First of all, what is a “dot on the left?” Aside from being the title of my upcoming book, the term refers to someone who, based on the standards set by others, appears to be a sub-par performer but who has the hidden potential to be exceptional.
That’s my story in a nutshell: at the United States Military Academy Prep School at West Point, I was the dot on the left—the candidate who stood out only in how consistently I fell short of the performance standards set by my peers. Yet somehow, I rose above my limitations to excel during my twelve years in the U.S. Army and in civilian life afterward.
For organizations facing the endless need to hire the best people, that’s really the critical question: how do you identify “dots on the left”—recruits with potential that no one else is seeing? Anybody can hire a person with a gold-plated resume or an Ivy League degree, but the competition for those superstars is fierce. In my experience, what separates world-class companies and leaders from the also-rans is their ability to see greatness in applicants who aren’t flashy and don’t stand out at first glance. Those are the hidden gems, the surprise superstars who can elevate a company beyond the competition.
Before you can spot those individuals, you must drop the natural human tendency to label. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the brain decides how trustworthy a face is within 30 milliseconds of perceiving it, meaning that we judge and label people before we can even really see them, much less learn about them. I’ve been unfairly labeled as laconic and indifferent by people who’ve just met me, but I’m not. I care deeply about people and causes; I’m just not a rah-rah speaker who’s going to scream at you to make a point. There’s a reason for this: after more than 100 firefights in Iraq, it takes a lot to get me charged up. Labeling is dangerous, because it can blind you to the real person beneath the surface—the person who could be a difference-maker for your organization.
How do you get past labels and résumés to find the dots on the left in your hiring process? Here are some suggestions:
Forget about optics. Sometimes, we can judge a book by its cover. If someone arrives for a job interview or important department meeting dressed in a slovenly manner, it speaks of a lack of respect. But optics will only take you so far. For instance, when some people find out I was in the military and have a shaved head, they become intimidated. But I’m a nice guy, not scary at all. Surface impressions are often wrong. What matters is the reason someone looks or sounds the way they do. Clothing or hairstyle might tip you off to a person’s judgment or professionalism, but those are matters of choice. Whether a candidate is attractive or homely, has a high voice or sounds like Barry White, is fit or overweight—those tell you nothing about the character of the person.
Listen to the words they choose. You can tell a lot about someone by his or her vocabulary. This isn’t about education; someone who went to Harvard might sound like a walking Oxford English Dictionary but be a terrible teammate. No, I’m mostly talking about when they use words like “I,” “we,” and “they.” Do they credit themselves with successes while sticking the blame to others when talking about things that went wrong? Are their questions insightful and well-researched or rote and routine?
Find someone hungry. Wealth manager Mario Gabelli told Bloomberg that his firm liked to hire PhDs: poor, hungry and driven. Hunger matters. How badly does the person you’re talking to want the position? For me, fierce hunger can overcome holes in a resume. I want someone who would show up at 4 a.m., work all weekend, and exceed his or her limits to get the job done if needed. How hungry is the person you’re talking to? Did he show up early? Is she filled with energy and ideas? Is he ready to start in the mail room and work his way up?
Look for humility. I’ll know in two minutes if I’m going to like someone based largely on how humble that person is. Now, I’m not talking about refusing to take credit for anything and downplaying accomplishments, because that’s not humility. That’s not having the confidence to own your outcomes. To me, real humility means that in everything you say and do, you make it clear that it’s not about you. It’s about serving—your team, your company, your family, your country. I like people who know that we all serve someone and who take pride in service. Humble people are confident people, because they know that what they’ve done speaks for itself. They don’t need to sell it.
Finally, when in doubt, find a way to have a bonding moment. You don’t really know someone until you have a chance to bond—to see their character revealed. That’s true not just for new hires but for people who are already on a team. How well you really know your team? If you haven’t suffered together, I’d argue that you don’t really know them that well. Character reveals itself when things are unpleasant or people are forced to deal with losing. Play golf or poker. Go camping. I climbed Mount Rainier with six strangers, and when we reached the summit we were friends. There was a bond that came through hardship.
Bottom line, always look deeper. People will tell you who they really are if you let them. Just remember that sometimes people don’t shine because they haven’t yet found the circumstances that will let them shine. Maybe if you give them a chance, they will.
Dave Swanson is a motivational speaker, author, and former U.S. Army infantry platoon leader who engaged in more than 100 firefights while deployed to Sadr City, Iraq. The Dot on the Left is his first book. For more information, visit www.DaveSwansonSpeaks.com.