Startup hiring is tricky. You struggle with limited resources but are also faced with infinite things that you need to get done, which means you have to get your hires just right. Not only do you have to make sure you carefully avoid the damage that comes from bad hires, but you have to hire people who are able to handle both their specific job responsibilities while also helping you seize new opportunities as they present itself. Which begs the question: what is the key skill your startup should be looking for?
The answer is grit.
Psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth brought the concept of grit to international attention with her hit book by the same title: Grit. In it she argues that talent isn’t the best predictor of success. Instead it is a combination of passion and persistence – that is to say, grit – that helps people succeed. People who can dedicate themselves to a hard task, get up when they fall down, and continuously find ways to learn and improve tend to outperform their more talented peers.
Consider this from your startup’s perspective: would you be better off with someone who’s got A-level talent or someone who can keep pushing through all the challenges and essential pivots that come with startup life?
Why Grit Trumps Talent in a Startup
Startups are best described as fast-moving balls of chaos. For every opportunity that presents itself you’ll probably face a new crisis as well. The only way to manage this is to have people who work hard, learn quick, and give 110%. Gritty people will be able to learn and adjust with you, which will drive success more than pure talent can.
For example, let’s say your startup just realized your target audience is incredibly active in the blogging community and you need to start writing for them. Unfortunately, you don’t have a copywriter in-house, you can’t afford freelancers, and no one on your team has ever blogged before. If you have people with grit they’ll be willing to give blogging a try, learn from it, and improve so you can grow your customer base.
On the other hand, if you had people who were quite talented, but lacked grit, they probably wouldn’t be interested in pushing through the unfamiliar task of blogging, which means you’ll have lost a key opportunity. This is why grit trumps talent.
How to Interview for Grit
Grit is a hard thing to interview for, but you can get a sense for it using behavioral questions, which are key to any effective interview. In behavioral questions you ask people for examples from their own life and/or present them with hypothetical situations and ask how they would handle it.
Here are some questions you can use to interview for grit:
- Tell me about a personal project/goal of yours that took a long time to complete. What happened?
Why it works: Grit requires the determination to see things through. Personal projects can consist of virtually anything, but they all share the attributes of being difficult and requiring dedication. Examples could include running a marathon, renovating a house, working full-time while in school, etc. The outcome of the project isn’t as important as how people persevered, handled challenges, and overcame setbacks.
- Imagine that we were to hire you for this job, but then tomorrow we realize we have a big opportunity that is in a completely different area than your skillset. What should we do?
Why it works: This checks how flexible people are and how willing they are to learn new things.
- Tell me about one of the biggest failures you’ve experienced. What happened afterwards?
Why it works: This checks how well people handle failure and how willing they are to learn from it rather than run from it. Candidates with grit won’t just tell you about their failures, they’ll tell you how they learned from them and either tried again or took those lessons on to a new project.
There are a lot of things that go into grit, so we highly recommend giving Duckworth’s book a read. In the meantime, start looking at your company and your interview practices to see how you can hire more gritty people and drive more success.
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