The X Factor: Do You Have It?

And…Do you Need It in Your Professional Career?

Two years ago I interviewed for the VP, Talent Acquisition role at Netflix with a number of Netflix executives.  I was asked questions ranging from talent philosophy to growth of the business.  I was also asked about what I look for in candidates when I interview them. I do not recall the answer I gave, but I’m sure it included a list that consisted of smarts, interpersonal skills, cultural fit, ability to meet performance expectations for the role and so on.  I could tell my answer was too predictable, too generic, but the follow-up question I was asked has stayed with me. This follow up question is now my barometer for assessing talent: “how do you know if the candidate has the X factor?”  My response was simple: “you just feel it, and your feeling is not just based on your instinct. As you spend time with the hiring manager and the team you develop a sense for who will be a great addition and succeed with them.”  I got the job, but I continue to think about the elusive X factor. Do I have it?  Do I need to have it?  How will I know when it’s there?  Is it just chemistry?

And that’s how my quest began. I attempted to define the X factor via skills, knowledge, competencies, but as I interviewed candidates for Netflix, I wasn’t able to connect the dots.  I couldn’t come up with a formula.  The skills, the knowledge varied.  People we hired came from different backgrounds, had different experiences, different personalities and styles. Perhaps, it’s not possible to define it, that’s why it is “X” – something extra, something mysterious, something magical.   As days and weeks continued at Netflix and I spent more time with the Talent Acquisition team I was leading, I noticed something.  When my team interviewed candidates on the phone, much more emphasis was placed on the “how” than the “what.” What was even more important was how they listened to the answers and the judgment they used to determine if a particular candidate was someone the hiring manager should interview.  What is special about the way our recruiters and researchers assess talent is their ability to identify signals to tell them whether someone is a culture fit and if they have that something special – the X factor.  They are able to pick up on these signals because they deeply embed themselves with the business, always curious to understand the unique needs of the team and what it would take to move the business forward.  I knew we had the ability to identify the X factor but I was still unsuccessful at defining what it was.

In the sea of talented individuals I have the fortune of speaking with every day, certain people stand out.  They do not stand out because of their skills or their knowledge or their experience.  Many of us have had similar career trajectories, educational backgrounds and quite frankly, these are not the only predictors of success.  Then what differentiates us? I think it’s the X factor.  And what does it look like?  I made another attempt.

Like all recruiters, we look for the best talent. We meet many, many incredible leaders from a variety of companies, industries, backgrounds but we are challenged to find our unicorn.  We want a subject matter expert, a thought leader, an innovator, a broad business thinker and someone whose values align with the Netflix culture.  Many come close, but not quite the one.  And then it happens. When you find that person, you know immediately, from that first conversation. We react to the person’s X factor.  Thinking to the last few people I hired, I forced myself to identify what was special about them and I believe the X factor showed up like this.

The candidates were authentic, humble and real.  Consistent through every interaction – there were no surprises about what they knew or did not know, always transparent and crystal clear about the type of executive they were and what they will and will not bring to the table.  What was also special about each of them is my interaction with them left me wanting to know more, wanting to have more conversations, hear their perspective, give them some Netflix insights to see what they do with them. They were not afraid to state their opinion, hold on to their convictions when the interviewers disagreed with them.  They were also reflective in the moment and able to adapt and change their perspective if we shared information that led them to a different conclusion.  Their approach was a perfect balance of confidence and humility, smarts and vulnerability.  In our culture deck we talk about having stunning colleagues at Netflix and I would imagine them in interactions with other employees and their team and felt excited that people would leave their conversations with them wanting more, like I did.  That’s the X factor – a combination of EQ and IQ and the ability to present in the interview who you are as a professional and a person, an authentic you.

For many companies, your skills and experience alone are what will be valued and you will get that offer. For us at Netflix, your skills and experience are a must, a given, but what is equally important is will you make us, your colleagues, better?  Will you be a stunning colleague?  That is the ultimate bar for deciding who should join Netflix and the X factor is the big part of that magic. Each company has their own unique X factor attributes. What we value is the candidate whose true SELF is present consistently and authentically throughout our experience with them:

  • Selfless in your pursuit of doing what is best for the business
  • Self-driven to recognize a need, an opportunity and not wait for an invitation or permission
  • Self-accountable to drive your impact and not defer to others for your failures
  • Self-aware to seek to understand and make improvements to be even better
  • Self-effacing to be a team player
  • Self-learning to apply curiosity and passion to make better decisions
  • Self-confident to share a point of view or a perspective in spite of popular or leadership opinion

And when this SELF shows up in ways that candidates answer our questions, ask us questions, engage with us in debates and stimulate our thinking, we experience the X factor.

In the world of recruitment, this is one of the more frustrating black holes in the candidate’s experience – not really knowing why they didn’t get the job even though they might be well qualified for it.  What is the takeaway?  Take the time to focus on understanding who you are, what makes you tick, what you’re passionate about and understanding how that will map to a role, business, culture. Then, just be you so the company and you can decide if your X factor matches the company’s. If it does, congratulations. If it doesn’t, it’s for the best because without this match, it will not be the fulfilling, rewarding, stimulating experience that every person deserves to have in their job.

Nellie Peshkov
About the author: 

Nellie Peshkov is the Vice President – Talent Acquisition at Netflix, a leading streaming entertainment provider.  Her executive career includes assignments with Electronic Arts, VERITAS Software and Symantec Corporation.  Follow her on Twitter.