I have written several times before about the challenges that come with hiring great players for your team. But deciding what skills or experience to value in a new employee, especially in this time of rapid change, can be especially challenging. Given that the rate of change will only continue to increase into the future, finding employees who can keep up and adapt has become incredibly important for every organization out there.

But how do you evaluate whether someone is a good candidate or not? You can start by tossing the resume and looking for the polymath--which is a fancy word for a learner. 

I understand that the first thing everyone does when they look to hire someone is to scan their resume to see what relevant experience they're bringing to the table. If you're looking to hire someone to manage a call center in a foreign country, for example, you'll be looking for someone who has that kind of experience on their resume. That makes sense, of course. After all, you wouldn't hire a recent graduate from clown school for the job.

But if you only look to hire someone who has done the job as it has existed in the past, you'll be doing your organization a disservice. Why? Because the rate of change in the industry means that the job will require new skills and experiences going forward. Yes, they know how to do this job and they might have been doing it well for a decade or more. But can this person adapt to new technology like chat bots, integrated voice response or perhaps fully robotic response centers? Will they be able to manage a remote and virtual workforce? Will they be able to cope with artificial intelligence in a way that helps the organization grow?

The point is that you need to hire someone who can learn these new skills as they become relevant to the organization.

So how do you go about assessing whether someone is a learner or not?

Education is Only Part of the Story

The first thing to look for is education.  Now the specific degree isn't that important, it is more about the ability to learn something complex and sophisticated.  Most people aren't doing anything in the field they went to school for within a few years of graduation anyway.  What college represents is simply the ability to learn.  Now that shouldn't knock out someone who does not have a degree.  Some of the smartest and best learners I have ever met didn't have one and yet, they could match up with the geniuses in a space after a few months of self-study.

Multiple Industries

I also like to look for people who have worked and been successful in several industries. I'm looking for more than someone who hops jobs every six months, which is undesirable. Rather, I want to see someone who has worked in multiple industries for a length of time and had success. This tells me that this person has the capability to learn a new industry and still perform well. They can develop a mastery in something and then move on to another industry and do it again.


Another technique I use to assess whether someone is a learner or not is to ask them about their hobbies during an interview. If someone told me, for instance, that they first got into coin collecting--which is complex--and built a valuable collection. Then they sold those coins to pay for lessons in pursuit of their pilot's license. More recently, they had developed a passion for Scuba diving, where they have since become a master diver.

This is a mark of someone who has shown an affinity for gaining deep knowledge of complex subjects while also gaining a mastery of those skills. If you combine this mix of interesting experiences with a track record of performance on the job in multiple industries, you'd have an ideal candidate on your hands. 

They're a Reader

It's becoming rarer and rarer, but someone that reads broadly and regularly is the sign of a learner and someone thirsty for knowledge.  I'll usually ask what book made an impression recently and see if they struggle to answer.  The other factor is the kind of books.  A great response would be a business book, followed by a historical novel, perhaps a non-fiction book and then some fun fiction novel.  That range shows a curious mind.

When it comes to hiring someone, don't get hung up on what school they went to or even too much on how much experience they have for the job you're hiring for. Rather, look for the person who is driven to learn, both at work and at home. Given the dramatic rate of change that will continue to hit every industry out there. You can't afford not to have learners on the job. Having the fastest learning rate is the only sustainable competitive advantage and these are the kind of people you want to hire.