NY Times: Interview of Kon Leong: Interviewing for Brains and Drive

Brains and drive are the real prerequisites of future successful hires

The New York Times had a great interview with Kon Leong co-founder, president, and chief executive of ZL Technologies, an e-mail and file archiving company. One of the things that really struck me in the interview was the way that he spoke to his interviewing process. I know that in my line of work we spend a lot of time trying to identify people who are “great fits” for the job. In our case, this often means Systems Engineering and other technical backgrounds. I thought it was interesting that he never once mentioned this in his coverage of his interview process. He was truly focused on what that person wanted and where they wanted to be. Basically, he said he was looking for people with “brains and drive” because those are the real prerequisites for the job. I don’t know that we will completely do away with our vetting for technical skills but the interview definitely made me re-think some of what we emphasize.

We have lucked into some great people that only made it onto our team because they came recommended by someone we respected or we had a chance to work with them before hiring them. It makes me wonder how many great candidates we miss because they don’t fit the precise technical background we are looking for in most of our positions. In fact some of our positions do require very specific technical skills. However, we look for these technical skills across a far broader number of roles than we probably need to and for every role in our company the most important skills or prerequisites are really those he mentions, drive and brains. As long as you have those we can probably teach you the rest, without them it doesn’t matter what type of technical chops you have—you won’t be successful.

In short he asks a lot of soft skill questions, which makes me think of the blog post I wrote about the “5 skill areas needed to transform your organization,” which includes personal productivity as one of those areas of focus. Kon Leong broadens the lens to focus in on the core beliefs, work ethic, and raw materials a person is bringing to the job. He also focuses on their ability to think outside the box and make their own judgments. These are critical skills in today’s business world because so much of the work that we do is fluid in nature. Technical experts and other specialists are becoming rarer except in the largest organizations as middle management shrinks and the day-to-day business of doing business changes to accommodate the rapid pace of innovation and evolving operating environments. Kon Leong seems very focused on getting people who can evolve, scale, and make their own decisions—perfect for the rapidly changing environment I describe in “Why do I need to “Transform” my organization?

Here are some of the specific questions Kon Leong mentions using in the NYT article in interviews:

  • I would want to know your goals for the job. Is it money? Learning? Fulfillment?
  • How willingly do you accept stuff, and how willing are you to question things?
  • How creative are you in finding your own answers?
  • Are you willing to learn from your mistakes? Do you do that automatically?
  • Are you willing to set the bar higher?
  • Are you able to deal with failure? Can you bounce back from it?

What do you think about this sort of open ended approach to interviewing? Where do you focus your questions within interviews?

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