Any successful CEO will tell you that the people you hire can make or break your company. So what are the most important traits that hiring managers should look for and how do they spot them in a candidate?
According to Elon Musk, it’s not about what school you went to or your level of education. “You don’t even need to have a college degree or even a high school degree,” Tesla’s CEO said during a 2014 interview with Auto Bild.
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Instead, Musk looks for “evidence of exceptional ability” when it comes to hiring. “If there is a track record of outstanding performance, then it is likely to continue in the future,” he said.
How Elon Musk spots a liar
The problem is that anyone can say they’re the best at what they do, but it can be hard—and sometimes impossible—to know if they’re telling the truth.
Fortunately, Musk revealed his solution at the World Government Summit in 2017. He asks the same question to every candidate he interviews: “Tell me about some of the hardest problems you’ve worked on and how you you decided.’
Because “the people who really solved the problem, they know exactly how they solved it,” he said. “They know and can describe the little details.”
Musk’s method is based on the idea that someone who makes a false claim won’t have the ability to back it up convincingly, so he wants to hear them talk about how they tackled a thorny problem step by step.
Musk’s strategy is effective, the study found
A study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition last December revealed several approaches to detecting liars based on a job interview technique that, oddly enough, supports the effectiveness of what Musk has been doing for years.
One such technique, called Asymmetric Information Management (AIM), is designed to provide the interviewee with a clear means of demonstrating their innocence or guilt to the interrogator by providing detailed information.
“Small details are the lifeblood of forensic investigations and can provide investigators with facts to check and witnesses to question,” Cody Porter, one of the study’s authors and a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, wrote in an article for The Conversation.
Specifically, she added, interviewers should give clear instructions to interviewees that “if they provide longer, more detailed statements about the event of interest, then the investigator will be better able to detect whether they are telling the truth or lying.” .
Porter and her team of researchers found that “truth tellers” tended to seek to demonstrate their innocence and typically provided more detailed information in response to such instructions.
“Liars, in contrast, want to cover up their guilt,” Porter explained. “This means they are more likely to strategically withhold information in response to the AIM method. Their assumption here is that providing more information will make it easier for the investigator to detect their lie, so instead they provide less information.’
If you want the job, tell the truth and be as detailed as possible
The study also found that using the AIM method could increase the probability of detecting liars by nearly 70%. That’s good news for Musk—and other hiring managers who are embracing this science-backed strategy.
As Musk said in the Auto Bild interview, what he really wants to know is whether a candidate has actually solved the problem they claim to have solved.
“And of course you want to make sure that if there was some significant achievement, are they really responsible or was someone else more responsible?” Musk added. “Usually someone who really has to struggle with a problem really understands [the details]and they don’t forget.”
After all, no one wants to hire someone who is all talk and no action. So if you want the job, don’t skimp on the details.
Tom Popomaronis is a leadership expert and vice president of innovation at A massive union. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and The Washington Post. In 2014, Tom was named one of the “40 under 40” by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him LinkedIn.
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