28 Top Executives Share What They Look For In Hires

Sheryl Sandberg Ignition 2

Most CEOs don’t have the time to personally interview every person who joins their company. But they absolutely set the priorities and culture that factor into every single hiring decision, and are intensely involved with top level hires.

Those are some of the most important decisions they can make, so company leaders tend to have strong opinions about the kind of people they want at their company. 

So whether you’re eyeing the C-suite or trying to figure out what gets you in the door at some of America’s biggest companies, we’ve compiled some of the best tips executives have shared over the years on what impresses them, including top tech CEOs like Steve Ballmer, entrepreneurial icons like Elon Musk, and empire builders like Richard Branson.   

Richard Branson, founder and chairman, The Virgin Group

'The number one thing that matters, especially if you're going to be manager at Virgin, is how good you are with people. If you're good with people and you really, genuinely care about people then I'm sure we could find a job for you at Virgin. I think that the companies that look after their people are the companies that do really well. I'm sure we'd like a few other attributes, but that would be the most important one.'

From a 2005 American Express event, via Business Pundit

Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors and SpaceX

Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

'When I was first at Facebook, a woman named Lori Goler, a 1997 graduate of HBS, was working in marketing at eBay and I kind of knew of her socially. And she called me and said, 'I want to talk with you about coming to work with you at Facebook. So I thought about calling you,' she said, 'and telling you all the things I'm good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead, I want to know, what's your biggest problem and how can I solve it?'

'My jaw hit the floor. I'd hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that. I had never said anything like that. Job searches are always about the job searcher, but not in Laurie's case. I said, 'you're hired.''

From a 2012 speech to the graduating class at Harvard Business School, via Business Insider

Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO, Starbucks

John Chambers, chairman CEO, Cisco

'First thing I want to ask you about: Tell me about your results. I never get hard work confused with success. So I'd walk you through the successes, and what did you do right.

'I'd also ask you to tell me about your failures. And that's something people make a tremendous mistake on. First, all of us have had mistakes and failures. And it's surprising how many people say, 'Well, I can't think of one.' That immediately loses credibility. It's the ability to be very candid on what mistakes they've made, and then the question is, what would you do differently this time?'

From a 2009 interview with The New York Times

Virginia Rometty, chairman and CEO, IBM

'... in a nutshell, you know, clients would often say to me, 'What's your strategy?' And I would say, 'Ask me what I believe first, that's a way more enduring answer.'

'And in the world you and I live in now where everything's changing so quickly, you can't predict everything, and--and this is probably the most important 'and'--and most of us have workforces that are very bright, very intelligent, that want to be engaged in a broad way. This idea of a strategic belief is saying that you can agree amongst the firm for the future, on some really big arcs of change, I would call them.'

From a 2012 interview with Fortune

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon

'When they wake up and are thinking in the shower in the morning, they're thinking about customers, and thinking about how to invent on behalf of customers, and they find that fun. And if you get here, and you find that you get your motivation from having a more competitive-focused culture, you might find our culture dull. We don't. We find a culture intensely fun.

'Some companies, if you wanted to put it into a single word, they have a conqueror mentality, and we have an explorer mentality. And the people who like our mentality of exploration and pioneering, they tend to stay here, and have fun here, and that's self-reinforcing.'

From a 2013 interview with the Harvard Business Review

Jenn Hyman, founder and CEO, Rent The Runway

'I'm very appreciative for my job, and so I look for other people with that 'appreciation chip.' I'm happy every single day because I love what I'm doing. For my business to succeed, I need other people who are optimistic and have the 'glass half-full' mentality.

'Start-ups and small businesses are challenging and hard, there are days when you don't know if you're doing to get through it. I want people around me who are constantly able to understand that it's a privilege to build something great from scratch.'

From a 2012 interview with Business Insider

Mickey Drexler, CEO, J. Crew

Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox

'I think that the best way to get the best out of people is to not force them to be something other than who they naturally are. Now what do they have to be? They have to be respectful. You can't be ridiculously disrespectful.

'You can't, you know, use bad language. There's certain things that you have to have kind of reasonably good moods. Besides that, you have to have a very strong opinion with some facts and data to stand it up, you have to prove that you are right more times than you are wrong, and then you better walk into the room with something to say because otherwise you don't really add a whole lot of value to the group.'

From a 2011 interview with Marketplace

Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO, American Express

'At the end the day because I believe so strongly in leadership, what I look for first, what I try to assess is integrity. For me integrity is the consistency of words and actions.

'What I believe is that if you're a leader you have to inspire trust. So integrity is something that I probe for. Part of the way that you do that is to ask people questions on some of the most difficult issues that you confront. 'Take me through where you felt you had to compromise your values.''

From a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal

Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO, Goldman Sachs

'I look for two things that may sound a bit inconsistent, but they're reconcilable. I look for people who are willing and able to get very deeply involved in something. And at the same time I like people with broad interests, so that they're well-rounded and interesting people, and are interested in a lot of different things.

'I'd give a job sooner to somebody who'd shown that he or she could really dig down deep in something--and give that person a job in an area of totally different content--than take somebody who had superficial experience across a broad swath and no deep experience in anything.'

From a 2009 interview with The New York Times

Kay Krill, president and CEO, Ann Taylor

'I graduated from college, and I did not know what I wanted to do. Macy's (M) came to campus to interview for their training program, and I thought, 'Let me give it a try.' I got the job and fell in love with the industry. The president of Macy's at the time said, 'If you don't wake up every morning dying to go to work, then retailing is not for you; it has to be in your blood.' It was in my blood. I love the fact that every day is different.'

From a 2012 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek

Phil Libin, CEO, Evernote

'When I'm interviewing people, I like to give them a writing test. I ask them to write a few paragraphs in normal English, or whatever language they're going to be working in the most, about a topic I assign. I try to keep the topics short and useful.

'... I find that you can tell a lot more about a person's personality from a few paragraphs of their writing than from a lengthy verbal interview. Many people can pretend to be something they're not in person, but very few people can do so in writing.'

From a 2011 post at Inc.

Joseph Jimenez, CEO, Novartis

'The first thing I look for is people who have a high emotional need to deliver results. And it might sound simple. But there are people who are incredibly passionate about what they do--for example, if you're a scientist, and you're working on a particular drug, and your drug does not get approved by the F.D.A. in the first round of approval, are you sleeping at night? Or are you not sleeping at night? And if you're not sleeping at night, we're hiring you.

From a 2011 interview with The New York Times

Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO, Box

'We have about 15 recruiters, and I talk with them two or three times a day. I personally interview a lot of candidates. We have a lot of employees with amazing skills. Some of them also have special abilities. We have one of the world's best jugglers and one of the country's best baton twirlers. Circus skills are a pretty important quality around here. I can balance a soda can on its edge. But I definitely wouldn't hire someone like myself, because I'm too difficult to manage.

'One of our core values is 'Get shit done.' We have a very execution-oriented culture. It's kind of the opposite of a culture that has lots of process, lots of bureaucracy, slow decision making.'

From a 2012 interview with Inc.

Mark Pincus, co-founder and CEO, Zynga

'I keep my eye out for someone who has achieved a lot, so they've been a great athlete or on a great team, but then something didn't go quite right, and they're still very hungry and want to be C.E.O. of something. I like to bet on people, especially those who have taken risks and failed in some way, because they have more real-world experience. And they're humble.

'I also like to hire people into one position below where they ought to be, because only a certain kind of person will do that--somebody who is pretty humble and somebody who's very confident.'

From a 2010 interview with The New York Times

Ron Johnson, CEO, JC Penney

'The key is we want all of them to be spending every minute of their day helping the customer look and live better. With our new technology next year, every employee will be checking people out on an iPad. We don't need cashiers. Those employees become specialists in the area they have passion about.

'If you go to the Apple store, you see a lot of employees helping out, right? The one beauty about retail is there is a lot of turnover. Every year, about half the employees will change. That gives us a chance to hire people who are specialists in our new model.'

From a 2012 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek

Trina Gordon, president and CEO, Boyden World Corp

'My style is very informal. I like to put people at ease and feel as if we're having a very good conversation. I'm going to gain much more insight into somebody if they are comfortable and feel as if they can open up and be honest.

'I used to have this theory, and it's still valid, that shoes tell me a lot. It's not so much fashion; it's sort of like eyes to the soul. Are they well-maintained? Do they come in with mud on their heels, or is there a good shine? Are there holes on the bottom of their soles? It's just one of my small little tells.'

From a 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal

Alan Mullally, president and CEO, Ford

'Your résumé tells a lot about what you've done. I would want to know what you've enjoyed about what you've done, what areas you feel comfortable in making a contribution right away, what areas have you struggled with, what do you really want to do, and, especially, what are your strengths? And between what you've done and the way you communicate, I can just look in your eyes and tell a lot.'

From a 2009 interview with The New York Times

Christine Day, CEO, Lululemon

'Taking responsibility, taking risks, and having an entrepreneurial spirit are qualities we look for in our employees. We want people who bring their own magic. Athletes are great within our culture; they're used to winning, as well as losing.

'They know how to handle--and fix--defeat. Also, they're team players. Currently, 70 per cent of our managers are internal hires, so they've grown up in the culture. But there's also training to ensure that each employee carries out the Lululemon mission of 'elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness.''

From a 2012 interview with Fortune

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, Google

Ben Silbermann, founder and CEO, Pinterest

'I'm sort of introverted. And when you take a sort of introverted person and ask him a lot of questions on the phone, sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad things happen. That's been the best thing about being able to hire people--you can hire people who know all this stuff you don't know.'

From a 2012 interview with The Huffington Post

Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn

'Today, the question I'm asked most often by students and interns is how best to achieve their career goals. As simple as it sounds, the short version of my response is that you have to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish (optimising for both passion and skill, and not one at the exclusion of the other). As soon as you do, you'll begin manifesting it in both explicit and implicit ways.'

From a 2012 post on his LinkedIn blog

Robert Iger, chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company

'You've got to be an optimist. You can't be a pessimist. When you come to work, you've got to show enthusiasm and spirit. You can't let people see you brought down by the experience of failure. You don't have that luxury. I believe in taking big risks creatively. If you fail, don't do it with mediocrity--do it with something that was truly original, truly a risk.'

From a 2011 interview with the Harvard Business Review

Ed Heffernan, president and CEO, Alliance Data Systems

'You don't need specialists who are expert at what they do. It's much more important to find someone extremely well-organised, articulate and with solid social skills. You can pop them anywhere, and they'll end up doing extremely well.'

From 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal

Karl Heiselman, CEO, Wolff Olins

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