(Reposted from Make HR Happen 6/15/2012)

I wrote an article last week where I mentioned that one of The Three Essential Key Elements for a Great Hire was passion. I fully expected to get some push back on that and I’m sure that some of my fellow recruiters read that part, did a double take and then just rolled their eyes. On my more cynical days I am capable of an eye roll as well when I hear comments like that taken out of context. That word means different things to different people and in my case it is a very personal belief based on years of observing manager behavior and candidate performance. I will explain, and you may argue, but I will always passionately believe that passion counts.

Here is the trailer for the 25th Anniversary of the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Watch for the part where Charlie asks Grandpa “I’ve got the same chance as anybody else haven’t I?” and gets this encouragement, “You’ve got more, because you want it more!” [Click to watch trailer via IMDB]. Did you roll your eyes at that? Maybe we have heard so often in our life that “wanting it more” is how to get things that we sometimes forget the part about wanting it badly enough to plan for success. The moral to the story is clear in this fable: Keep looking for your dreams and someday luck will make them true. Listen carefully boys and girls: I hate to burst your bubble but when you grow up it ain’t like that.

Dumb luck does sometimes happen to grant you that dream job or find that perfect candidate, but depending on playing the lottery as your retirement plan makes about as much sense. The odds are more favorable when someone builds the skills to succeed in that dream, acquires all relevant knowledge about it and then works damn hard to make it all happen. Even then there are no guarantees so that is where that thing called passion pulls it all together.

Passion From the Recruiting Campaign

I am very fortunate to have experienced the truly passionate candidate during an interview. At the time I was working with a major pharmaceutical R&D client to expand their oncology area. The task at hand was to find lab heads as the nucleus to build their own research team...a highly coveted position. The company had just moved into brand new state-of-the-art facilities, had a great comp and benefits plan and a career path with no end in sight. The culture was one of not only rewarding but encouraging excellence. There was no shortage of candidates in this local area because it was also home for one of the nation’s leading cancer centers with an excellent postdoctoral program. In interviewing prospects I reviewed candidates’ backgrounds and asked questions about their organizational and leadership experiences in academia and used behavioral questions to target their interpersonal relationships and team building expertise. Most were not expecting this type of interview. At the end I allowed them to show off their communications skills. The stock closing question was always to explain in layperson’s terms one of the research projects in their academic career. Most would lapse into a well rehearsed monologue filled with technical jargon even after I expressly warned them, “Please be gentle. I don’t do what you do for a living.” Not noticing that my eyes would be glazing over and my head was spinning, they droned on with their pitch, totally self-absorbed, talking to the room and not to me, while I made a mental note to give feedback “this one is like all the others…you pick.”

On one occasion another of these Postdocs sat across the table from me and went over a typical chronology of an undergraduate degree in biology which evolved into a Masters level program followed by a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Biotechnology or some other important sounding -ology. Not too shabby, but all these candidates were very bright and educated in the world’s finest universities. But this particular scientist was different. When I asked about his research you could see his posture straighten, hear the confidence in his voice and feel the exuberant pride in his work. Fifteen minutes later I understood what apoptosis meant from his eyes and how he was going to change the world with his body of work. An unplanned follow up question was simply “What motivated you to go down the path of cancer research from high school to the present?” I saw tears come to his eyes as he told me about his mother fighting and losing the battle with ovarian cancer. I saw honest and unashamed passion that not only had brought him this far but would obviously set him above his peers as he progressed to greater heights in his career. Was this a unique experience? No. During this recruitment campaign the same thing happened two more times as other Postdocs tearfully told similar stories. In one case a mother in China who died of breast cancer motivated another scientist to come to this country to continue her education and yet another spoke of untreatable pancreatic cancer in a loved one as driving the passion. For these candidates my feedback was “Unless you can find some technical flaw in their research you MUST hire this person!”

Special circumstances drove special people to their genuine passion. The world is a better place because they are so driven.

Passion in Everyday Life

It is easy to understand how something as heart wrenching as a serious illness or disease can bring passion to the surface. It really doesn’t require special education or a high level of sophistication to be moved to action. Ordinary everyday people feel this as well and it shows up when you least expect it. It also takes more than an environmental or cultural handicap to stifle passion. One time I attended a retirement dinner given for someone who had worked for a manufacturing company for nearly forty years. She worked in Assembly and had clawed her way up to Inspector. I learned later that this was not an official company function but an event that had been planned by her friends. An immigrant, she overcame multiple personal obstacles to become a loyal and dedicated employee who was special to her family and co-workers but not someone who was widely known or would make headlines. The dinner was unremarkable…the usual vulcanized chicken with something green and something white as sides. There was no gold watch and there was no upper management present except for her immediate supervisor who sat at the head table like Mr. Cellophane. Her co-workers had chipped in to buy her a gift and that was it…no speeches, no awards, no certificate of appreciation from the employer. After dinner there were countless awkward minutes where most people expected Mr. Cellophane to say something. Silence! Finally a man stood up, moved to the head table and tapped on a glass. He was not in management. He was an electrician from maintenance who had known the woman retiree for years. To the surprise of most of the people present, and a total shock to me, Mr. Extrovert gave one of the most passionate speeches about the camaraderie and friendship they enjoyed and how they all pulled together to get the work done. He beamed with pride about the important work done by his company and expressed sincere appreciation to the dedication and hard work of this woman. There was not a dry eye in the room. This unexpected display of passion came from somewhere deep within this man’s character. As I looked around at the other guests it became totally believable that this was a shared flame. Not only did I suspect that others in that group had similar feelings, but the nucleus of this energy was this soft-spoken woman who somehow had inspired others to get in touch with their passion.

As I have said before, special circumstances drive special people to their genuine passion. The world is a better place because they are so driven.

Passion in Self Analysis

To passionately believe in something is to reach deep down inside where thoughts and ideas merge with feelings. It is something so deeply rooted that its message comes from the soul of an individual. This desire is so ingrained in the person that it is as necessary as the air that they breathe. It provokes emotion that stokes the flame higher and adds heightened energy, insight and inspiration into the surrounding environment.I can’t say with any degree of conviction that we all have the gift of passion, but I do know that without fuel any flame can die. When you get up every morning follow this ritual to find and feed your passion:

Step 1 – Look in the mirror and ask from the heart, “What do you really want to do with your life more than anything else.”

Step 2 – Go to the kitchen table with paper and pen and write down three things you must do to accomplish your life’s goal followed by a timeline to do them.

If you stop at Step 1, then Step 2 might as well be “Go back to bed.”


Photo credit: "Flame Backdrop" Copyright © 123RF Stock Photos



Views: 601

Comment by Valentino Martinez on June 24, 2012 at 4:01am


I liked your The Three Essential Key Elements for a Great Hire blog post and commented on it.  And I agree that true passion is a key element for career success.

I would add that there is a fourth essential element for a new hire to actually become a great hire benefiting themselves and their employers—and that is having viable growth opportunities.  Without such viable growth opportunities great passion, intelligence and work ethic can be frustrated, even nullified

One can argue that individuals with passion, intelligence and strong work ethic will find and make opportunities happen. I would agree, but only up to a point.  The lack of growth opportunities due to plant closures, project cancellations, mass layoffs, poor management, under staffed and hostile workplaces, the Glass Ceiling, etc—all lend to diminished investments, cutbacks in R&D and a timid or guarded approach to business growth.  Being at the wrong place at the wrong time can frustrate even a high potential, passionate, intelligent and dedicated professional.  As recruiters we all hear from candidates who are at a “dead-end” with their employer.

When employers challenge their employees with business critical opportunities and reward them for their successes “great hires” will come from the relationship.  However, when employers overwork, under-pay and take employees for granted, particularly the passionate, intelligent and dedicated ones—they set the tone for high attrition and unhappy campers.

Comment by Tom Bolt on June 25, 2012 at 9:32am

Valentino, point well taken. Greatness within a person can be wasted if there is no place to apply their talents. The genius of Michelangelo's sculptures would be unknown without pieces of perfect marble to start with. The challenge is not only for great people to stay in touch with their passion but also for companies to maintain a culture that enhances rather than inhibits employees worth.


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