When it comes time to expand your startup team, follow these tips to select the right hire. 

By Beth Bierbower (President, Employer Group Segment at Humana)

Selecting the right candidate for a job can be a grueling experience. You determine the candidate’s technical expertise, leadership abilities and determine whether or not her work style will fit within your organization’s culture. When assessing talent, I examine all these areas and more. I also specifically look for one trait that helps me determine how the candidate will help adapt to change and also push the organization to think differently. I look for intellectual curiosity.

An individual with intellectual curiosity has an insatiable appetite for learning. She is eager to understand unfamiliar concepts. She uses the phrase “tell me more” and excitedly engages in conversations with those who have a differing point of view. And she is a very good listener, willing to sit back and absorb what she is hearing. Her learning is not limited to work; she is curious about many different topics ranging from sports to the world.

An intellectually curious person is an explorer. Questions like “What if?” and “Why not?” are an integral part of her vocabulary. She flips ideas on their head, wondering what happens if an opposing approach is taken. She is not afraid to derail the conversation if it means the team might get to a better result. She incorporates ideas from other industries, understanding that innovation can often come from adapting existing practices and technology.

How do you determine if the person is intellectually curious? If I could, I would contact the candidate’s mother and ask whether her daughter was constantly asking questions as a child. I’d also ask how often the child played by herself with toys or other objects that required imagination. Unfortunately, human resources experts tell me that calling the candidate’s mother would be considered unorthodox.

Therefore, I have to rely on a few questions to determine the level of curiosity the individual has. My three favorite questions are:

How Do You Learn New Things?

I am looking for more than ‘reading’ as a response. Does the candidate use observation skills? Does she engage with others? Does she ask questions and listen? I ask the candidate to walk me through specific examples of learning to see if she actually used these techniques. I listen for clues that tell me she is not afraid to engage strangers in conversation. I’ve recruited candidates on airplanes after engaging with them. You never know where opportunity lies!

How Frequently Do You Read and What Kinds of Things Do You Read?

I equate diversity in reading with diversity of thought. Does she read fiction as well as non-fiction? Does she read magazines as well as books? Blogs? Twitter? How varied are the topics on her reading list? I once worked with a team member who felt that reading only business publications was the best approach to becoming a leader. The problem was that this individual’s success depended on understanding consumer behavior and communicating complex information in a simplified manner. Imagine his surprise when I brought him a People Magazine to read! I wanted him to see how the magazine conveyed information in a simplified manner.

What Do You Do For Fun?

With this question, I am seeking to understand if the candidate engages in activities that demonstrate learning behaviors. For example, people that like to travel to new places are curious. Individuals whose responses cover a wide range of activities show that they have the ability to embrace diverse ideas.
Finally, when the candidate is responding to my questions, I listen carefully. Does she talk about things, people or ideas? If the candidate is explaining a major initiative is she talking about the tasks? Does she talk about who participated on the team, or does she focus on what was unique about the idea? The first two types of responses are important to understand the candidate’s ability to collaborate, be a team member and demonstrate execution abilities. However, the ability to articulate the concept and what lead her to pursue a particular path demonstrates that the candidate has intellectual curiosity, a trait well worth having on your team.

I’d like to hear from you. Please share what unique questions you have been asked – or you have asked during an interview. Speak loudly, step boldly!

This post originally appeared on Beth Bierbower’s Blog.