8 Clues That a Candidate Will be an Exceptional Employee


Over the past 40 years, I have reviewed at least 30,000 resumes and LinkedIn profiles and personally interviewed over 5,000 job candidates. After tracking the subsequent performance of hundreds of these people, it became apparent that there were clues in the resume and work history that accurately predicted the likelihood the person would be successful even in roles that were promotions, different jobs, stretch assignments, or in different industries. 

Not surprisingly, the people who were the most successful generally had a different mix of skills and years of experience than listed on the original job description. The reason is a bit counter-intuitive: The most talented people do more and learn faster than their peer group. As a result, they get promoted more rapidly and therefore are lighter in terms of overall years of experience and depth of skills.

This pattern of achievement makes it difficult to find these people using traditional sourcing techniques. To get around this, I suggest recruiters source for just a few critical skills and generic titles in combination with clues indicating the person possesses what I call the Achiever Pattern. The Achiever Pattern indicates the person is in the top half or better of their peer group.

Here are some clues hiring managers, recruiters, and sourcers can use to spot the Achiever Pattern when reviewing resumes or conducting an interview with a candidate:

1. Demonstrates a fast growth rate. 

Those with the Achiever Pattern generally get promoted more rapidly than their peer group. Aside from a bigger title and job, this could also manifest as being assigned to lead larger or more important teams, or handling more important and more complex projects.

2. Exhibits strong technical and rapid learning abilities. 

The best hiring managers tend to push their most promising subordinates by giving them stretch roles, assigning them to difficult projects, providing early exposure to senior managers and influential executives, and giving them advanced training opportunities. Look for this pattern in the candidate’s past few jobs and ask how they got assigned to big projects and why. The pattern typically reveals the person’s core strengths, learning ability, and potential. I refer to this approach as the “Sherlock Holmes’ Interview.”

3. Shows outstanding team, collaborative, and influencing skills. 

During the interview, ask candidates to describe their role on past teams and the other people on those teams. Those with the Achiever Pattern will have been assigned to growing and increasingly important cross-functional teams. This could also include early exposure to important business leaders. Find out how the person got assigned to the team, the reason they were assigned (this reveals the person’s core strengths), the success of the team project, and what happened after the team project was complete.

4. Has been rehired or referred by former coworkers. 

For their past few jobs, ask how the candidate got the job and why they changed jobs. Those with the Achiever Pattern are typically promoted into the role or referred by a former coworker or hired by a former boss.

5. Builds great teams. 

When hiring people for management positions, it’s essential that they possess the Hiring Manager Achiever Pattern. Clues for this abound, including low turnover, a formal approach to staff development, hiring former coworkers, and hiring other top achievers (which can be validated by a major portion of their previous staff members getting promoted into bigger roles). These are the managers everyone in the company wants to work with, so make sure you dig into this in detail during the interview.  

6. Receives lots of formal recognition. 

It’s a good idea to ask candidates what type of formal recognition they received at each job. This could include special or bigger bonuses, letters of praise, public awards, a prize, or some type of recognition at a company event.

7. Shows intrinsic motivation to excel. 

For each job in their recent history, ask about where the candidate went the extra mile. Highly motivated people will have multiple examples and will be able to provide great details and insights as to why they took the initiative. Patterns here will reveal the type of work that is intrinsically motivating to that person. Map these to the needs of the position you’re hiring for to ensure a strong fit.

8. Has had a number of different roles at a company. 

The best people are given lateral moves to enhance their skillset and promotability. Ask about these moves, why they were given, and what happened as a result. Be sure there is upward progress as a result.

Exceptional performers have an unusual gift: They are able to successfully handle different roles in different industries without needing the full complement of prerequisites. This makes finding and interviewing these people a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. And with these tips in hand, you’ll be able to find some exceptional people that everyone else has overlooked.

By Lou Adler, CEO, Performance-Based Hiring Learning Systems