Hiring is very serious business at Google.

For a long time, the search giant was known for lobbing complicated brainteasers at applicants--puzzles such as how many golf balls fit into a school bus?--in the name of hiring the smartest people around. But last year, VP of people operations Laszlo Bock told The New York Times that Google had discovered those brainteasers "are a complete waste of time." So the company instead began conducting "structured behavioral interviews" to learn more about candidates' real-world experience.

More recently, Bock revealed another facet of Google's meticulous hiring processes to Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman wanted to know some interviewing advice to pass on to young people. The most important point Bock made was that Google has a set of five traits it looks for in hiring throughout the company:

  • The ability to learn and pull together disparate pieces of information on the fly
  • Emergent leadership skills, in which employees take leadership roles in a team when appropriate and then step back and let someone else lead
  • Ownership of work and projects
  • The humility to accept the better ideas of others and to take a strong position but then change in the face of new facts
  • Last, and least, is expertise, because the answers may be obvious to an intelligent person and habitual practice might skip useful new answers

The head-slapping why didn't I think of this moment an entrepreneur might have at this point shouldn't result in simply copying Google's list. That's nothing more than slavish imitation. The thing to learn is that any company will likely have a set of particular characteristics that help employees succeed, given the industry and its maturation, business model, strategic imperatives, and other characteristics.

Maybe yours is a professional-services organization and demonstrating expertise is key to gaining the trust of clients so they'll hire you in the first place. Maybe you specialize in the innovation of incremental improvements--learning to do something far better than competitors--and not in devising breakthroughs. Perhaps tenacity is top of your list, because you run a sales-oriented business where you must keep going despite one rejection after another.

Whatever the particular mix is for your company, it already exists. You'll see it in the successful employees, if you can step back and see what they might have in common. You can consider the employees who didn't make the grade, review their interview reports, and remember what it was that you found compelling when hiring them.

With steps like these, you can begin to build a model of what works for your company (and keep an eye as to what might change over time). Know what you really need to look for in hiring, and chances are you'll be far more successful in the process.