When solving a tough problem at an innovative company, no employee ever knows the right answer from the beginning. New problems require new solutions. The companies that win in the 21st century are the companies whose leaders can adapt, evolve, and think outside the box.
That’s why it’s critical for managers to hire employees who know how to learn. A proven ability to learn is an art form that goes way beyond a college GPA. Good learners are resourceful, persistent, and inquisitive. They’re comfortable with uncertainty and are able to turn chaos into order, so that they can make quick decisions.
At Brainscape, I’ve strived to build a team that is as passionate about learning as I am. Not only do we emphasize “fast learner” in our job descriptions and initial outreach, but we specifically vet candidates for their learning abilities during the interview process itself.
The following are 3 ways we identify good learners in interviews:
3 Ways to Identify a Good Learner in an Interview
1. Ask difficult “estimation” questions
There’s a reason that top consulting firms use market-size estimation questions during their “case interviews”: They test your ability to be resourceful.
I remember one case interview that I got while interviewing with consulting companies a decade ago: “How many sheep are in Australia?” To answer this question, I had to quickly think of all the available data that would help me estimate this random quantity. How much domestic mutton consumption is there per year? How many tons of wool exports does Australia make? How much meat and/or wool does a single sheep produce? You get the idea.
A candidate who can make use of all the tools at his disposal is a candidate who could teach himself other difficult concepts when direct instruction is not available.
2. Gauge candidates’ persistence at difficult tasks
When asking a difficult question or giving a difficult task — especially if it’s one that you don’t expect a candidate to know how to do right away — pay special attention to how long she persists at trying to find the answer.
A good learner hates giving up. She would rather humbly ask for more time, or for help, than to know that she has not sincerely attempted to learn how to complete the task. Of course, as Donald Latumahina reminds us, there is a limit to such persistence before the point of diminishing marginal returns sets in.
3. Give the candidate ample time to ask questions
A great proxy for someone’s enthusiasm for learning is how much she has prepared for the interview in the first place. And the best way to evaluate preparedness is to see what types of questions she asks you about the role and the company.
At Brainscape, I sometimes evaluate candidates more for the questions they ask me than for their answers to the questions I pose to them. e.g. For a software developer, I’d want specific questions about our technology architecture and project management systems. For a marketing candidate, I’d want to hear questions about our social media initiatives and our marketing analytics. Someone who comes with a long list of such questions about Brainscape is implying that they are a self-driven learner who actively works to fill in her own knowledge gaps. And that’s the type of person I want on my team.
Do you have any other ideas for how to attract and hire good learners for your organization? Please share them in the comments below!
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