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What’s more important in a new recruit – skills or attitude?

Mar 07, 2011 Business Daily, Management

“I’m asking them about their families, and how they grew up, and who’s important in their life and how did they decide to do this and that. I’m looking for fit, personality, values. Is this the kind of person we want around here? Will they work well? And I don’t really care how many places you worked at or what grades you got or who your favorite teacher was or what your favorite class was. It’s about what kind of people they are.”

ROBERT A ECKERT, interviewed in The New York Times (25 December 2010)

Those words said by Robert Eckert, CEO of Mattel, caught my eye. Eckert was talking to the NYT about what he looks for in new hires. He is way less interested in the potential recruit’s qualifications and experience, than he is in what kind of person they are.

This should be interesting for us in Kenya, where we remain obsessed by which school and university you went to, what grades you clocked, and who your referees are. Yet those things are possibly the least relevant in deciding who should work for you.

The other day I was asked to do a talk at a leading corporation. The executive introducing me made special mention of something he had seen in my profile: that I hold two degrees from the London School of Economics. This was highlighted, apparently to ‘wow’ the audience. I remember feeling both embarrassed and perturbed. Should where I studied really sell me at all? My degrees are probably the least relevant part of what makes me tick. They are in a subject that I never took up; they were achieved in a country that I do not live in; and they happened a long time ago. If anything has driven me forward, it is not my education; it is the set of attitudes I hold in my head.

And so, when we recruit, how much attention do we give to trying to understand those attitudes that fire success? Very little, I would venture. The word ‘qualified’ always looms large in Kenya: which is really proxy-speak for where and how well someone studied and what pieces of impressive paper they have accumulated in their lives. But look back at all the recruitments you have conducted in your life: how many of those have lived up to the promise of those pieces of paper?

Qualifications, after all, are not just gained through personal attributes alone. They are also clocked by being born in the right place, to the right family, and being in good shape on the day of the crucial final examination. Those who did not meet those rather critical criteria are cruelly caste aside when we get too carried away by a person’s qualifications.

I’m with Eckert on this one. I want smart and intelligent people, sure I do; but I also want ethical people; people sensitive enough to get the best out of others; people who live to high personal standards; people who demonstrate initiative and solve problems. That latter set of things is more about their attitudes towards themselves and the world, and less about where they went to school.

As organizations evolve, they distinguish themselves more on intangibles: their brands; their values, their culture; their way of doing things. When we hire for mature organizations, qualifications should be only a small part of how we decide to confirm a recruitment. Attitudes, character and personality can be the real tie-breakers, and can be way more important in influencing whether an interesting person will actually fit in with our organizational norms and make a difference.

Sadly, all I see is tired old recruitment processes; rigid filtering of CVs; stale old interview formats; dull and uninteresting questions. What we should really be doing is trying to uncover the real person within.

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  • I remember speaking to a HR manager a while ago and I asked her if, when recruiting, she scans the social media landscape (twitter posts, Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, participation in industry forums, Q&As etc) to get a deeper feel of a recruit, than she would just from reading their CV, and she replied in the negative explaining that how a potential employee behaved outside of the work environment didn’t concern the business. Quite shortsighted, on many levels, I felt.

  • Chandesh:

    Absolutely short-sighted. You hire a person, not a CV. Knowing what kind of person you’re getting is paramount.

  • Well… some ‘bad boys’ outside of work might be great employees…

    Using facebook or twitter or social media to judge someone might not give a true picture of the WORK ETHIC of the person…

  • @coldtusker – in this no-privacy environment an employee’s actions, within and without the workplace, reflect on the organisation that saw it fit to hire him. In that context ‘work ethic’ embodies the personal nature of the employee and that nature is represented by their profiles in the social media space. A classic example is of a group of employees fired from a well known international airline for deragotary comments they made about the company and some passengers on Facebook. Although entitled to ‘let off steam’ they did so in a public space and thereby displayed little respect for their employer and worse their customers.

  • kenyangetter

    @coldtusker kweli kabisa but should there be a seamless transition between the worker and the social ‘mediaite’?
    And I agree @Chandesh infact we should even seek out candidates’ community service profiles and contribution to their neighbourhoods and communities…. crazy but necessary I suppose.

    Thanks @Sunnywords thought provoking

  • I’d say the point is you’re trying to gauge “the whole person” in whatever way you choose. This should not be excessively moralistic (there is that danger), but focus on the key attitudes you’re looking for: work ethic, initiative, creativity etc…

  • kenneth nyaga

    Sunny you are spot on.I agree with you on this one.I agree with the saying that life is 10% how we react to it and 90% our attitude towards it.

  • Mo

    I fully agree with you, Sunny (and Eckhart). Whether a person works for self or an employer, they are a brand ambassador for the organisation, and the impression they create (even just on a subliminal level), as part of a collective, is more powerful than any advertising.
    That person’s character and value system will come into play in how they interact at work and in their decision-making -it is not all text-book and detached from the person. Qualifications and experience are important because (hopefully) they attest to the fact that the person knows every thing that they claim to know. And equally important are their character and values.

  • Elias

    SPOT ON! I take this as a personal SI Unit. I do not have a Uni Degree. Long story:life happenings. However the strides that I have made with my attitude, character and just being professional have come along way to me achieving my goals. While I believe in Education as a source of knowledge, I also believe in attitude & enthusiasm towards what we do.

  • Good work Sunny

  • Rachel Kasumba

    If I was the hiring manager, I would be most concerned about how well-rounded a candidate was. Skill and attitude are both equally important in the perfomance or production of an excellent service/product.

    While I agree that 1 hour interviews all day long either with an interview panel or individuals may not wead out the well-rehearsed candidate, they should be conducted at the bear minimum.

    In addition, increase the probabtion period from 3 to 6 months or even 1 year depending on the sensitivity of the postion. As regards references, I would be extra causious especially in today’s enviroment – see Sunny’s well explained article dated September 12, 2008 for more details.

  • Nasra

    very interesting article that i totally agree with @ sunny , interviews begins from the moment the candidate expresses interest. That means they agree to be observed at all times. if driven by passion and enthusiasm you will uphold the core values at all times. It would be odd or misplaced to work in the humanitarian field for example from 8-5 and be a very unpleasant / uncaring human being after that. We recruit to support the existing and not merely to fill a spot. GOOD WORK SUNNY !!