Hire the best people by asking one question

One great thing about being fired is you get lots of time to reflect on your professional ups and downs; to recall the best and worst people you’ve worked with and synthesize everything into tidy anecdotes. Without a doubt, my favorite people all have one thing in common: mentorship.

I had a terrific mentor at my first ad agency. He helped me put together a writing portfolio, hired me as a project manager and nudged me when a better opportunity came along. More than a decade later, I still seek his counsel. He’s weighed in on everything from recipe development, to logo concepts, to the final proofreading for my start-up Mostly Made.

Though there was no formal mentorship program, the structure of a previous job afforded many opportunities to advise colleagues. While we’ve all shuffled jobs, companies and industries, I still enjoy frequent conversations with them. Except now, as they have built skills in new industries, I am just as likely to be the beneficiary in our exchanges.

Indeed, I value coaching so much that I voluntarily do it in almost every encounter where that sort of thing isn’t considered weird. Although I offered advice to all the people I worked with, only a few accepted. The rest shrugged it off, seemed indifferent or already knew everything without my suggestions; thank you very much. That’s when something dawned on me. Mentorship is a two-way street and some people are less receptive to a potential mentors’ outreach. 

Now, maybe I just wasn’t the right personality fit for those who declined, and that’s ok. But I noticed something else about those I mentored – they were the most talented people in the company. This isn’t just my opinion. They received the best reviews, were promoted, trusted with the biggest clients and were given the responsibility to train new hires.

I don’t credit their success to my influence, but instead their capacity to seek mentorship is a characteristic the very best people seem to possess. It demonstrates that they value outside perspectives and are coachable, curious, and committed to improvement. Structured corporate mentorship programs can help with development, but exceptionally talented people seem to find their own mentors organically.

In the theoretical scenario where I’m responsible for hiring talent, this is the most important interview question I will ask:  “Tell me about a meaningful mentor, teacher or coach you’ve had. How have they influenced you? Are you still in touch with them?”