“Let your character be superior to the requirements of the job, not vice versa. No matter how great the post, you must show you are greater.” –Baltasar Gracian

It was hiring day. The clock showed 8 AM, and my team of interviewers braced for a long slog of a day. We had 500 eager job applicants staring at us, in a line that snaked out the door and around the building, waiting for an opportunity to work at the newest restaurant in town. The sea of faces was a bit intimidating. To interview everyone, and then somehow narrow it down to the best 100 was a daunting task.

But I was confident. I had an unorthodox, yet solid plan.

The night before, I printed hundreds of copies of a simple sheet. On it were a few carefully crafted interview questions that went beyond the usual “why do you want this job,” or “what experience do you have?” My primary goal was to put together a staff of high-quality, high-character people. Experience in the restaurant industry wouldn’t be a requirement, but a bonus.

I had just three primary questions on that sheet. You’ll notice they have nothing to do with restaurant work, but they tell a lot about character, teachability, and dependability:

  1. Describe your car in its current state, both inside and out. (And if they didn’t have a car, I’d ask about how they kept their bedroom.) This answer was meant to show how meticulous, how careful, and how organized they were. If their external environment was cluttered, odds are that their mental environment was as well.
  2. What is the biggest problem in the world that you have the power to fix? This would tell me a few immediate things: How ambitious were they? How excited were they? What excited them? How deeply did they think about problems they identify? This was the most important question because it had the power to bring out much more than just a verbal answer.
  3. Tell me about a time when you had to teach someone something. What was the topic, and how did you approach teaching it? If they didn’t give much thought to the learning process on the teaching side, how teachable could they possibly be? On the other hand, if they gave too much detail, it could be a sign of ego. Subtle context clues held the answers.

Of course, there is no answer key for interview questions. They could have been lying through their teeth (and a few did). But by taking the interview as a whole, I could paint a decent picture of who they were as a person. I wanted to hear how organized, confident, humble, empathetic, attentive, patient, and unselfish they were—all aspects of the kind of character I was building the organization upon.

By understanding what each applicant was like beyond work, how deeply they thought about problems, and how they thought about the learning process, I could make a pretty good judgement of how they fit within the overall vision for the restaurant. And the fact that they were answering these questions on the spot, after waiting hours in line, would show me how much they could think under pressure—a primary expectation at a large, busy restaurant.

This was a risky, counter-intuitive approach to the hiring process. Not all businesses can get away with it, but the restaurant business can. I was willing to put all of my energy, attention, blood, sweat, tears, and faith into my training methods because if I got the interview process right—if I found the right people—it would be much easier down the line to teach, correct problems when they arose, and to mold the overall restaurant culture.

When building a team, most leaders don’t come with a reliable, foundational plan. They often just depend on word-of-mouth recommendations, shallow credentials, or first impressions. They look for experience, talent, and skill alone. But this approach just doesn’t cut it if you want to have a cohesive and reliable team. Case-in-point, our friend “O” the pizza guy from the last essay (more on him soon). You can teach anyone how to make an amazing pizza. What is impossible to teach is character.

Prioritize competence without character, and you’ll have a team of clever crooks. Prioritize a team full of character without competence, and they may not be very good at first. But they will be teachable. And over time, they will become competent, because their character allows for it. This is why you must optimize for character.

In order to avoid critical issues downstream, you will need to do a lot of work upfront. My process wasn’t perfect, but it allowed me to put together a quality team of hard working, selfless, humble, and teachable individuals. To discover the diamonds in the rough, to find the best of the best, the key is to look for those who are better people than the job description itself. They don’t need to meet every job requirement. But every member of your team should have the capability and the character to fulfill and exceed them.

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