Why you should hire candidates who are “a little bit unqualified”

For companies large and small, employees are the driving force behind every success. For managers, their most important decisions are who they select for critical roles or assignments. 

This is the reason HR organizations, hiring managers, and business owners spend mountains of time and energy recruiting, interviewing, and screening candidates. We probe, we query, we test for skills, we check references, we perform background checks, we even scan our candidates’ social media posts. Sometimes we make them take the Myers-Briggs test (or some other personality assessment that can help us to assess “cultural fit.”) In many ways, it has never been easier to determine if a candidate has “the right stuff.” But we don’t have a lot of evidence to show that these tools and resources help us hire better people than we did before these innovations.


A few years ago I dramatically changed my approach and started looking for less-qualified candidates. People that have at least some of “the wrong stuff.” And, I am happy to report that this has yielded dramatically improved results.

When I reflect on a career of hiring, the candidates that always seemed to perform the best were rarely 100% qualified. Instead, it was individuals with lesser qualifications, but a burning desire to prove something to the world that made all the difference. Perhaps they needed a break, they wanted to stretch into a new role, or were determined to overcome a setback or a disability.

At first, I was astonished at the results, but soon learned the repeatability of this strategy. The woman I hired to run our global channels business was missing a few credentials. For one, she didn’t have a valid passport. But she was a gifted listener, and that skill served her well while she learned the customs and business practices in more than 60 countries. Today, she’s a senior vice president of a Fortune 100 company.


To me, the perfect profile is a candidate that is about 70% percent qualified and 30% terrified. Terrified of failure, terrified of missing out on a big break, or terrified of letting down that hiring manager, coach, or sponsor that gave them a shot. A candidate who values a window of opportunity or a chance to push their own limits.

Why is this so? Put bluntly, people that have deep emotional attachments to success and a fear of failure tend to work harder and act bolder. They pay attention to the little things. They fit in that extra meeting, and they spend time on the weekend preparing for the week ahead because they want to make sure that they’re on top of their game.

People that are 30% unqualified become obsessed with closing their skills gap and building the muscles that they need to succeed. Because they feel like the world is watching, they often go out of their way to evaluate and assess their progress and ask their coworkers and mentors for constructive feedback, which they take seriously. They are humble and have great attitudes. They know that they have doubters in their midst, and unlike their 100% qualified contemporaries, they still need to prove themselves. They know that the skills that earned them the current position won’t get them to the next career station. They are not resentful of the fact that they need to develop additional skills when they start a new job.

As Carol Dweck brought to life in her groundbreaking book Mindset, people that best help companies, governments, and society lurch forward are usually those that embrace a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset, she says, don’t just seek a challenge, they thrive on it. The winners that we want on our team, she postulates, are not necessarily those looking for money, or fame, or a good review, but those who embrace their job for the sole sake of learning, growing, stretching, and building their knowledge base.

By comparison, if someone were only 30% qualified for a particular role, or even 50%, the job would probably be too hard. The learning curve would be so steep that they’d struggle, become frustrated, and quickly lose the confidence and the support of their peers. In reality, that person would be stretching, but stretching too far (and too close to their breaking point). What’s more, management’s credibility and judgment may also come under fire in this situation.


So, how does one test if the candidate sitting across from you has enough (but not too much) of “the right stuff” and a growth mindset? I’ve found it to be pretty simple. You see, most people don’t suddenly decide to stretch themselves, but people with a growth mindset do tend to seek opportunities to develop themselves in every aspect of their lives.

Ask your candidate to point to other jobs on their resume where they were at least 30% unqualified and have them detail the measures that they took to overcome this impediment. Ask them what they did to educate themselves, the mistakes they made, the sacrifices they endured, and what other efforts they made to succeed. Were they consumed with their own development? Did they lose track of time? These are the telltale signs and fingerprints of someone that has just the right amount of “unqualified” for the job at hand. Hire them.