Executive Careers Blog

Lessons On Hiring—And Getting Hired—From The Supreme Court Nomination

Sonia Sotomayor, as nominee for US Supreme Court Justice.

Is it me, or is this the first week in a long, long time that the press has found something other than the state of the economy to sink its teeth into?

No matter the media outlet, it's been nigh on impossible to miss the selection of Sonia Sotomayor as President Obama's nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court.

One angle that hasn't been entirely explored, however, is that Obama essentially conducted the hiring process in the full glare of the public eye.

As ever, that gives anyone in a similar position (a hiring one, rather than President!) something to learn from, as well as providing a few tips for anyone seeking to land a new position.

Defining the search

The role of Supreme Court Justice is one that's pretty well-defined by this stage, so one would imagine that the President wouldn't have had to spend too long crafting a job description for the post. Also, given the nature of it, it's not like he had to put out a call for resumes. In that sense, what Obama has conducted of late is closer to the concept of an executive headhunt than a standard round of hiring.

That's not to say that the President simply followed previous blueprints for appointing candidates, or left the work up to an outside agency. In fact, one of the most important things Obama did in the "hiring" process was to define the list of qualities he was seeking in a candidate—something that caused much controversy in the press, but which is essential when it comes to sorting one well-stocked resume from another at the rarefied heights at which these candidates operate. And that goes double for when you're having someone else draw up—or help in drawing up—an initial list of candidates, as the President surely did.

Refining the results

When announcing his decision, President Obama offered the most significant insight into the process he'd used to whittle down his list of candidates and arrive at Judge Sotomayor for his nominee. In an official video release, the President touched on three main points that could have applied to almost any of the candidates: he praised Judge Sotomayor's "mastery of the law," her "recognition that a judge's job is to interpret, not make the law," and her "common sense" and "sense of compassion." While all of those are important qualities and qualifications, at the level where you're considering candidates for the Supreme Court, surely they're as much of a given as, say, hand-eye coordination would be for a new signing at Yankee stadium; essential, but not the deciding factor.

Where President Obama appears to have been swayed in his decision-making is in the gray area that no amount of education, work history or prior achievements can help with—the personal narrative. It's something that he acknowledged in that same video, commenting that "as impressive and meaningful as Judge Sotomayor's sterling credentials in the law" might be, of equal importance "is her own extraordinary journey." That's a journey that began in a housing project in the Bronx, went via Princeton, Yale, and "almost every level of our judicial system," and seems set to add the Supreme Court as its next destination.

So, sure, Judge Sotomayor is qualified for the position. But so, presumably, was everyone else on the shortlist. What set her apart from that crowd, however, was her story, and how she presented it—something that convinced the President that she had the qualities he'd set out looking for in the first place. And therein lies a tip for both the hirer and the candidate in these situations. For the hirer: it's important not only to know in advance what qualifications you're looking for in a candidate, but to have a list of desirable qualities in mind as well. Even more important is to have a record of those somewhere to reflect on as you try to make your decision, lest you become distracted by other issues during the search. For the candidate, the advice is even simpler: be yourself. When a hiring decision comes down to personal qualities, the only way to ensure that yours come through is to be genuine. Beyond that, it's a matter of whether what you've got is what they're looking for—and that's something no candidate can control.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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