All hiring managers—particularly those at the C-level—search for that elusive superstar hire: That person who believes in the company’s vision, can tolerate risk and change, can strategize and execute, takes both initiative and direction, and always delivers. There are superstars in all disciplines, and across full-time employees, part-timers, and freelancers/consultants.
After interviewing almost 1,000 people for over 60 roles in my startup career to date, I’ve observed three indicators that tend to predict superstar performance:
1. Superstars aren’t stingy with their assets
Superstar hires don’t believe they must be paid before they offer their input. We once hired someone who tantalized our team with the promise of varied ideas she looked forward to exploring if hired—but offered no preview. We hired her anyway, only to realize no ideas that we hadn’t already considered were brewing.
But the strongest candidates realize that even the best idea is meaningless without execution, so they do not fear “giving away the milk” to a potential future employer. Someone who pulls out a notebook and starts drafting ideas, wireframing a site plan, or sketching a product design during the interview telegraphs a mindset of investment in their work.
In our first meeting, a candidate named Scott expertly depicted the competitive landscape, prepared to discuss strategy in a pragmatic way. He asked how I envisioned our supply chain scaling and about plans for long-term unit economics. From there, Scott started to map, on paper, key steps to reach those milestones. Scott joined the company as our Interim COO and continued to create extraordinary value. He designed a world-class merchandising and fulfillment framework and opened doors to new partnerships and vendors willing to entertain revenue share deals—a huge win for a cash-poor startup. Scott knew his value, did not hold his knowledge hostage and showed up with a preview of what he could do.
2. Superstars freely share contacts and make introductions
Superstars understand that facilitating mutually beneficial relationships strengthens their own reach. In contrast, people who act cagey or put out over the prospect of connecting others tend to see success as a zero-sum game: there is only so much to go around. This limiting perspective prevents resource-hoarders from ever reaching superstar status. Executives will always notice the candidate who freely volunteers contacts and fosters relationships within their network.
A woman we hired to freelance on a project mentioned that if we gave her a full-time offer, she would then introduce a former subordinate of hers to us who was also job searching and had the relevant skills for an open position on our team. We ultimately couldn’t create a full-time role for our freelancer, and she never made the introduction to her former subordinate. Her choice was not negative; it simply left opportunity unrealized. The introduction could have availed her former subordinate of a job, and our company of a needed expert. And our former freelancer would have secured a spot top of mind for future referrals., not to mention good karma from supporting a former direct report.
In comparison, Elise is a woman I interviewed for a senior business development role. I had mentioned during our interview that we had a few open positions. Elise, at this very first meeting, offered up the names of two people in merchandising and operations she thought I should speak with. She then sent email introductions, even though this was outside the scope of her interview. I hired her because in a sense, she had just shown me how she operates. At Suitely, Elise continued to build valuable relationships for the company externally, and also tapped her network to build our internal team—something endlessly valuable for both us, and for the people whom we were able to give jobs to.
3. Superstars prioritize culture over compensation
Superstars look at company vision and the people involved to gauge their interest in an opportunity. Only after vetting a role qualitatively do they start discussing money. When an executive sees an interviewee immediately jump on compensation, they may feel the candidate is not sufficiently focused on fit or vision. A candidate whose main goal is maximizing transaction value will feel more like a potential vendor or consultant to the interviewer, rather than a future teammate.
One such interviewee that my team offered a senior-level position to negotiated very hard on the cash side of her offer — she was less interested in equity. Her focus on short term compensation spooked our team, who were in it for the long haul. We switched gears and gave her an outside consulting position, which would make us her client rather than an employer. Eventually, her transactional focus established her relationship with the company as that of a vendor, thus representing a “cost center.” When the company hit financial obstacles, her role was inevitably the first to be cut.
In contrast, when we recruited a woman named Jessica, she grilled us hard on the team, the investors, the mission, and the work. Jessica needed to make up her mind about whether this role would give her the growth and fulfillment she sought. Once she vetted the company and culture, we got to compensation. By that point, I knew that we would stretch to pay her whatever we could and put as much equity on the table as possible. And she knew that she was going to try to make it work with what we could offer. Jessica turned out to be one of the strongest operators I’ve hired, relentlessly driving forward every initiative she took on regardless of setbacks, and fearlessly trouble-shooting even the most ambiguous problems. She went on from Suitely to have doors swinging wide open for her—because she’s a superstar.