CEO tells grads: The kind of people I hire

Richard Vague, the Wilmington banker, company founder and marketing mogul turned Center City investor/philanthropist, gave this address at his son Davis' graduation from Delaware's Tatnall School on Saturday:

... You might well be asking yourself: how best can I succeed in college, or in my career, or in life?... I might advise you simply to be yourself, and that is in fact the very best advice. But if you are like me, that will be a process of discovery that will take a lifetime.

So instead I will tell you about the four characteristics I always look for when I hire new employees. They are the four characteristics that I have learned by painful experience are strong predictors of success. In business and in life. Now, there have been plenty of successful people that did not have these qualities, so you should decide for yourselves whether you find any them to be of any value. And frankly, I would be lying if I said I lived up to them myself. But I do aspire to them. Here they are, the four qualities I believe make greatness: #1) getting things done, #2) intelligence, #3) unselfishness, and #4) honesty.

These are four very simple things that are surprisingly rare out there in the real world. Notice that the list didn’t include being witty, or being handsome, or being popular, or taking risks, or being creative or any of hundreds of other qualities. Of course, many of those are great — it’s just that they’re not essential.

#1. The first characteristic is getting things done. Most people don’t get much done. Oh, they get some things done, but they drop the ball on others. Or they get a lot of things done—but only halfway. I was shocked when I entered the business world and found out how unreliable or semi-reliable most people were. There are so few that are reliable, that if you are the kind of person who doesn’t drop the ball, if you are the kind of person who gets done pretty much all the things you are supposed to get done —the world is yours. Think how simple that is.

But getting things done isn’t easy. In the real world, getting even simple things done is often fraught with obstacles, fears and distractions. There are always lots of valid reasons for not getting things done. People who get things done do so in spite of all those reasons.

How do they do it? Because they have something inside that drives them. And once you get to know a person like that, you just know they are going to get things done. And frankly, you also know which people aren’t going to get things done. It has almost nothing to do with circumstances. It’s who they are. It’s a decision they have made about themselves.

People that gets thing done come to grips with their fears. They are indomitable, self-motivated, relentless. They prefer action to talk. In fact, they are bothered when things are not done.

They thrive on challenge. They don’t complain. They show up. On time. You can depend on them. And they don’t just get the big things done, they are faithful in the little things too. They will always get back up when knocked down.

People often ask me, what is the best way to motivate employees? My answer is 'it’s easy — just hire people who are already self-motivated.’

Here’s an interesting note on getting things done. You want to know what the hardest part of getting things done usually is? Making decisions. That’s because most people are only comfortable making decisions if all the pros and cons overwhelmingly point in one direction or the other. If the pros are 90% and the cons only 10%. But here’s a little secret. In almost all the decisions you make from now on in your life — not all of them but almost all of them — the pros and cons will be roughly 50/50. If you’re lucky, maybe they will 60/40.

People who get things done know this intuitively, so they don’t get stuck: they go ahead make the decision even though it’s a tough 50/50 or 60/40 decision. Then they move on, and don’t second guess themselves.

#2. The second of our four characteristics is intelligence.

I always want to hire smart people. People who are quick on the uptake and have common sense. But what may surprise you is how I gauge intelligence,

What I don’t mean is someone who is pretentious or has a façade of intelligence. Instead, the two things that define intelligence for me are clarity and judgment.

By clarity, I mean the ability to convey things — especially complex things — simply and clearly. If someone explains something to you, but you still don’t understand it, even if they sounded smart when they did it, the issue is probably more their ability to explain than your ability to understand. The smartest people are the ones who can cut through the clutter to discern the essence of something, and then can convey it in a simple and straightforward way — using clear, plain vocabulary.

It brings to mind George Orwell’s masterful rules for writing: 1) Never use a long word where a short one will do, 2) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out, 3) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Note that creativity itself is often nothing more than seeing things more clearly and simply than others.

Beyond this, the most telling sign of intelligence to me is judgment, which is at bottom the ability to tell the difference between what is important and unimportant — to recognize what really matters. In any situation — whether it’s the assessment of a project or problem, or the evaluation of a person or group — there are always dozens of issues or factors to grapple with. However, there are usually only two or three that make the real difference — and the smart person is the one who can zero in on just those key things.

To me, the essence of intelligence is the ability to tell what really matters.

#3. The third characteristic is honesty. I try to hire honest, straightforward people

Here’s the interesting thing. Someone can tell you the truth without really telling you the truth. In other words, they can tell you something that is technically accurate while withholding from you that part of it that you really should know — especially if that thing puts them in a bad light or will get them in trouble. Do you know anybody like that? Most of us — like me—don’t have to go any further than the mirror to see someone like that. Why? Because telling the uncomfortable part of the truth is hard. It takes raw courage to stand up and tell the full truth, to admit those things that you don’t want to admit.

I want people who have the courage to be upfront about their mistakes, and who don’t try to finesse the truth in a way that allows them to sidestep responsibility for a problem. When we are straightforward with each other, the result is trust. With trust, life becomes easier, richer, more powerful and more rewarding

#4. The fourth and last characteristic is unselfishness

I admire people who are genuinely gracious and have a touch of humility in their demeanor. People who always say nice things about others even when the temptation is to gossip.

I want a person who will go the second mile for others — even when nobody notices. It has been said that a person’s true values are how they behave when nobody is watching. Almost anyone will help someone else when they know their parents or teachers or classmates are watching. I like the person who will go out of their way to help someone else even when it is inconvenient or difficult—and when no one is watching and they won’t get any credit.

I want someone who understands that all victory is fleeting. I want someone who always gives credit to others for their success, and always takes the blame when things go wrong. Can you imagine a world like that? Can you imagine being on a team where everyone behaved like that? That attitude of complete unselfishness infects everyone it touches with an incredible energy, and unleashes a tidal wave of power on any team.

I like people whose empathy for others outweighs their own ego. To be unselfish means to be inclusive.

There is a famous book about the highly successful Gilman high school football program called Season of Life On the first day of their training camp each year the coaches there tell the assembled players that “the way we measure greatness is the impact you make on other people's lives.”

The head coach tells them that “The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You name it—always gonna be people who want to separate by that stuff. … Don't let it happen. If you're one of us, then you won't walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever. Because every single one of them has something to offer. …

The coach goes on 'We are a program of inclusion. We do not believe in separation.'

And then he puts forward a list of ironclad rules, the most intriguing of which is that no Gilman football player should ever let another Gilman boy—teammate or not— eat lunch by himself.

The coach tells them that if 'you happen to see another boy off by himself, go sit with him or bring him over to sit with you and your friends,' … 'I don't care if you know him or not. I don't care if he's the best athlete in the school or the so-called nerd with his head always down in the books. You go get him and you make him feel wanted, you make him feel special.’ Simple, right? But people who live their lives like that are rare.

So there you have it— the key four qualities I always look for. Surround me with people that have those four qualities, and I’ll take anybody on.

Here’s the surprise — you can find plenty of people that are unselfish in the world, but very few of them are relentless. You can find plenty of people in the world that are driven, but almost none of them are unselfish. And good luck finding people who are these two things and are also smart and honest.

If you can be driven and still be gracious, if you can be relentless and still be unselfish, then the world is yours.

Let me leave you with my two favorite sayings:

The first is from the silent movie star Mary Pickford — one of Hollywood’s first true superstars — who became a millionaire many times over. She said, “If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

You will surely fall down in this life. If you are like me you will fall down many, many times. Get back up. And when you get knocked down again, as you surely will, get back up again. This thing we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.

The second saying I will leave you with is from the troubadour James Taylor. He said: Shower the people you love with love. Shower the people you love with love. Your family. Your friends.

Look around. No one, no one, gets nearly as much love as they need or deserve. And give them this love today — since fate may take them from you tomorrow.

Thank you.