28 Oct 2021 23:07 IST

What do employers look for?

Great talent is constantly curious, always hungry to learn more, and ‘professors of the jungle’.

It’s placement season. Across B-schools and colleges, students are polishing resumes, rehearsing for interviews, and dreaming about fancy CTCs. Companies are bouncing back from a few bad quarters, with renewed vigour and resolve to hire great talent. But who is this great talent? What do employers look for? How do leaders hunt for leaders-to-be?

Let’s start with an incident that Nike founder Phil Knight writes about in Shoe Dog, his must-read book for business leaders and students. On a trip to Vietnam, Phil was asked by his hosts whether they could do anything that would make his trip memorable. After some hesitation he made a strange request — would he be able to meet “eighty-six-year-old General VõNguyênGiáp, the Vietnamese MacArthur, the man who single-handedly defeated the Japanese, the French, the Americans, and the Chinese.” This is what happened next as narrated by Knight.


"My hosts stared in amazed silence. Slowly they rose and excused themselves and stood off in a corner, conversing in frantic Vietnamese. After five minutes they came back. Tomorrow, they said. One hour. I bowed deeply. Then counted the minutes until the big meeting. The first thing I noticed as General Giáp entered the room was his size. This brilliant fighter, this genius tactician who’d organised the Tet Offensive, who’d planned those miles and miles of underground tunnels, this giant of history, came up to my shoulders. He was, maybe, five foot four. And humble. No corncob pipe for Giáp…I remember that he smiled as I did — shyly, uncertainly. But there was an intensity about him. I’d seen that kind of glittery confidence in great coaches, and great business leaders, the elite of the elite. I never saw it in a mirror

He knew I had questions. He waited for me to ask them.

I said simply: “How did you do it?”

I thought I saw the corners of his mouth flicker. A smile? Maybe?

He thought. And thought. “I was,” he said, “a professor of the jungle.”

This is what distinguishes good from great leaders, a mediocre talent from an exceptional one. If we have to aspire to be great leaders, we must all aspire to be ‘professors of the jungle’.

Are you committed to learning and growth?

Sharath Jeevan, in his book Intrinsic, shares an example of a consulting mentor from his early career, David Newkirk. How did David Newkirk interview candidates or rather ‘not interview them’? His interviews were not the standard case studies and consulting questions, nor puzzle problems about how many left-handed people there are in the Southern hemisphere. He asked candidates to talk about something they were already passionate about. ‘It could be drama or wine or rowing.’ And then he would dig, asking deeper and deeper questions in their chosen area. What trouble had the candidate taken to be a ‘professor of the jungle’ in his or her own area of passion and interest. This passion is demonstrated in the way we’re prepared to go an inch-wide mile-deep in our chosen areas of interest and expertise. It’s demonstrated in the time we dedicate to our growth. Employers know that great talent is constantly curious — always hungry to learn more.

Author and Zen meditation teacher Charlotte Joko Beck in her book Everyday Zen explains what real dedication to listening is. She recalls wanting to learn from a master piano teacher. When she arrived she notices two pianos — one for the teacher, one for her. The teacher plays five notes and asks the student to repeat those same notes on her piano. But when she plays it, he says “No” and asks her to repeat it. Again, and again and again — each effort met with a gentle but firm “No”. This goes on for three months until finally she plays a perfect rendition of the five notes. The teacher proclaims the most important take-away. “If you can hear it, you can play it.” It is this dedication we need, if we choose to pursue being professors of the jungle. Can we listen to how the masters of business have succeeded — really listen?

Can we be curious about asking the dumb questions? Can we go outside our comfort zone to take on assignments, challenges and initiatives — and through it all soak up the learning? No employer can predict what role you will have in 10 years, so they want to know if you are a committed learner and willing to persevere to achieve a high standard of excellence.

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell


These things can’t be trained into their employees, so they are looking for evidence that their new talent comes with this chip already embedded. As Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who passed away recently, would urge us — we should hire for strengths rather than a lack of weaknesses. Your commitment and passion to learning and growth would be one of those biggest strengths.

Are you driven from the inside?

Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One shares a question he asks when interviewing someone for a job. “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” As he himself puts it, the question sounds easy because it’s straightforward but actually it’s extremely difficult to answer well. As Thiel says: “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply.” And this question takes us to the next stage of being a professor of the jungle.


If we are passionate about something, what have we done to take a stand for it, how have we proved our commitment to that path, how have we demonstrated our resolve when things were difficult? Are we driven from the inside by our convictions and principles and willing to stand by them or are we likely to be buffeted by every passing wind from the majority? Can we give examples of times when we took a stand, even when it was difficult to? Can we share on a time we were in the minority and stuck with our course and made a positive difference? Employers want to see a track record of us leading from our convictions and our confidence in ourselves.

Can you make a difference?

I guess the other aspect of being a ‘professor’ vs just an expert is that you also spread the knowledge, you make a difference, you help others perform to their peak potential. So, employers also want to know how well you grow others, not just yourself. How have you made a difference so far? Are you more stuck on who gets the credit, or are you happy to help others grow even when you’re in the shadows? As American researcher and author Jim Collins would say — can you just tell the time or can you build clocks?

Being a professor of the jungle demands a price and great companies are always looking for the rare breed of young leaders who are prepared to pay that price. It is a lonely road because, so few choose to travel it. Let’s make sure we’re on it.