What qualities does a brilliant technical startup founder with unorthodox hiring practices look for in his non-technical hires? As a recruiter, this is when my ears perk up.
Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress and Automattic, the former being the hosting solution for a quarter of the world’s websites and the latter being a billion dollar plus startup with nearly 500 employees. Automattic has an unusual model (less unusual these days) of having their workforce highly distributed across many states and countries and leveraging the latest communication tools to stay connected. Matt prides himself on his hiring process and every Automattic prospective employee must have a final 1 on 1 with him regardless of their title.
Mullenweg was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast recently and a listener asked him what qualities he looks for in non technical people, the answer to which ended up being a major gem of the podcast:
“There’s a saying in basketball…you can’t coach ‘tall’. In non technical people, I look for qualities you can’t teach. Four of the qualities I look for that you can’t really teach are work ethic, taste, integrity, and curiosity. If someone has those four things, you can learn pretty much anything in the world. At one point all experts in something knew nothing about that topic. If someone has those four things, they’ll be able to rise to whatever the job requires of them.”
Unpacking these a bit, work ethic and integrity are spot on but fairly straightforward. Everyone wants to hire a super hard working, value driven person. Curiosity and taste are a bit more interesting.
In recruiting, I’ve long believed that intellectual curiosity is the number one factor that determines someone’s ceiling in the business. Curiosity fuels the fire of learning. If a person naturally has that tendency, they will learn at 10x the rate of someone who stays in their lane and isn’t curious about the world around them. The curious recruiter also has the natural tendency to reach out to new people on a regular basis simply to see what they’re up to and learn more about their life. This isn’t novel just for recruiters or salespeople either. Even accountants these days need to score off the charts on intellectual curiosity if they want to excel in a company that values skillset flexibility and taking an active role in other aspects of the business (insert the ‘wear many hats’ cliche).
At first, I didn’t understand why taste was so important that Mullenweg thought in merited inclusion. But thinking about it further, I realized it has nothing to do with vanity or acquiring expensive things. It’s about details. It’s about being perceptive enough to the world that you can recognize good music, good coffee, good sports equipment, good electronics, or a nice suit vs the poor versions of those things. And in recruiting, this is huge. The name of the game is being able to perceive details about a person’s background, aspirations, and skill levels and then successfully match that to a company. If you can’t see the details, you’re in trouble.
The Big Question for Hiring Managers: How do you Identify These?
For work ethic and integrity, nothing beats references. Ask a candidate point blank for phone numbers of their last 3-4 direct managers. Then talk to those people and you’ll know the story.
Intellectual curiosity is something you can tease out in an interview. One of the crucial story lines to look for in someone’s career is a history of taking on roles and responsibilities that they weren’t hired for. Ask them what successful projects they completed that weren’t initially part of their job description. Taste can be tricky, but one way to get at it is to find common ground. When hiring for accounting, this could resemble discussing software packages. If the candidate gets excited drilling down on elegant details and features of the software, they likely have the kind of taste you’re looking for.
In the end, a hire with these four qualities will add tremendous value to your life as a manager and your organization. They’ll learn exponentially, they’ll teach others, and they’ll probably end up teaching you.