As you shuffle through résumés of job candidates, don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect mixture of background and technical skills. The most important qualification a job seeker can possess isn’t always evident on paper. Be sure your new hires have entrepreneurial DNA, write Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey in this article, a version of which first appeared in the magazine and website Ceramic Industry. (Used by permission.)


Hiring an entrepreneurial employee is one of the best things you can do for your bottom line, because these individuals will be self-reliant, engaged, empowered, and innovative problem solvers. In today’s ever-changing business world, adaptable and entrepreneurial employees are your most valuable competitive advantage. Remember that you can teach plenty of new skills to a self-starter, but it’s not so easy to teach clock punchers to think like owners.

Here are seven ways to help you determine if a job candidate has the entrepreneurial DNA you seek.

1 | Are they willing to bet on themselves?

Entrepreneurs don’t have any income unless they are constantly satisfying their customers, and they’re constantly looking for ways to increase their income, profits, and growth. In other words, they bet tomorrow’s paycheck on today’s ideas and effort. Ask candidates if they want to get paid for attendance (e.g., receive a salary), or if they’re willing to bet a portion of their compensation on their own performance. Seek out someone with self confidence and demonstrable self reliance who knows they can add significant value to your bottom line. Of course, this means you’ll need to implement some kind of profit-sharing plan if your company doesn’t have one already.

2 | Pay attention to body language

Watch how each candidate moves. You can do this unobtrusively by asking them to get a file from the next office or a cup of water from a nearby table. Do they lumber aimlessly, take their time, shuffle back slowly, flop down into the chair and lean on their elbows? Is their posture like a question mark? Or do they move with hustle, determination and purpose? Keep in mind that when people sit erect and lean slightly forward, they’re indicating engagement and interest.

Entrepreneurs’ confidence shows in their posture and their body language. They have prepared themselves by learning about your company and display self assurance when they are interviewed and scrutinized by strangers like you. These “tells” are physical evidence of your candidate’s attitude and self esteem.

3 | Talk about their mistakes

Ask candidates to describe the biggest mistake they ever made professionally, and more importantly, what they did about it. In particular, discover whether they took responsibility, fixed the mistake quickly, and went on with their project, or if they blamed others and were “victimized.”

Successful entrepreneurs know that blame is disempowering while doing what can be done to prevent reoccurrence is staying in control. Ask follow-up questions to see how well each candidate analyzed what happened and whether they took steps to prevent the same thing from happening again. Entrepreneurs can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. They build their successes on the backs of their mistakes.

4 | Look for evidence of resourcefulness

Ask job seekers how they solved a professional problem when they lacked the time, support or funds they needed. Listen for evidence of how they used their imagination, asked for help and thought outside the box.

Specifically, figure out if they identified, repurposed and used unlikely resources to achieve their goals in spite of the obstacles. Take note of how they rephrased the problem, saw the bigger picture and enlisted the help of strategic allies who would also benefit from the solution. See if their solution solved more than one problem. Entrepreneurs know that the ball is always in their court.

5 | Gauge their preparedness

Does the candidate expect you to ask all the questions? Do they just react to your initiatives? Do they wait for you to tell them about your company, its goals, its successes and its challenges? Or do they ask you questions?

Candidates with entrepreneurial DNA will treat you like a prospect for their services. They think of everyone as a customer for them, their service or their product. They know that the best sales pitch is, “I can help you sell your product,” and they can’t do that unless they have thoroughly researched your company in preparation for the interview. Entrepreneurial candidates will be familiar with your products, your challenges and your history. They’ll come to the interview with a pen and notepad and a list of questions.

6 | Determine how they work on a team

Contrary to popular opinion, entrepreneurs are not loners. Realistically, they know that they must build, depend on and be an essential part of a team. This requires respect for how each player contributes to the overall success of the company.

Look for candidates who show an interest in understanding all the jobs, procedures, outsourced services and suppliers that keep the customer loyal. Ask them how their last job fit into their company’s big picture. Ask them how they worked with their teammates and improved communication both inside and outside their previous company.

7 | Test their attentiveness and organization

During the final portion of the interview process, tell the candidate more about what the job entails, who they will be working with and why, how the job supports the customer experience, how your company is organized, and what the performance expectations are. Be sure to include how the funds get from the ultimate consumer to the company to cover their paycheck. After your explanation is finished, ask the candidate to write a one-page summary of your company, the money trail, how they will be working with their colleagues, and why they qualify for the job. Then tell them it’s due by 5 p.m. the next day. This summary will tell you volumes about the candidate’s comprehension, organization, communication and ability to hit a deadline; these are all attributes of an entrepreneur.

Additional Considerations

Other key “tells” that can help you spot entrepreneurial DNA include assertiveness, dependability, sociability, humility, practicality, tenacity, empathy and humor. If a candidate possesses them, many of these attributes will be evident in their responses to the questions shared above.

Finally, remember, it’s not enough to say you are looking for entrepreneurial DNA in your candidates—you and your company have to walk the walk. You must build a culture of permission, enthusiasm, inclusiveness, recognition, and acknowledgment, and have a performance-based compensation plan. If you want your employees to be more entrepreneurial, create the fertile ground in which they will bloom.


BY | Article by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey are coauthors of The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People, companion to the best-selling business book The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand.

VIA | A version of this article appeared in the magazine and website, Ceramic Industry. Used with permission.


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