Finding the right people to staff a startup is by far the most important task an entrepreneur faces. And while it’s easy to get caught up trying to assess position-specific experience, there is a much more basic, innate skill that is critical no matter the position. The one personality trait that always marks a good employee is sound judgment. 

After all, there are some people who can take any number of varying inputs and apply bad judgment to arrive at the wrong answer 100 percent of the time. It is their unique gift, and it spells trouble. In a startup where new situations, dilemmas and challenges arise daily -- many of which have no precedent--the application of good judgment may be the only reasonable shot at success. More often than not, those who seem to be exemplary employees on paper are only so-so when it comes to decision making. This is something a growing company cannot afford.

So, how is good judgment classified? Perfection is not the indicator (and at any rate, you’re not going to find it). People with good judgment aren't always correct. Good judgment isn’t guaranteed by previous titles or college majors, either. I would choose an art history major with superior judgment over a business management major with poor judgment any day of the week -- and I have done so. If there is a proven track record of smart decisions, it shouldn’t matter where the employee started. It’s where they’ve been and what they’ve done that truly counts.

Assessing judgment in the interview isn’t easy. One approach is to ask candidates to relive various past situations, to highlight how they make decisions and draw conclusions.  You might ask:

  • Why did you choose the college you did?
  • What do you think the last management team you worked with could have done better? 
  • How do you decide between two seemingly indistinguishable choices?

Questions about a person’s deliberate decision-making in previous circumstances can deliver reliable insights into how they assess facts and people – and how they will behave as a member of your team.

The startup CEO faces a lot of uncharted territory. One bad call and the company could go under. So the presence of prudent decision-making in the assembled team is a priceless asset. Hiring people from their former titles or education will likely get you an employee that is technically qualified to do the job, but hiring for sound judgment will get you an employee that is also capable of doing a good job.