How to Identify A-Players in an Interview

Orin Davis
4 min readSep 28, 2016

In the past, I’ve written about how to get the talent in the door, and how to manage talent once you get it, and I’ve even warned about the fact that most people don’t want to hire talent (after all, talented folks ain’t normal!). Then there’s that space in the middle, the time between a wizard’s walking in the door and when (s)he gets hired. That’s the interview, and it’s when both of you are trying to see if there is a good fit between what the company needs in order to enhance its value creation process and what the person can do. Here are some key questions and attributes to look for:

Employment History

As I’ve noted previously, looking at someone’s employment history is useful, but it likely doesn’t distinguish the best from the rest, if only because it usually takes a manager and a good team to enable talent to shine. Most people don’t work solo anymore, and those who do probably aren’t looking for a job. So, the top people you are hoping to hire are going to have a stellar job history only if they had a quality manager and capable coworkers that also allowed the talent to do what it does best. Considering how rare that is, and the fact that most talented people leave jobs because they don’t have the right team, you are unlikely to identify stars using a standard resume or length of tenure at a company.

Better than traditional job histories and brag sheets is to use what Liz Ryan calls dragon-slaying stories. In this, you are asking for people to tell you about the best work they’ve done, and they usually tell you not just about the team, but about the manager, and from that you can learn about the best they could do in the context in which they did it. I’m also a hard-core fan of serious introductions, which provide similar information and tells a lot about people’s strengths and values.

Of particular note is whether a candidate can speak about your company both in terms of what they like and in terms of what they will change. This is actually a great opener for a potential job crafting exercise, which can become a very successful part of the interview process. In this part of the discussion, you are determining whether candidates understand your company’s value proposition, and which knowledge, skills, and experiences they can contribute to value creation. Are the candidates resonating with the aim of the company and the way it achieves its goals? Do candidates see how they can improve the company in a way that is consistent with the firm’s values and culture? Most especially, do they see how they can do good things for your company in a fashion similar to their past successes? (Keep a broad view on this, because not everyone may have had the chance to show their know-how.)

Personal Characteristics

One of the best combinations of characteristics I (and many others!) have encountered in candidates is a combination of confidence and humility. While it is important to hire people who are confident without being cocky, I find that most people can’t tell the difference between the two, but erroneously believe that they can. It really isn’t so much about attitude, but rather about what underlies it. The best indicator of people being cocky is that they portray themselves as fantastic, but can’t support it with actual facts/examples. By contrast, confident people generally have reasons for their belief in themselves, and can tell you why they think they can do something. The humility becomes evident when people can recognize the limitations of their abilities and the contributions of others to the success of their endeavors. These are people who can show serious gratitude for professional contacts and opportunities (ask about this!), and who can also discuss their accomplishments honestly without hyperbole.

Another good question for candidates is to ask about their approach to learning. Are they lifelong learners? Do they love challenges and pursue exciting puzzles? This goes along with looking for “T-shaped” people, because life-long learners tend to dabble in a wide variety of areas while also developing deep expertise in one specific field. The difficulty for both the interviewer and interviewee, however, is seeing the value-added of having a T-shaped player (as opposed to an expert) on the team, and it’s almost never obvious. Then again, discussing how a T-shaped player can fit in is often fascinating, so make it happen whenever possible! Another related inquiry is to ask is about a time when they had to do something they never attempted before, and have them talk about the experience. You will get a really good picture of how they handle stress, fear, and setbacks (and if you don’t, you can ask about their experiences with failure).

The Questions They Ask

One of the most exciting parts of the interview is the questions that candidates ask you. It’s your turn in the hot seat, and you need to represent the company well (and honestly!). But, just as the interviewee learned a lot about your company from the questions you asked, it’s also your turn to learn about how they think from the questions they ask. Are they down-to-earth people? Are they ambitious? Are they thinking ahead to the value that they can contribute and how to get past any potential obstacles? All of these considerations will help you to see past the interview veneer and into the depth of who they are and how they can use their knowledge, skills, and experiences to help your company, grow, innovate, and profit.



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab ( Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.