How to Hire for Motivation

Early in my recruiting experience I placed a highly motivated and experienced candidate for a logistics position. He made a great first impression and was confident, affable and articulate. He had all the boxes checked, too. Unfortunately, he turned out to be the worst placement I ever made – he was more confident than competent. He started changing things before he knew what to change. He was fired a week after starting and I lost a big fee. However, I learned a number of lessons from this situation that I never repeated:

  • Interviewing personality has nothing to do with motivation.
  • Box-checking skills has nothing to do with competency or motivation.
  • Never hire anyone who is more motivated than competent. These are the people who change the wrong things too fast

Yet every competency model in the world starts with driven to excel, results-driven or highly motivated. And every hiring manager wants to hire motivated people. These are people who don’t need a lot of direction and get things done, on time and on budget.

Interviewers assume a prepared, affable, assertive and extroverted person is highly motivated, and those who aren’t, aren’t. However, they’re wrong.

Ten years after the incident described above I placed a VP Finance at a well-known fast food restaurant chain on the west coast. The CEO wanted a highly motivated person who wouldn’t change things for at least six months. The person hired was low key. For six months he built relationships and learned everything he could about the company. Then in the course of one year he led the rebuilding of the company’s entire accounting and financial reporting systems setting the stage for the company to grow at a rate of 30-50% over the next five years.

Interestingly, the person hired had no industry experience although he was a CPA and had been the number one financial person at a similarly-sized multi-unit company. Unless you dug into the person’s past performance you never would have discovered the person was driven to excel, results-driven and highly motivated. During my 90-minute interview I asked how he implemented financial reporting systems at his then current and prior company. When he described this work you could observe his drive, energy, organizational skills and motivation emerge. I also asked how he hired and developed his staff and he named names and how he helped each person become a better person. In fact, he was referred to me by someone who wanted to work for him again. Yet, none of this was apparent in the first 30 minutes of the interview.

About the same time I was trying to place a senior cost manager with a well-known medical products company in southern California. After a 15-minute interview the CFO concluded my candidate was too low key and not technical enough to lead the implementation of a global manufacturing cost system. But I fought back and described how my candidate successfully led a state-of-the-art cost system implementation at a Fortune 100 manufacturer. Due to the evidence I presented, the CFO agreed to meet him again and dig into the project in detail. He was hired that afternoon. We placed five other senior executives at the company over the next two years using the same process. All were promoted within 18 months after starting.

So if you want to hire for motivation don’t give some assessment test or trust your intuition. Instead do the following or watch the video for more details.

  1. Define the work you need done before you start interviewing candidates to do the work. The bulk of any job can be summarized in 5-6 performance objectives describing the task, the deliverable, the timeframe and some measure of success.
  2. For each performance objective listed in the performance-based job description ask the candidate The Most Important Interview Question of All Time. By digging into the person’s past performance doing comparable work you’ll find out if the person is both competent and motivated to do the actual work required.
  3. For each accomplishment get 3-4 examples of when the candidate took the initiative to do more than required without being asked. Everyone can come up with one or two examples; few can come up three or more at each job. Look for a pattern of where the person went the extra mile. This represents the type of work the person finds most motivating. Then compare this to what you need done.

This information is all you need to determine both competency and motivation to excel in the job you want done. You won’t figure it out by the quality of the candidate’s presentation skills, how socially assertive the person is or by the person’s affability or appearance or by some assessment test. Taking shortcuts is how you hire the wrong people and miss hiring the right ones.

How to Uncover the Four Best Predictors of Success in 30 Minutes

Over the past 40 years I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates for staff level jobs to senior executives and tracked the performance of hundreds of them.

After a few years it quickly became apparent that a 30-45 minute work history review revealed four great predictors of on-the-job success. As long as the following four conditions were present I was comfortable recommending the candidate for further interviewing. Of course, further evaluation was essential but it turned out as long as the four factors were present the likelihood of the candidate being a finalist was extremely high.


Determine Job Fit Based on Comparable Accomplishments

Obviously going through the person’s resume reveals a lot about whether the person is a basic fit for the job. But of critical importance is the person’s most significant accomplishments. During the work history review I dig into the one that best compares to what the person will be doing in the new position.

The focus of this is on the scope of the project, span of control, size of the budget, reporting relationships, complexity of the work and the results achieved. For example, for a Director of Accounting at a major corporation I recommended a manager at a Big 4 accounting firm since she had implemented robust reporting systems at Fortune 200 companies leading teams of 10-20 people. This was the primary objective of the job, so the fit was perfect.

Potential is Revealed through the Achiever Pattern

The Achiever Pattern indicates the candidate is in the top 25% of their peer group. The idea is that people in the top 25% at different companies and at different jobs are likely to continue to be in the top 25% in the new job. Since these are the people who continue to take on more challenging projects and get promoted more quickly, the Achiever Pattern is a good indicator of potential.

Each position has different criteria to meet the top 25% standard but they all have some. For example, for sales positions look for people who have a track record of always making quota. The best staff level people in all functions are assigned more challenging projects soon after starting a new job. The best managers seek out and are given more challenging management assignments. The best team players are assigned to more important multi-functional teams.

While this is only a short list, the idea is to use the work history review to find out where the candidate has been recognized for doing superior work, whether it’s an award, a promotion, special bonus or an important assignment.

Career Motivation Can be Determined Based on How Job Changes were Decided

Why people change jobs is an important clue to how motivated the person is career wise. Always ask candidates why they moved from one company to another and if the move accomplished its purpose. For the best people these moves are typically part of a bigger career plan and are not made superficially. While they don’t often work out as planned, most times they do. Look for people who are concerned about making an impact, developing their skills and finding more satisfying work.

For example, I challenged one candidate who made a decision to accept a job that was closer to home, had a slightly better title, and offered a bit more money, but was in a decaying industry. When I pointed this out to him he rejected this job and accepted the other better long-term offer. He called a year later thanking me for the advice after he got a huge promotion.

The Size of the Opportunity Gap Predicts Engagement and Performance

A good career move requires a 30% non-monetary increase. This is the opportunity gap. It’s the sum of the increases in job stretch (bigger job), job growth (faster rate of increase) and job satisfaction (doing more satisfying work). If the stretch part of the gap is too great, the chance of failure increases, but if the gap is non-existent, dissatisfaction and underperformance is likely. The opportunity gap is determined by what the person has accomplished compared to what the new position offers.

Most recruiters and hiring managers can’t even figure out the size of the opportunity gap since the job is ill-defined. In this case money becomes the primary criteria to accept an offer or not. This is a great predictor that the person will underperform.

Take the Time to Find These Four Predictors

When the person is a good fit for the job, possesses the Achiever Pattern, has a track record of making good career decisions and the job offers a true career move, it’s likely the person will be a serious candidate for your job. What’s surprising is that much of this can be figured out in a 30-45 minute work history review. What’s more surprising is that most interviewers won’t take the time to do it.