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Why Having All the Skills for a Job Won’t Get You Very Far

June 13, 2017, 4:10 PM UTC

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?” is written by Tamara Ingram, CEO of J. Walter Thompson.

The best career advice I ever got wasn’t really advice. It was more of a dose of discouragement early in my career. My father suggested that I go into merchant banking, and so, for want of a better idea, that’s what I tried to do. A fellow I spoke with about a job at a bank was kind, but he didn’t mince words. “You don’t seem passionate about banking,” he said. “You should follow your interests.”

That advice has stayed with me as a guide to my own career—and to the people I look to hire in these fast-moving times. To succeed, you need more than talent. You need hunger. If your heart isn’t in something—to the point of a persistent hunger to succeed—it doesn’t matter how smart you are. You’re probably not going to excel.

In my view, hunger leads to success—for people and the companies that hire them. While this has never been truer, the passion for work almost gets a bad rap these days. The word that seems to have supplanted hunger is “balance,” suggesting a more measured approach to life. I’m obsessed with work, as unfashionable as it may be to admit it. And I believe people who excel—in every field—usually feel that way, too. I am “all in” when it comes to work—and the same when it comes to the rest of my life. I’m not balanced about my children either. But I’m not sure balance is a useful concept. It’s more about being present in whatever you’re doing.

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At the ad agency I lead, it’s a priority to create brands and messages that connect with people, change culture, and drive commerce, so finding the right talent is critical to our success. And as I’ve learned over years of hiring, hunger is a crucial component of talent. Some people bristle with drive and ambition, but it often takes a bit of work to see the flame in introverts.

So, how do you spot hunger in employees and job candidates? First and foremost: Look for a sense of anticipation and caring that goes beyond the call of duty. Listen for people who share unexpected insights and questions that show they have given an issue a good deal of careful thought. Take note of a person’s willingness to do what it takes to carry great work over the finish line. One indicator I’ve found reliable: Someone who is passionate about hobbies or accomplishments beyond work will often bring a desire to win to their job.

Increasingly, in our industry, I find that candidates with that hunger are those who’ve taken unexpected paths to get here. They understand the world in ways others don’t—“graduates of life,” if you will. I recommend looking beyond the top grads at the top schools for people who have studied other things or come into this field after trying their hand at something else— journalism, say, or architecture.

Of course, hunger isn’t the only thing to look for, but if it isn’t there, other attributes matter little. Recently, a very impressive candidate came in to see me about a job. While I enjoyed speaking with her, the language she used implied that her real passion was for helping others who are less fortunate. So I suggested that she explore working for an NGO.

I wasn’t trying to be rude to her—far from it. By steering her toward work that better suits her hunger, I’d like to think I was doing her a favor—just as that merchant banker did for me.