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4 Signs That a Candidate Is Really a Superstar (Gut Feeling Is Not One of Them)

A fellow executive recruiter once told me that he had a “sixth sense” for evaluating talent and making hiring decisions. He claimed that he could tell if someone was a superstar within seconds of seeing him/her. “If I’m at the airport or some other place with lots of people, I can spot the superstars within seconds,” he once boasted to me.

Most people think they are above average- at work and outside of work. Psychologists have a name for this tendency. It’s called illusory superiority. It shows up in many areas of life. For example, when asked about their driving ability, most Americans think they are above average. In fact, one survey by Allstate found that 64% of Americans rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good” at driving.

In reality, much fewer than 64% of Americans are actually “excellent” or “very good” at driving. In that same survey by Allstate, 89% of the participants admitted to driving over the speed limit. In addition, 70% admitted that being distracted while driving has caused them to slam their brakes, miss a traffic signal, swerve to avoid an accident, or actually cause an accident.

Overcoming Illusory Superiority with Hiring Decisions

Many recruiters, leaders, and HR executives think they have an “eye for talent.” Unfortunately, this kind of illusory superiority is one key reason why so many hiring decisions are complete misses. According to research by CEB, only 20% of external hires are actually considered high performers after their first year on the job.

If you make hiring decisions based on your gut feeling, you will make many more hiring mistakes than you should, and your organization will lose millions of dollars in the process. Despite what some people want to believe, gut feeling has no correlation to actual hiring success. The following four factors are much stronger indicators that someone is really a superstar.

(1) Track record of quantifiable and relevant results

While some roles are easier to quantify than others, superstars have no trouble articulating specific, positive results that they have achieved. Superstars get things done, their impact is clear and measurable, and they make everyone around them better.

Look for people with a track record of exceeding expectations and outperforming peers. It’s a red flag when a candidate is unable to discuss how their performance was measured, or when someone is unable to clearly articulate how he/she exceeded expectations.

In addition, beware of candidates who only highlight achievements at the team or company level. Giving credit where it is due is certainly positive. However, a candidate who only talks in terms of “we” or “they” might just have tagged along while others did the real heavy lifting.

(2) Track record of stability (up to a point)

Superstars are resilient, stable, and thoughtful about when and how they make career changes. Consider “the 3:10 Rule” recommended by Jeff Hyman in his excellent book titled Recruit Rockstars. Look for people who have worked for three or fewer employers over the past 10 years. Short tenures suggest one of two things. Either the person has not been valued by prior employers, or the person is hasty in accepting/leaving positions. Both are troubling.

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, I know a CEO who is routinely hired by private equity firms for short periods of time. He helps them get their portfolio companies ready for sale. Then, after the sale, he is on to his next gig- usually with another company in a PE firm’s portfolio.

The last point on stability is that staying with one company for too long can be negative as well. For example, if a candidate has been with one company for longer than 10 years, that could be a sign of complacency, risk aversion, or an inability to succeed in other environments.

(3) Track record of being pulled into new roles

Superstars are rarely pushed out of a company that is doing well, and they rarely leave an organization without lining up their next role first. Look for people with a track record of being hired by customers, business partners, or former colleagues/managers.

It is also a good sign when a candidate has been recruited into a role by a reputable search firm/recruiter and/or a company that is backed by private equity. Candidates typically have to pass through a stricter vetting process in such scenarios.

(4) Track record of progression (with runway for more)

Superstars always seek bigger challenges, and they are always being asked to take on more responsibility. Look for people with a history of being promoted and taking on more challenging roles (both internally and externally).

People who have been in the same role for a while often try to highlight their years of experience. However, ten years of doing the same job isn’t really ten years of experience. It might actually just be one year of experience ten times in a row.

The last point with progression is that you want people whose best days are still in front of them. A common mistake is hiring people for what they have done in the past, rather than what they are likely to do in the future. For example, every year, many professional sports teams make this mistake. They over-pay for athletes who are past their prime and less motivated and capable than they were earlier in their careers.

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About the author: As the Founder of Stronger Talent, Pete Leibman recruits exceptional leaders for innovative sports, fitness, and wellness companies. Throughout his career, Pete has helped clients recruit exceptional leaders at the Board, C-Suite, Senior Vice President, Vice President, General Manager, Managing Director, and Director levels. Pete’s work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and, and he is the author of two books and over 250 articles on career management, peak performance, and executive recruiting.

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