hiring stories that will make you reconsider non-traditional candidates

Recruiting is about building strong teams of driven people – and qualifications can’t always determine that

Oprah Winfrey grew up poor and was an unproven radio host when she was hired at age 19 to do evening news. But her unusual, emotional, ad-lib delivery prompted the higher ups to switch her over to daytime talk shows – and now she’s, well, Oprah.

Nirvana was unknown grunge band from Seattle who released their second album with low expectations, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” caught the attention of several radio DJ’s and the song hit #6 on the singles chart. It skyrocketed Nirvana – as well as alternative rock as a genre – to mainstream success.

Underdogs can become an industry game-changers, just because someone took a chance on them. Sometimes, a smart gamble against convention can pay huge dividends in recruiting.

Next time you consider passing on a candidate who shows promise but isn’t a cookie cutter fit, think of Oprah – or one of the stories below. Here are six stories of recruiters who went with the non-traditional choice, and the unexpected “x factors” each candidate had.

1. A candidate who showed up after being rejected – and got hired

x factors2While looking to build a team for an upcoming project, Shore invited the 10 applicants who aced the quiz to come in for further interviewing. Instead, he found 11. Scott, an applicant who was qualified, but rejected because he missed a deadline, showed up anyway. When Shore reminded him he hadn’t gotten the job, Scott replied, “you don’t understand. I really, really want to work [on this project]’’. The team deliberated, and ended up giving Scott a chance.

Shore explained that some of the more ‘qualified’ applicants wavered in their commitment and motivation. Meanwhile, Scott showed dedication, audacity, and authentic passion. “Experience and eloquence,” Shore explained, “didn’t factor in as much as guts and determination.” Scott ended up being one of the three candidates they took on.

Source: Why I Hired Someone Who Showed Up Uninvited by Michael Shore, CEO of FLS Energy (CBS News)

2. A CEO passed on grads from Harvard & Stanford – and hired someone with no college degree

Jeremy Schifeling, CEO of Break Into Tech was recruiting for a couple substantial jobs including a high-ranking Product Marketing position at LinkedIn and a position at an edtech startup with 10m in venture funding.

x factors1His choice of candidates eschewed the convention of academic superiority, and instead he chose applicants who had certain qualities, regardless of education. Schifeling explains his criteria for choosing candidates, qualities he calls the three H’s ‘Humility’, ‘Hunger’ and ‘Hangworthiness’ (ability to perform under pressure.)

Schifeling ended up rejecting candidates Stanford, Harvard or Yale. Instead, he hired from San Francisco State, Tufts & Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (no college experience at all).

Source: Why I Didn’t Hire Harvard and Stanford Grads for My Startup, by Jeremy Schifeling

3. A recruiter who hired someone who didn’t say any of the ‘right’ answers, use any industry lingo or show she had knowledge of names in the field

Recruiter and career coach Dawn Graham explains why she went with a candidate for an unspecified role who didn’t fit the norms of the ‘traditional’ choice. This candidate didn’t know the industry lingo, she had few connections or familiarity with key players, and she didn’t say all the “right” things in the interview.x factors3

But Graham chose her as the hire for five key reasons:

  1. She was referred by someone Graham personally knew
  2. She could articulate her skills, experience, and their relevance
  3. Right off the bat, she demonstrated commitment.
  4. She had practical, fresh new perspectives
  5. Her career path was clear and bold
Source: Why I Hired the Non Traditional Candidate by Dawn Graham

4. Hiring an executive who battled with mental illness

In a first interview for a C-suite position, a candidate looked her interviewer, BanyanGlobal CEO Rob Lachenauer, in the eye and told him about her struggles with mental illness. To many, that would be career suicide – or at least, would kill the chances of getting hired. Lachenauer, however, reflected on her candor and integrity, and after a couple more interviews, hired her.

x factors4

Lachenauer views his business as a family, and he demands everyone in his family to “be fully human.” He found that the candidate, who preferred to remain anonymous, brought to the team “a deep self-awareness, a keen mind, and profound emotional intelligence.” Since her coming on board, Lachenauer has started asking a new question in his hiring process – in the final interview, he asks the candidate to tell him something deeply meaningful to them personally. If they can’t show any vulnerability, “they’re out”.

Source: Why I Hired An Executive With a Mental Illness by Rob Lachenauer (Harvard Business Review)

5. A retired navy vet who beat out his millennial competition

John White, CMO at Social Marketing Solutions, was hiring for a management role at a PR startup. His choice? Not a young, offbeat entrepreneur, but Jim Cody, a retired navy vet.x factors5Cody didn’t fit the ‘image’ of a startup (tech-savvy millennial) but he had years of management experience in manufacturing after his tenure in the navy, and had developed a highly influential social presence and voice. People listened to him. Cody’s experience in both the military and in key management roles showed he had discipline, and his long tenures in both showed he had commitment.

Source: Why I Hired A Retired Navy Vet For My Startup Instead of A Millennial by John White (Inc)

6. A head of HR and a founder of a different company met at a party – and he left his company to join on as CTO

This story is from the candidate’s perspective – Rajiv Pant, CTO & CPO of Thrive Global, explains how he came to work at Thrive. He recounts how he kept running into exec Ariana Huffington, and from their chats he learned the password to a speakeasy-themed dinner party.x factors6They talked about business, and Pant instantly knew he’d found the next chapter of his life. Pant boils down his decision to join Thrive Global as an executive to three key questions:

  1. Do I support the team’s mission?
  2. Do I have the skills necessary to support the team?
  3. Do I fit the team’s culture?

The same exact criteria can be used by recruiters to evaluate a candidate – just change ‘I’ to ‘they.’

Source: Why I Joined Thrive Global by Rajiv Pant, CTO & CPO of Thrive Global

Finding what matters

All the stories above show someone who was presumably unqualified, but something made them worth it. Keep a lookout for any of these X factors when a candidate is promising, but lacks one of the conventional checklist criteria.