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Five Traits of Difference Makers

Executive Resource
December 28, 2021

Go beyond the HR handbook to find the difference makers in your organization by seeking out speed, snap, platform, homework, and persistence.

Crisis breeds competence. Or at least crisis reveals it. Organizations across the spectrum of sectors and industries need all the competence they can muster today. We face a crossroads of success and failure unlike any in recent history. Navigating the right path depends on finding and nurturing the right people. Finding the difference makers. The rock stars. The ones who are worth their weight in gold.

How do you identify the ones you already have? How do you find more of them? Human resources practice informs your search through proven strategies of talent acquisition, professional development, evaluation, and succession planning. New applicants will flood the market in the next few months, relieving the pent-up demand caused by economic contraction. Sharp leaders will take advantage.

Let’s journey beyond the HR 101 handbook and tease out competitive advantage in our current employees and recruitment strategy. Intangible traits do not always reveal themselves in a resume, an interview, or the daily course of work. Difference makers are often missed through standard processes. Sometimes they hide in plain sight.

In my experience, five traits manifest themselves in the most valuable contributors:

These five traits are an observational framework, meant to define certain characteristics that are difficult to pin down. The framework is not meant to replace HR processes or professional development, but to augment our understanding of how individuals achieve. Here’s a brief description of each of the traits, including some ideas for how to discover them in an interview process or in the workplace.

Speed:

As the trait suggests, employees who exhibit speed tend to move fast. But they move fast in particular ways. People with speed do not let perfect be the enemy of the good. They may or may not have high work ethic, but they always work smart, capture knowledge gains, and do not fear failure. Every moment is a learning opportunity for the employee with speed. Every learning opportunity improves their performance on the next go around.

The great management thinker Peter Drucker noted: “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

People with speed are in Drucker’s second category: calculated risk takers with the courage to forge new ground. And the confidence to be unafraid of the consequences.

Discovering Speed: When you review a candidate’s resume that demonstrates fast upward mobility and quick jumps to greater levels of responsibility, you may be looking at someone with inherent speed. But that demonstrated success also might owe more to ambition, political skill or being in the right place at the right time. To discern the difference, ask that candidate about failure. The ones who embrace failure probably have more speed than those who deflect it.

Snap:

Snap your fingers. Go ahead. Hear that sound? What employee does it remind you of? Now go hire more of them. I’m not kidding.

The Snap trait presents a leader with a “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it” feeling. What do you like about the new project manager? “She just gets it.” Why are we sending him to see the client instead of someone more senior? “He just gets it.” How has that cross-departmental team made recommendations so quickly? “They just get it.”

How do you quantify “gets it?” Here’s one idea. I believe Snap is made up of several traits that we describe in interviews and on performance evaluations:

Snap and emotional intelligence, particularly the awareness components, are inextricably tied. People with snap are aware and observant. They pick up on subtle social cues and understand group dynamics. They also tend to be the first people to say: “well that’s odd,” discerning variances in data that identify unseen problems or unintended consequences.

Discovering Snap: There are interview and evaluation methods that tease out the emotional intelligence components that lead to Snap. But there are also some shortcuts. People with Snap tend to be concise. They don’t waste your time and they articulate ideas with an economy of words – and a generosity to their listeners. The best shortcut? Sense of humor. Not everyone possessing great wit and humor also has Snap (false positives exist). But anyone without a sense of humor? Move on, this is probably not the snap you seek.

Platform:

In the training domain, practitioners separate “platform skills” from training competence. Platform skills are presence, poise, tone of voice, intonation, energy, and the speaking cues we associate with good presenters. Training skills are the specific techniques employed to effectively impart knowledge. These components are both important, but the Platform trait is defined by the confidence a person takes when moving center stage in a professional setting. Those who can lead a discussion, communicate the details of a project or process, entertain competing ideas, and facilitate solutions in a collaborative fashion are not easy to find.

More than any of the other four traits, the ability to own the platforms that you are provided can be the difference between advancing into a leadership position or not. If you have a team member who regularly goes to the white board spontaneously during a team meeting and delivers – keep an eye on that person.

Platform is also the hardest trait to develop through training and repetition. But it isn’t impossible. There is a reason Toastmasters has been around for almost 100 years. Managers should also share the wealth; give team members the responsibility for developing agendas, facilitating meetings, and presenting findings.

Discovering Platform: It’s fair game to ask a job candidate to stand and present the results of a pre-assigned exercise during an interview. In this case, the artificial setting of an interview helps your assessment because the candidate is already in the uncomfortable position of a job seeker.

Homework:

Early in my management career, I called this trait “reading the box top.” Boomers and Generation X remember that board games regularly printed the rules of the game on the underside of the box lid. When I was young, there was always one person who would take the time to read the rules (it was not usually me) and the other kids would just play along and learn as they went. Shockingly, the one who read the rules disproportionately won the games.

And so it goes today. Homework, regrettably, does not end when you graduate college. For the best professionals, the time and diligence spent understanding the details takes on an even greater importance. There are points in your career where “I don’t know” is barely an acceptable answer. That’s not to devalue humility (you don’t have to know everything), but a reminder that expertise is more a function of effort than intellect. Devoting the time to understand a situation or problem, including delving into secondary or even tertiary source material, to the depth that one can distill that knowledge in plain language to other team members separates the difference makers in any organization.

Discovering Homework: When designing interview pre-work activities, require written exercises that depend upon the understanding of a reasonable amount of text (2000-3000 words), not just a response to a task question. The quality of the responses won’t necessarily assess which candidates possess the best homework traits, but they will usually prove who does not. The same concept carries over to the workplace.

Persistence:

When Rick Barnes was the head basketball coach of the Texas Longhorns, a post-game interviewer asked him about his player Royal Ivey. Ivey was not a star; he did not rack up points, rebounds, and assists like an All-American. But on this night, he played an excellent game and the interviewer noted that Ivey had come up big, even though he was not “one of the more talented players on the team.”

Miffed, Barnes cut the interviewer short with this memorable line:

“Playing hard is a talent.”

In Barnes’s opinion, the ability to play hard is not an intangible, complementary effort to make up for deficient talent in other areas. Playing hard is a distinct talent that can be learned, applied, and measured.

Most professional fields are faced with the challenge of teaching young professionals “how to work.” This doesn’t mean that new employees do not know how to work hard or that they don’t have adequate work ethic. Anyone who earns a law degree, a CPA, a PE, or any number of other credentials has proven a capacity for hard work.

What’s required in the professional space is a continuing willingness to work the problem. Among people who exhibit persistence, it becomes a continuing need to solve problems. The psychological definition of persistence notes that this need comes “in spite of fatigue or frustration.”

In modern parlance, some refer to this as “grit.” I prefer the term “relentless,” but it has negative connotations! The point is not how we refer to the trait, but that persistence is learned behavior. It’s also perhaps the easiest of the five traits to identify.

Whatever happened to Royal Ivey? He persisted his way to a 10-year career in the NBA, mostly by applying the singular talent of playing hard.

Discovering Persistence: I once sat second chair with a colleague who interviewed a candidate for an entry-level consulting job. The interviewer set up a project management scenario and asked a series of questions to the candidate about how they would respond to a client. Every time the candidate answered, the interviewer continued the scenario down a more and more convoluted and borderline :comical path, illustrating the pitfalls and decision points that lead to failure. The endless series of “and then what would you do?” questions were designed to determine when the candidate would give up. She never did. She worked the problem. We hired her. Persistence.

Summary:

Speed, Snap, Platform, Homework, and Persistence are not concepts easily captured on an application. But they can be an effective shorthand to describe those intangible traits that set people apart. Everyone has a different mix of these five traits. Very few folks exhibit all these traits, and not all organizations require all of them. My objective is to expand our thinking about the traits we recruit for, develop, and nurture. Every edge helps.  

 

For other articles in this series:

© Copyright 2022 Adam Jones


Adam Jones writes and speaks regularly on management, leadership, and strategic governance. He is the organizational
assessment practice leader for Weaver and Tidwell, L.L.P.

 

Five Traits of Difference Makers