Clients often engage us to help them find an innovator for a strategically significant project. They need people who have taken something entirely new and gotten it off the ground, which is all too rare.

So that means we need to help them find a way to interview innovators and distinguish the poseurs and pretenders from the Real Deal Innovators. The world is full of one-hit wonders who, like Forrest Gump, happened to be present once at a successful time in history. Their false confidence and hubris will stand in the way of your innovation as surely as their inflated salary requirements will impoverish your new initiative.

As it turns out, it’s not that hard to separate the pretenders from the doers. I consider you the Real Deal if:

  • You spend more time innovating and putting your ideas into practice than almost anyone in your peer group (which accelerates your expertise far beyond everyone in your field).  You have earned the respect of a few industry  insiders, but you are probably not famous or widely known. (This is widely misunderstood. Being famous is a reverse predictor … it takes time and effort to build fame. Time that could be better spent on innovation.)
  • Unlike the famous people who speak at all the cool conferences, you have the tyranny of daily results driving your innovation. You measure yourself against hard metrics. You don’t come up with ideas and then spend time giving speeches about it. Trying to look smart. Leading to the inevitable decline of your actual skills as you progressively lose touch with reality and spend more time with sycophants.
  • And you probably don’t work in a place where your ideas have to be approved by a committee. You don’t spend all day in meetings. And you certainly don’t spend all day reporting on your results instead of producing them

No, when you are the Real Deal, you spend the vast majority of your time in the trenches. You know that most ideas don’t survive contact with reality. But parts of them do. So you try things, fail, learn, refine, and improve. Constantly experimenting, and constantly challenged by the imperative of producing results. Genius physicist Neils Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

It’s bloody hard to be on the bleeding edge of innovation. Creating the future is always uncomfortable and from day to day it usually feels like failing … until you look back from time to time and see how far you’ve come. (For more check out the Innovation category archive. Scott Berkun’s classic book The Myths of Innovation is also a must-read for innovators.)

So how do you interview an innovator?

  • Listen for the daily grind of it.
  • Listen for the experimentation, the risk, the failure and the grit and resilience to try again.
  • Run from people who describe it as a big success with no moments of uncertainty.
  • And then ask yourself, “Am I really ready to put up with a Real Deal Innovator?”

How do you find and hire people for jobs you don’t quite understand … where the conventional wisdom is failing and the entire field is rapidly evolving? (See The Rise of the Misfit Toys.)

If you’d like to stop wasting your time on the irrelevant, superficial aspects of interviewing, and start understanding the deeper elements of what really predicts success a new hire, read our post on How to Conduct a Job Interview so Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job. 

And, if you prefer all that research and information pulled together into one attractive document you can easily share with others, download our Employer Guide to Interviewing. 


Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process, our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful: 

  • How to Replace Underperforming Employees
  • How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Great Candidates
  • How to Handle Bad Glassdoor Reviews
  • How to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Hiring Process
  • How to Make Your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent

One disclaimer: This advice will be most relevant to hiring managers who are interviewing professional staff in large metropolitan areas. Our perspective is shaped by our work, and we work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We’ve completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, so we make no claim that all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.