Two or three days ago, I came across something Tucker Max published on the Huffington Post. While lauding the virtues of his former personal assistants, he acknowledged that he couldn’t put his finger on what made them so successful.

“I honestly don’t think I have much to do with it,” Max wrote. “I think I just pick really smart people to work with — people who are probably going to do great things anyway — and I just teach them what I know, maybe teach them how to think a little clearer than they did before, and then off they go.”

Hiring the right people is tough.

Google used to use brainteasers (until they found out they didn’t work), I’ve completed personality tests and even an IQ test once. I have to admit — I was happy I was deemed “smart enough” to work for that company, but after a few years I figured out that I was also “smart enough” to leave.

I thought it was particularly interesting to learn that despite all of Google’s efforts to devise a way to pick the best and brightest, Google admits, “None of it actually predicted who would do well at their job.” And, they even discovered that interviews don’t even work well.

Basically, no one at Google is very good at identifying future talent — or at least looking into the crystal ball and picking the future stars.

Over the years I’ve lamented the way we use résumé scrapers and keywords to cull down the lists of candidates to determine who would be the best at any particular job. I’ve interviewed countless people who passed this first screen — people HR determined were a good fit — and walked away from those interviews disappointed.

The best hires have always been someone we already knew. Max shed light on why.

According to Google, “Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interview and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.”

That said, they did discover something that worked. “Behavioral interviewing also works — where you’re not giving someone a hypothetical, but you’re starting with a question like, ‘Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.’ The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable ‘meta’ information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.”

I have to admit — I’m not sure references are always valuable either. For example, the references I include with my résumé are typically people I know think highly of me and will share something positive. The recommendations on a LinkedIn profile are likely more valuable because they will typically reflect what a candidate has done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can completely trust them either.

When you hire someone you’re already familiar with, you know what they’d do in any given situation and you know how they interact with colleagues. The challenge is duplicating that in an interview with someone you’ve only met five or 10 minutes ago.

A friend of mine, Patrick Morin of the Cross Partnership, once shared with me how his company is always looking for the best and brightest amongst everyone they interact with professionally. Because they want the most talented people they can find, they are always on the lookout for standout people and will even create a position for someone they just can’t pass up. They are looking at what the people they interact with do.

The puzzle is starting to come together for me. We’ve all known people with incredible résumés or LinkedIn profiles only to discover (after it’s too late) that they can’t execute themselves out of a paper bag. Being smart and capable doesn’t necessarily mean they have what it takes to actually accomplish anything.

Max also shared some suggestions on what candidates can do to become the type of employees business owners want to hire:

  1. Do the work necessary to develop problem-solving skills: Basically, know your stuff. Have a skill set that allows you to do your job. For example, if you’re an engineer, you need to have the skills required to do the job.
  2. Apply those skills to solving actual problems: Make sure you use those skills to actually do the job and be prepared to share what you’ve done. Potential is great and I believe in giving people with potential and skills the opportunity, but potential only gives you a shot. Success demands you actually do something.
He suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, if you want good employees look for people who know how to solve problems and overcome challenges and have experience applying those skills to actually doing it.

I don’t think many people would disagree that the way we hire people is pretty messed up. If more companies started looking at what people do and have done instead of a résumé that depicts the right education level, previous title, or even years of experience — how many years you’ve been doing something doesn’t always mean you’re able to really “do” anything — I think we’d all be better off.

I once worked with an aerospace engineer who came up through the machine shop — in other words, he didn’t graduate college as an engineer. He gained his experience actually working with the materials and solving problems on the shop floor. He was a brilliant guy and really knew his stuff.

One day he was replaced by a recent grad that had the degree, but didn’t know what he was doing. They replaced the guy who had “done stuff” with someone who hadn’t — someone who could have really learned from the guy who had. The program suffered as a result.

What are you looking for when you hire a new employee?

As a main street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for