Hiring Innovation

The next time you have a sales position to fill, consider hiring one of your best customers. That’s just one of many ways to promote innovation, by the way you choose employees.

Instead of hiring for experience, consider hiring for creative leadership. Is the candidate an “early adopter” in his consumer choices? Does she commute to work on bike or even a Segue? Is he “fashion forward” or a little non-conformist in the way he dresses?

Those are hardly typical criteria for screening applicants, and they shouldn’t exclude more traditional measures, but they give you clues about how creative or adventurous candidates may be. Where did they last vacation? Seeing the typical tourist sites in London or exploring a volcano in Borneo?

Is this person inclined to take calculated risks? Is this a career change or a routine job progression? Has she ever been an entrepreneur—either successfully or unsuccessfully? Either success or failure displays a willingness to take risks and the latter may offer an added bonus of lessons learned. Few people have courageously faced change as much as someone who has emigrated from another country. (One of the poorly-kept secrets of America’s success.) Even a rehabilitated ex-convict may be someone who has the courage to break some rules, but now knows where the legal and ethical limits are.

Are you screening for fresh perspectives? The real value of diversity is not that it’s politically correct or that it prevents lawsuits; it’s that it offers a greater diversity of insights. Seek diversity not only in gender, race, and ethnicity, but in nationality, age, education, and professional background.

Marketplace diversity also has great value. How representative are your employees of your customers? Of your suppliers? What would you learn by hiring a competitor? (No, not how many customers can you take; how much can you learn?) What new skills and experiences does someone bring to your organization?

Even the way someone articulates their thoughts can be revealing. Look for someone who “tries”, “thinks”, “proposes”, and “suggests.” Someone who is eager to learn rather than someone who firmly tells you how much she already knows. Does he seem to have a high level of innate curiosity as indicated by the number of questions he asks you? When she talks about undergoing change, does she describe it as a challenge or a hassle?

Of course one of the most obvious clues is someone’s past record of innovation. Are you asking about that? What change initiatives has she implemented or been part of? What problems has he solved? What changes has the person embraced in his own life? Are you sure you want someone who you think fits in, or would you benefit from a little rocking of your boat?

Some of the things I’ve listed would make many—no, probably most—companies less likely to hire someone. It’s criteria that’s used to exclude otherwise suitable candidates. It’s not that only some people can be innovative. Anyone can become a successful innovator, but some of us are more predisposed to creative change than others. Ironically, companies tend to stack the deck against their own innovation efforts by predominantly hiring those who are most conformist and most competent at doing what’s already being done, rather than those who embrace new ideas.

Is your company one of them?

Of course, all of this applies in reverse. How good of a candidate are you for either a hire or a promotion, in terms of your orientation to innovation? How well would you pass any of these screens?

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