Are we headed into a recession? I am hearing a lot about companies doing layoffs and if history repeats, we are at the beginning of a layoff cycle. That is good news in that it represents an opportunity to strengthen your company by getting rid of under performers.

I strongly believe that’s the success of your business depends greatly on the quality of your employees. I have talked about the need to hire “A players” but this piece defines what an “A player” actually is and how to test for it.  Its focus is on the key characteristic of “A players”–intelligence; what it is and how to recognize it when you see it.

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Let’s start with the opinions and advice given by people with proven records for hiring intelligence

Intelligence, in essence, is the ability to think logically, understand abstract concepts, and learn quickly. It is also the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn when necessary. Highly intelligent people can learn quickly and retain information for a long time. What’s more, they have an excellent memory, can think logically and can solve every problem in the best and most thoughtful way possible. The ability to learn and retain new information is the ultimate sign of high intelligence.

High intelligence is a skill, meaning that it can be learned.

Jeff Bezos encourages people to improve their ability to change their minds when better knowledge comes into the picture. Elon Musk says, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree.” (a tree with a trunk built on first principles, with peripheral knowledge added as branches as connections to these principles).

Steve Jobs’ definition of “smart” is about increasing one’s experiences and making better connections from a different perspective when the time is right. In this speech to the Academy of Achievement June 1982, Jobs explained the signs of high intelligence:

“A lot of [what it means to be smart] is the ability to zoom out, like you’re in a city and you could look at the whole thing from the 80th floor down at the city. And while other people are trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B reading these stupid little maps, you could just see it in front of you. You can see the whole thing.” Another way of saying this is, if you examine things from a completely different perspective, it can lead to surprising results.

The 80th-floor intelligence is like improving your “bird’s eye view” skills. First, one has to learn how to learn deeper and broader to accumulate experience and better knowledge.

Better connections come from having the right knowledge

To improve intelligence, gather more insight from great sources, choose knowledge sources wisely, learn from more intelligent people, and read books with knowledge or advice worth rereading from time to time.

Confucius once said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Personal note: Recognizing that “bitterness” connotes regret, I would prefer to think of negative experiential outcomes as opportunities to learn and do better. Their memory then becomes a positive).

Improving intelligence is about stacking experience and applying lessons from good sources. One can only zoom out if one knows what they are looking at. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. More from Jobs:

“You have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does, or else you’re gonna make the same connections and you won’t be innovative.”

Great brains are open to multiple sources of knowledge

“To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see that everything connects to everything else,” Leonardo da Vinci, who mastered several subject areas once said. Another of his thoughts was: “Learning never exhausts the mind.” Do more for your mind — your best future self depends on it.

Openness to wide and deep experiences outside one’s comfort zone will change one’s life. It will also improve their thinking.

Intellectual curiosity is key to peak intelligence. It’s also one of the best predictors of success. Curiosity is at the core of scientific discoveries.

Many of history’s great minds share this trait, from artists to scientists to inventors. One’s ability to spot better life and career patterns, make more brilliant connections and predicting good outcomes depend on one’s ability to pause, zoom out and visualize the bigger picture.

How do we recognize intelligence during the hiring and career management processes? Here are some tips.

  1. Look for things the candidate knows that have nothing to do with their backgrounds or what it would be reasonable to expect them to know.
  2. Test their ability to see things from different perspectives. Test this by making them argue both sides of some issue.
  3. Find out who their influencers are to assess if you believe they are being influenced by quality sources.
  4. Give them a hard problem to solve; one for which they should not have the experience to solve.
  5. Explore some subject not familiar to the candidate to see if they ask questions indicating being curious.
  6. Have them argue for and against your company’s culture, strategy and market.
  7. Ask them for the memory of something they learned in school a long time ago.

John Grillos
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