Final Word: Hire for curiosity

Given the lack of training and skilled workers in the construction industry it’s inevitable that you’ll be hiring some with limited or no experience. In that case, what do you base your hiring decisions on? How do you know who will be a good employee and who won’t?

One of the best hiring tips I ever heard came from a professional photographer named Perry Struse when I asked him how he picked his assistants. (A bit of background: the photographer’s assistant job is all schlepping and grunt work. When the photographer puts his hand out, the assistant better have a camera loaded, the subject ready and the lights dialed in without having to be asked. It’s a low-pay job with very high demands, yet aspiring photographers vie for it because it’s the best, some say the only, good way to learn the craft.)

What Perry looked for in a photo assistant was not photographic knowledge but curiosity. Curiosity, he said, motivates people to keep their eyes and ears open and drives people to learn new things. What if, I asked, that person knew nothing about photography? Perry brushed aside the objection, saying he almost always spent two or three days, sometimes as long as a week, with his new hires doing one-on-one training. After that, he said a curious, self-motivated assistant will pick up everything else by intuition and osmosis.

In his interviews, instead of grilling applicants on their knowledge of photography, Perry would ask questions such as: “What do you like to read? What are your hobbies? What have you done in the past that you enjoyed the most? What do you do in your spare time?” His goal was to find out if the applicant had enough curiosity and drive to dig deeply into a subject. What Perry wanted to see was a person who could talk enthusiastically about a subject for 20 or 30 minutes. If all the applicant did in his or her spare time was play video games and hang out with friends … well then never mind.

The assistant setting up the lights the day Perry and I had this conversation was hired after telling Perry much of what he knew about cooking. He had taught himself by reading dozens of books, asking questions at restaurants, and experimenting with recipes and dinners he’d give to family and friends – solid evidence of an inquisitive mind and a goal-seeking personality.

If you’re using a skills checklist or some other formula to evaluate applicants and not doing the harder work of finding out if they have a real passion in life then you’re likely to hire somebody who doesn’t care much about anything. Conversely, a person who’s fanatic about cooking or guitar playing or hot rod building will be able to bring that same level of attention and enthusiasm to your business.

You still have to check prior history and make other assessments. But don’t forget to probe for that sense of curiosity. Incurious employees are slow to learn and require lots of supervision. Curious people are self-starters. They’ll absorb information like a sponge, look forward to every new challenge and likely wind up loving construction as much as you do.