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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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