good points, but the mastery idea works for me. Having hired nearly 100 people in my career, I can tell you that just because someone’s curious or likes to learn, doesn’t assure he or she will accomplish what you hope they'll accomplish, especially if it’s in a gig that doesn’t come with instructions. Being able to gauge one's true determination and proven ability to achieve (master) something in light of challenges that might include a learning curve, time commitments and even sacrifice is a better indicator.

Edward Boches

James Windrow
James Windrow

I dont agree Dylan. I think it comes down to difference between a true master a self-proclaimed master.

A true master is someone that has proven themselves through accomplishments. An Olympic athlete is a great example. True masters are people that are driven, disciplined and hungry. They push themselves to consistently be better and strive to be "the best" always knowing its an impossible goal but still striving towards it just the same.

A self-proclaimed master is someone that has little to no accomplishments to show for their efforts. The internet is full of social media gurus and masters. People who are more interested in telling you about themselves than about their achievements. These folks are happy settling for the title and rarely push themselves to transcend into something greater. These are folks you want to avoid when hiring.

After assessing skill sets I like to ask the questions: How do you learn? What are you reading both online and offline? Give me an example of something you just recently learned.

Michelle Tripp
Michelle Tripp

100% agree with Dylan. If I was asked that question in an interview I'd say I'm in the process of gaining knowledge and experience in a lot of different areas but I've yet to master anything, because the day you think you've mastered something is the day you become a dinosaur.

And anyway, the way the world changes, a master today is a relic tomorrow.

An alternate interview question could be: "What are some things you're currently trying to master?"

The combination of answers would be a virtual road map to a job candidate's intellectual depth, curiosity, enthusiasm, and creativity. Which ultimately provides a ton of insight into who they truly are, and how they leverage their knowledge and talents to achieve tangible goals.

Michelle Tripp’s last blog post..Domino's Didn't Deliver: Social Media Fail Whale

Cathy
Cathy

Asking the mastery question is clever because the candidate can take you wherever they want to go. Yet, no matter what they say you'll get a sense of their capabilities and their personality.

For example, I could answer the question this way:
I was a high-level competitive swimmer for 14 years. I mastered the skill of swimming, specifically the stroke of butterfly. Yet, I never made the Olympic games so while I mastered the skill, I didn't master the sport.

This answer demonstrates dedication and it might also say I'm the kind of person who puts achievements in perspective.

But what would you have thought of me if I had answered this way instead?

Fifteen months ago I kicked off a project to do one thing each week that I've never done before. My goal is to master my own curiosity. I'm not there yet but I'm determined to keep trying.

Cathy’s last blog post..Attended One Premiere & Powered Another

Leah
Leah

Brilliant! I also agree with both sentiments. And, a person can have won a gold medal (mastered something) as well as - stayed curious.

Many achievers are in it for the sheer challenge. That means that once they've reached a certain level of mastery, they crave the challenge of learning something new from the beginning again.

It may not be the medal but the process of working toward the medal that is rewarding. So while they may continue to be curious regarding their field of expertise, once they've earned the medal, they may put it aside in order to learn something fresh and new. Sometimes that helps spark insight into the original field of expertise, too.

In any case, I welcome the fresh approach to interviewing.

Leah’s last blog post..Ready for Clients that Want the “Obama Approach?”

edwardboches
edwardboches

Good points. Actually I agree with both of you. And if you check out the video you'll actually find out that Pixar's other two key suggestions are that you hire people who aren't just "interesting" but "interested." Nevertheless, as someone who is frequently in the position of having to hire someone to do something they may never have done before, the mastery question strikes me as a good one. Not at the exclusion of other considerations, of course. Thanks for the dialog.
Edward

Libby
Libby

I couldn't agree more with Dylan's sentiment.
If there's anything to be mastered in life, it's the ability to stay curious.

Great thought!

Dylan
Dylan

I think it's a great question to ask, but falls short of what it needs to accomplish. People may to tend to disagree with me here, but I believe anyone who claims themselves a master of something is the same as claiming they have stopped growing. Essentially, the day you accept you are at your peak, then you HAVE peaked.

For example's sake. Surely someone can be a 10th degree black belt and then stop karate thinking, "I've mastered this." But what of people in that position who push forward? Sure, there won't be any more belt levels or accolades, yet they train harder and keep working to improve. There is a difference worth noting there.

Don't get me wrong--the question has its merits for those particulars; it takes a lot of drive, focus, etc to become a 10th degree black belt.

However, I don't know if I want the guy who considers themselves a master of something. I want the person who is the constant student--no matter how advanced in years or experience, they are open and thus able to learn more. I believe that trait makes up the "interested" people Randy Nelson mentioned.