By: Maurice Gilbert, Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search
What’s the secret to being the perfect job candidate? I get this question a lot, and after more than a decade in the executive search field—a time that has seen economic boom and bust—the answer hasn’t really changed.
There’s no one thing employers are looking for in their ideal employee. Rather, they’re looking for a combination of skills and (just as important) character traits that, when combined, make for a productive and valued employee.
Of course, individual jobs have different requirements, and the skills and traits listed below won’t be of equal importance in every job (leadership may be more important than computer literacy, or vice versa, depending on the position). Nevertheless, the skills and traits listed below are a good run-down of what my corporate clients are seeking.
The items in this section are skills that can be honed and developed over time and with practice. I’ve included at the bottom of this article some of my favorite resources for boning up on some of the more critical skills. I highly recommend that job candidates focus as much time on making sure they bring the proper skills to the table as they do polishing their résumé.
Communication. There’s no job for which good communication skills aren’t absolutely critical. The ability to present your ideas clearly and persuasively, whether in writing or orally, is fundamental to just about any great job. And what many people might not tell you is that excellent writing and speaking skills—which contribute so much to making a good first impression—can make up for less-than-sparkling credentials in other areas. Unfortunately, this is also the skill that many otherwise qualified candidates frequently lack.
Organization. Employers want to know that the candidate they’re interviewing has his/her act together, that appointments won’t be forgotten, balls won’t get dropped and important tasks won’t fall through the cracks. They want to know, in essence, that their potential employee is organized. This means having the ability to manage several projects at once without getting flustered, as well as the ability to prioritize tasks and obligations.
Interpersonal skills. Have you ever found yourself thinking “I wish I could spend more time with boring, self-involved, tedious narcissists?” Me neither. Employers are pretty much the same. They like to hire people they like, plain and simple. This means being a good listener, being genuinely interested in others, and being able to make small talk when appropriate and “big talk” when the time comes.
Problem solving. The ability to problem solve is the gift that keeps on giving. Problem solvers are go-to employees. They’re the ones who have the ability to look at any problem, from the mundane to the truly vexing, see it with fresh eyes and come up with the solution that is at once painfully obvious and the one that eluded everybody else in the room. Employers, clients, everybody loves problem solvers.
Research/analysis. With so much information coming at us every day—from the Internet, magazines, newspapers, television and other sources—the ability to locate, sort through and synthesize information is highly valued. Employers are looking for candidates who have the ability to discern what’s important, disregard what’s not and make decisions based on the information available.
Computer literacy. Unless the job is a highly technical one—like an IT manager or a computer programmer—“computer literate” doesn’t mean the candidate needs to be able to write code or answer every computer question thrown at him. It does mean, however, having a basic familiarity with standard word processing, spreadsheet and possibly database and desktop publishing software. Additionally, the ability to send e-mail and navigate and research via the Internet is a must.
Flexibility/ability to multitask. They say the only constant is change, so a good job candidate is one who can move easily from one game plan to another without getting flustered. Additionally, employers want workers who can handle more than one (or two or three) tasks at a time without dropping balls.
Leadership skills. Granted, not every employee needs to be CEO material, but nobody wants a shop full of order-takers either. An ideal job candidate is one who has a proven history of “taking ownership” of projects and the ability to motivate teammates and subordinates to do their very best.
Diversity awareness. Regardless of your skin color, gender or religious background, chances are you are going to be working alongside or for someone of a different skin color, gender or religious background. An ideal employee doesn’t just tolerate those with different backgrounds from his own; he embraces diversity and the benefits it can bring to the finished product.
Ability to work as part of a team. Everybody loves a star performer, but it’s just as important to be a valuable team-mate, the one who sets up the shot or keeps the quarterback from being sacked. The ideal job candidate has a history of helping those around him do their best.
I’ve met very few candidates who score 100 (or even 90) on every one of the skills I’ve listed. Most everybody can use some brushing up on one thing or another. After all, very few people are born computer literate or as polished public speakers. Those things come only with time and practice. Below are some or my favorite resources for improving the skills employers are looking for:
• The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
• Leadership, by Tom Peters
• How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
• Getting Things Done, by David Allen
• Toastmasters, a non-profit organization that meets in small groups to help members improve their communication (particularly speaking) and leadership skills (www.toastmasters.org).
Good character is arguably more important than any skill set a job candidate can put on his/her résumé. After all, what use is an experienced Corporate Compliance Officer if she never gets to work on time or never does what she says she’ll do? Unfortunately, I can’t direct you to a great book or executive training program that can instill good character. I’m afraid these things typically start long before candidates enter the job market. If you suspect, for example, that you’re irresponsible or lack integrity, that’s probably something you’ll want to work on, independent of any job search. Nevertheless, these are the qualities employers look for in a strong job candidate:
Responsibility. This is everything from consistently being at work on time to taking responsibility for your own actions. Although we’re more likely to use this word when talking about teenage drivers and babysitters, responsibility is a quality every employer wants in an employee.
Positive attitude. The late Randy Pausch, in his recent bestseller The Last Lecture, put it best when he said we all have the choice to be either positive, glass-half-full Winnie the Poohs or pessimistic, down-in-the-mouth Eeyores. Not only is life more fun for the Poohs, but they’re more productive employees and more inspiring leaders.
Strong work ethic. Employers aren’t slave drivers (at least most of them aren’t), but they want to know that their workers are putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. If you’re spending more time on Facebook than you are preparing your quarterly report, or if you’re shopping you when you should be meeting with clients, you’re not a good bargain in anyone’s eyes.
Professionalism. This includes everything from dress and demeanor to language and behavior. An ideal job candidate is one who looks polished and can hold her own at cocktail parties and expensive restaurants, not one who tells off-color jokes around the office and makes a spectacle of himself at the office holiday party.
Integrity. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Can you be trusted with confidential information? Are your expense reports truthful and reasonable? Employers want someone who can honestly answer questions like these with a resounding “yes.”
Adaptability. An ideal job candidate is one who can quickly shift gears and be resilient and thoughtful in the face of multiple, shifting priorities and even crises.
Loyalty. Employers want workers who will stand by them, even when times are tough. They want employees who don’t badmouth them or their co-workers, who believe in the company’s mission—whether it’s providing health care or building cars—and who bring that passion with them to the office every day.
Self-confidence. Call it poise, confidence or charisma, but the ideal job candidates carry themselves with a certain something that inspires others to trust them. Granted, much of this comes from actually being good at your job. But even the most competent workers can be undercut by their own lack of confidence.
Self-starter. Companies are always on the hunt for workers who don’t need to be told what to do before they do it. In a tough economy in particular, employers want employees who see a need and fill it, who think “outside the box” and who don’t wait around for a problem to become a crisis before they act on it.
Hungry to learn. As any teacher will tell you, the best students are those who can’t wait to sink their teeth into something new. The ideal job candidates aren’t afraid to work outside their comfort zone. They are always looking for the next challenge and are anxious to dive into new projects and learn new things.
Now I’ve thrown a lot at you, and you’re probably wondering if anybody can fill all these requirements. I can tell you with confidence that, if that person exists, I have yet to meet him or her. I share this information with you not to overwhelm you, but to tell you what qualities employers are looking for.
Smart job candidates will examine the list, see where they are strong and play to those strengths. They won’t ignore their own weaknesses, however. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, with 30 years under your belt or fresh out of graduate school—there’s always room for improvement.
Maurice Gilbert is Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search, which specializes in placing Compliance Officers and Legal Counsel for clients in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific. Maurice is also CEO of Corporate Compliance Insights, a worldwide publication devoted to governance, risk and compliance issues. Maurice can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.