How to hire candidates with creative initiative

How to gauge creative initiative in job candidates

Photo credit: Flickr user Sean MacEntee

Philip Delves Broughton is the bestselling author of Ahead of the Curve about going to Harvard Business School, which is a very good book.  I hired him to write a history of NetQoS. He was sitting in my office one day, when somebody knocked on the door and said, “Okay, Joel, it’s time for you to conduct that job interview.” (I just wrote about how I used to interview every candidate in a post about how CEO Elon Musk hires.)

Broughton started to get up and leave and I said, “No, stay. I’d like you to hear the interview. Just let me make sure it’s okay with the candidate.”

The candidate agreed. I mean, what was she going to say, “No, he can’t stay”?  She was interviewing with the CEO, right?

She was applying for an admin type position.  So I began to ask her a bunch of questions about her last job,  “What did you like about it?  What did you not like about it?”

“I worked as the receptionist in a massage place,” she said.

“Did you like the job?”

“Well I really got kind of bored at the job,” she replied, which is what an interviewee says to try to impress you with how diligent they want to be. They want a challenging job, not one that is slow paced and boring. She continued: “Once the person came in for the massage and the massage started, there really wasn’t much of anything to do. I didn’t like not having anything to do, so I had to find another job.”

We talked for a while longer and then she got up and left. I turned to Phil and said, “Okay, Phil, what’d you hear?”

“Well, I heard – sounded like she was eager to work because she was bored at this massage place and she didn’t have enough to do.”

Boredom means a lack of creative initiative

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“Let me tell you what I heard.  What I heard is she doesn’t have any creative initiative. I can come up with about ten things off the top of my head she could have been doing at that massage place. She could have been looking at the books and seeing what customers hadn’t come in during the last month and calling them. She could have been printing out flyers and sticking them on all the cars in the parking lot. She could have been creating new displays. She could have been washing – I mean there are 100 things she could have been doing that would have moved that business forward. She had no interest in doing them because she didn’t have any creative initiative. Someone was going to have to tell her everything she has to do. Now this might be fine in certain situations, but at my company we don’t have time to tell people what to go do. We need people with creative initiative.”

If this is true in an admin position, it’s a hundred times more true in the other positions in your company.  You don’t have time to tell everybody in your organizations what to go do every day. Talent has creative initiative.

Another way to figure out if someone had creative initiative, is to ask questions along the lines of, “Okay, let’s say you’re hired; tomorrow what are you going to go do here?”

If somebody is really good at their job they could give you a plan. I remember interviewing a PR person and saying, “Okay, I don’t know anything about PR but if you were me what question would you ask to find out whether somebody was good at PR?”

“Well I’d ask them what they’d go do.”

“Okay, what would you go do?”

Photo Credit: loop_oh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: loop_oh via Compfight cc

The candidate then spent the next five minutes giving me a very detailed, almost hour-by-hour description of the 100 things they were going to go do the next day.

“Okay, you’re hired.  You know what you’re going to go do; all makes sense to me; go do it.”  Next.

Really talented people, they have this creative initiative.  They’ve thought a lot about being whatever it is they want to be. They know a lot about it. They will do what needs doing without any specific direction.

I’ll be writing a lot more about how to judge talent in the future.

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  1. Thanks Joel…….great observation…… goes back to a previous post on micro-management. We don’t have time, nor do we want to hamper the creativeness of employees by micro-managing them. We must have people who know what needs to be done and do it.

  2. This is a great topic, and wonderful observations. I’ve often found that you can gauge technical ability or skill set in interviews much better than you can gauge things that have to do with personality. Finding a creative, innovative talent is a huge challenge. Thanks so much for the topic, keep them coming!

  3. Hiring and finding the right talent has always been the hardest thing for me. You can read and read about what questions to ask in order to determine if they are the right fit for THAT job. But soft skills are always much harder to uncover and this post has really enlightened me on what to look for and what to ask to get them talking. As always, great topic!

    • Thanks for reading Bojana! Happy to help.



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