Figuring out how to distinguish yourself in a crowded field and land a job is a lifelong career just by itself. If you're trying to figure out the types of traits that top-tier employers are looking for, you could always ask. Google, at least, seems happy to answer.
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In an interview with the New York Times, Google's senior VP of people operations (read: person who hires everyone else) Laszlo Bock explains what Google is looking for in a candidate. He starts with what they don't look for: school results, he says, "don't predict anything". Furthermore, while a tertiary education is overwhelmingly preferred, the number of people getting jobs at Google without a degree has grown over time.
He goes on to describe the five traits that the company looks for in a candidate:
"There are five hiring attributes we have across the company," explained Bock. "If it's a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it's not I.Q. It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioural interviews that we validate to make sure they're predictive."
The second, he added, "is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don't care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you're a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what's critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power."
Most companies are not Google. Different employers will have different criteria and you may very well find yourself looking for a job where your employer does want the president of the chess club. However, chances are if you're aiming to be useful to high-value companies, those traits will still be evident to other employers. Check out the interview below for the rest of the traits Google looks for in a potential employee.