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Listen for the Electricity

Ray Smilor, President, Beyster Institute for Entrepreneurial Employee Ownership

The toughest and most important job of an entrepreneur is to select the people to bring into his or her company. I have a suggestion for how to do this: listen for the electricity.

In that wonderful film about persistence and accomplishment, Billy Eliot, the young protagonist of the same name is determined to be a ballet dancer. At one point in the movie, Billy has an audition before the admitting board for the Royal Ballet of London. They ask him to dance. He launches into a freewheeling, dizzying, twirling series of dance steps and movements, the result of which leaves blank and bewildered stares on the faces of the board members who are clearly wondering what they had just seen. An awkward interview follows, until one board member asks Billy how he feels when he dances. He says that he can feel the electricity in his body when he is dancing. He gets admitted to the Royal Ballet.

I think entrepreneurs should select people with electricity in their bodies. After confirming intelligence and competence in candidates—through techniques like assessment instruments, behavioral interviewing, and multiple interviewing—it’s important to look for attitude, for the electricity that is part of the joy of work. When the seven dwarfs advised to “whistle while you work,” they were recommending people who enjoy what they do.

Interviewing for Attitude

We know that some folks can talk a good game. So what should an entrepreneur be asking in an interview to better hear what people are really like? Let me suggest two approaches to interviewing that can help.

First, ask specific questions that reveal behavior and elucidate feeling. Rather than ask what someone “would do” if something was needed in the future, ask about how someone actually dealt with a real issue in the past. For example, instead of asking a secretarial candidate how he or she would deal with a difficult customer, ask the person to relate an incident in which he or she had to do that in the past and describe the result.

Instead of asking a candidate for vice president of marketing to outline an ideal marketing plan for an upcoming product, ask the person to describe how he or she had developed a marketing plan for a product for which he or she had responsibility.

Second, ask questions that reveal motivation, such as what a person is proudest of, what they consider their most significant achievement, and where they think they’ve made the biggest contribution.

Listening for Insight

If you listen, you’ll hear not only details about behavior, but also gain insights into a person’s attitude about work and life.

That’s the same requirement that Jim McGraw, the outstanding COO of Marion Laboratories in its growth years, required in his selection process when he insisted that “attitude determines outcome.” It’s Herb Kelleher’s admonition at Southwest Airlines to “hire for attitude and train for skills.”

I know that when I hire people and do reference checks on them, I look for evidence of a positive attitude, an upbeat outlook on life, and an enjoyment of work. In other words, I listen for the electricity. Perhaps it surfaces in the way they have dealt with adversity or overcome obstacles or taken pride in what they have accomplished. Sometimes it’s in the way others talk about their can-do approach or their ability to relate to others or their openness to criticism and learning.

The best hires that I have ever made have been individuals who, like Billy Eliot, explain to me, in one way or another, about the electricity they feel in their bodies.

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