SKILL SEEKERS

The experience CEOs want to see in every new hire

If you ask a group of high-flying CEOs about the most important qualities they look for in job candidates, you might expect to hear things like experience, decisiveness, or creativity.

But this wasn’t what CEOs told Quartz.

They want people who have failed. Big, pain-inducing failures.

“I ask the question: tell me about when you failed,” says Roger Crandall, CEO of US insurer MassMutual. “I guarantee that every day we are doing things that aren’t working. And that’s okay. We can learn from it.”

Gordon Wilson, CEO of Travelport, a UK-based travel commerce platform, also wants to hear the gory details of how his job candidates suffered, and presumably recovered. “If in someone’s career everything has gone right, and it’s been green lights all the way… frankly, I’m not that interested,” he notes. People who have been knocked down in the past are better suited to management roles. “That’s what makes you an executive of some substance,” Wilson says.

Failure is en vogue these days. Virgin founder Richard Branson says that “it is only through failure that we learn.” He even published a list of his favorite quotes about the virtues of failure. (At the top is this gem from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.) There’s also the Silicon Valley mantra of “failing fast.”

Parents are being reprimanded socially for engineering failure-free lives for their children, producing kids who lack the resilience to function in the ups and downs of daily life. “Young people today, in the US at least, haven’t failed very much,” Crandall says.

Asking about failure is a good way to test a person’s honesty and capacity to show vulnerability. “It tells me whether a person is self-aware,” says Rajeev Vasudeva, CEO of Egon Zehnder, a global recruitment firm. “Many people cite small successes as failures,” he says.

Long gone are the days of the invincible executive, even in the industries typically associated with bravado. Davide Serra, founder and CEO of Algebris, a $3 billion hedge fund, asks his candidates: ”What’s the biggest mistake you made and what have you learned from it?” (Gordon Gekko, RIP.)

Failure is particularly important in industries, like finance, where booms and busts can wreck employees’ confidence. Loss aversion, or humans’ disproportionate distaste for loss, means that many traders, for example, hold on to losing positions too long and miss chances to make gains.

While this fetishization of failure may be a bit of a bummer, it also makes some sense. Crandall says he doesn’t want to hire anyone at a senior level who hasn’t seriously messed up somewhere else before.

“I don’t want to be the first,” he says. Or, presumably, the last.

With additional reporting by Jason Karaian

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