How to Spot Your Next Star Employee (It’s Not What You Think)

How to Spot Your Next Star Employee (It’s Not What You Think)

Star employees come in many forms, and one of my personal favorites is the underdog.

Underdogs — competitors perceived to have long odds in a contest — bring highly individualized qualities to the table. They can even prove more resilient, courageous and faithful than their pedigreed counterparts.

An underdog might be your next star employee. Here are eight types of underdogs to keep an eye out for.

1. The Self-Taught

Self-taught employees without formal training or education have remarkable potential for two reasons. The first is that it takes guts, motivation and intelligence to learn a skill for the love of the skill itself. They’ll bring these qualities to their job.

The second is that they’re natural out-of-the-box thinkers. They’ve never been in the box — they’ve had to scrape and fight and improvise from the get-go. This can foster innovation and dynamic leadership.

2. The Late Bloomer

Some people are born wanderers, bouncing from job to job, place to place, before finally settling on a career. But what can be interpreted as indecisiveness can also be seen a quest to find exactly the right job for their personality and gifts.

Late bloomers also bring enthusiasm and energy to the culture. Blooming feels great, and if you don’t experience it until later in life, you appreciate it all the more.

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3. The Intern

A few years back, the CEO of a company we acquired was so impressed with one of her interns that she made us hire her as part of the acquisition. This put her in an underdog position, because we’re very particular in our hiring and we’d inherited her rather than chosen her ourselves.

We gave her a full chance anyway, and it paid off big time. We treated her like someone we had chosen, and she rose to the occasion. She came into an office packed with strong personalities and killed it.

Keep in mind that luck plays a role in success. Sometimes you can be handed what you’re looking for without knowing it.

4. The Newcomer

I’ve hired people for very specific and specialized positions that they had no experience in. What they had was an incredible curiosity and enthusiasm to learn the job, high intelligence and first-rate people skills.

Combine those qualities with a strong work ethic, and you have the potential for something truly special on your hands. Once they’re up to speed on the basics, they’re unstoppable.

5. The Bad Interviewee

Learn to spot the signs of a bad interviewee right away, and do everything you can to give them an opportunity to shine. Nervousness, incomplete sentences, the inability to look you in the eye or finish a thought — these are all hindrances that may completely disappear the second they’re hired.

If they’re uncomfortable being crammed in an office, take them on a tour of the company. Inquire about their personal life, get them laughing. Interview them when they forget they’re being interviewed.

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6. The Misfit

I define an out-and-out misfit as a person of obvious talent who has never taken root anywhere, who seems constitutionally incapable of conforming to corporate or academic environments, yet who’s always honing their skills in some tangible way.

Finding one in the wild and taming them is rare, but it can be done with the right combination of encouragement, patience and love. They’ll fill gaps in your culture that you didn’t know you had, and bring their talents to bear on unique problems, which they’ll solve in unique ways.

7. The Former Employee

Let’s say a cherished employee leaves you for another company. They realize they made a mistake and ask for their old position back.

A former business partner of mine had a firm view on this subject: Not a chance.

He wasn’t interested in welcoming someone home who’d had the audacity to leave. They were dead to him.

But think of the impact that rehiring them could have on your team. Imagine the lunch conversations: “I left this place, and it sucked. Send those recruiter emails straight to the trash bin, because this is the only place to be.”

There are many other types of underdogs to look out for — those who speak English as a second language, the awkward and un-charismatic, the intensely shy who flourish under the right circumstances, etc.

Look past what’s on a resume. Give everyone a chance. Privilege passion and grit and creativity over experience. Search for the diamond twinkling through the rough exterior.

A game-changer may be standing right in front of you, but sometimes you have to change your own game to see it.

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