How-To Series: How To Effectively Hire; For Skills Or For Attitude?

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” – Winston Churchill

A constant dilemma among recruiters: Do we hire for skills or for attitude?
Great tips for talent search - Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills

Establishing the ideal team for your organisation is a key component of leadership. It involves helping the talents to achieve outcomes which would make them successful in a particular role. That is pretty much the responsibilities of a recruiter. It is a known fact that you can’t build a great company without great people. Failure to select the right people for your team would only complicate work processes and set your business for failure. However, how many organisations are as rigorous about hiring and evaluating job candidates as they are deciding on an investment proposal? The reality is that the hiring process in many organisations is poorly designed and shabbily executed, which can be costly in the long run. Research by McKinsey has shown that the difference between an average performer and the top performer is 67% productivity and bottom-line profits. The impact of bad hires is not just in terms of those numbers; bad hires also would have an impact on workplace culture.

Attitude or skill; which matters more for hiring and talent development? Attitude refers to the way of behaving based on our inner motivations, personal values, and objectives. Skills, on the other hand, are the activities or capabilities we can deliver, what we have learned throughout our professional life. The famous and often-quoted wisdom, “Hire for attitude, train for skills” was borne in the late 90s from the book Nuts!, which chronicled Southwest Airlines’ formula for success, under CEO Herb Kelleher. Years later, the statement is still more than just sound advice; it describes the conduct necessary in identifying exceptional talents, and it also is a method of pre-employment screening. An approach like that is necessary for industries with a shortage of skilled candidates; such as cyber security and startups relying on data science. Hiring is not about finding people with the right experience. Rather, it is about finding people with the right mindset, or attitude; having personal goals that are aligned with the business. Successful organisations hire for attitude and train for skills. The single best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. What you know (your knowledge, skills, and experience) changes; what you are (your heart, your attitude) does not. A person’s personality is going to be essentially the same throughout their lives. In a workplace setting, of course when it comes to operational areas such as data science, the requirements for analytical thinking will be higher compared to some support areas. However, an attitude of analysis and logical thinking is a core part, because a talent with an analytical mindset will also likely be investigative. By hiring and evaluating for attitude, even for roles that require a high level of skill, you can ensure that your organisational culture remains healthy. A healthy workplace culture also supports the learning and development journey of employees; therefore, you will be able to develop more internal talents to grow your business.

Hiring for attitude is more complex compared to assessing skills or evaluating experience. Skills can be described, explained, or demonstrated. Experience is also easy to review and validate. Attitude, on the other hand, is subjective. One may ask, “what is work attitude exactly?”. Well, work attitude includes personality, motivation, values, and interests. It is something each one of us has which differentiates one person from another. The common denominator is that exceptional employees have the “right” work attitude for the job – the eagerness to do whatever it takes to progress and the motivation to go that extra mile whenever necessary. Eric Lane, the Director of worldwide staffing at Silicon Graphics Inc. stated that during interview sessions, he gives people the opportunity to exhibit their sense of humour. The organisation looks for people’s passions, and their experiences in life eg. taking time off after MBA studies to travel the world. Just because finding great talents is all about mindset, attitude, and personal attributes, it does not mean that Hiring Managers only need to depend on gut feelings. It is important to design a rigorous selection process and to provide every candidate with a fair chance for the job. Some people mature later in their career journey, some need the right leadership and motivation to excel. The problem with today’s recruitment landscape is that most people scream on their resumes, because they believe that if they do not display the right skills on paper, they stand a very slim chance to be hired. Such common recruitment approach only limits the number of candidates that organisations can attract. By looking beyond resumes, we will be able to identify whispering talents who may have the drive and capabilities to do the job and would fit into the existing workplace culture. We will be able to distinguish those who are willing to learn and enhance their skills. Such an approach also allows business leaders and recruiters to test job candidates’ communication skills, assess their level of perseverance and teamwork spirit as well as whether or not the candidates have the attributes of a visionary. As the leading talent search agency in Malaysia, HCR Malaysia is sought after for our Assessment & Team Fit services, whereby we conduct a 5-Factor Personality Assessment to determine job suitability and team fit. Check out our website to find out more about our services. We recommend including such personality assessments, with questions for candidates to answer, as part of the screening process. Some examples of questions to gauge the right attitude are “When were you in a tough situation that you had to shine in your organisation?”, “When have you gone above and beyond the call of duty?”, or “Where did you show and exhibit great listening and communication skill?”, “What activities make you lose track of time?”, ”How would you measure your own performance?". These types of questions will allow you to see how the candidate reacts and responds to where you expect them to shine in your organisation. Responses to these questions would highlight values in terms of attitude, discipline, and grit to come back and persevere through adversities. Select and train the person who has the heart and soul, one who is hungry for progress and wants to follow your lead and be the best. Talents like this would be worth your investment compared to a person with a bright and shiny resume yet lacks the hunger for success.

Recruiters and HR Managers will often advertise that the right candidate needs to have “a minimum of 3-5 years of industry experience”, for example; when in fact, none of that is necessary – what the organisation really needs is a talent who has soft skills such as fantastic handling of customers on the phone (attitude) and has some common sense. Attitude is a huge component of job performance. It is divided into three key areas ie. integrity or honesty, work ethic, and reliability. Attitude and personality both drive behaviour. Hiring people with the wrong attitude would potentially clash with the existing workplace culture, disrupt the teamwork spirit and positive working environment, as well as affect the overall performance of other employees.

When people have the right attitude, they are both motivated and adaptable, which makes them more open to learning new skills. With enough effort and a healthy approach to work, new skills are more likely to be mastered faster. Founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, truly values work experience; however, he puts attitude as a priority on his list when it comes to hiring. He believes that talents can be trained for the skills required for a job. Richard is a leader who believes in extending opportunities for growth; provided the talent has the right attitude. He looks for people with professional traits such as enthusiasm, humility, work ethic, integrity, initiative, and passion – because these kinds of personality traits are virtually impossible to learn. In fact, Richard goes to the extent of doing crazy things to gauge people’s attitudes and not relying just on candidates’ shiny resumes or outcomes of interview sessions. For example, he drove to pick up a candidate in a taxi. In such instances, the job candidate is evaluated by the way they react to his humble action.

As the world has evolved over the years, industries have adopted a range of strategies and business models. However, they all agree on one core “people” proposition: Business leaders hire for attitude and train for skills. The biggest issue faced by businesses across the globe when it comes to recruitment is the inability of talents to communicate in a professional manner. Recruiters are challenged with the need to fill ranks with executives and front-line employees whose personal values are aligned with the values that make the organisation prosper. To recruiters like these, character weighs more than credentials. Nevertheless, hiring solely for attitude is not always the best route if the candidate does not possess the ability to learn technical skills required for the role. In an ideal professional setting, businesses would want to hire talents that encompass the perfect balance of attitude and skills. Making the decision to hire a candidate can be challenging; we recommend providing a solid benchmark against your organisation’s existing top performers. However, be careful not to exhibit any form of discrimination. The best approach in hiring would be to encourage diversity within the organisation; allowing the opportunity for members of the workforce to continuously work closely with one another and learn from each other. Hire people who exhibits commitment and have their goals aligned to yours. As Simon Sinek says, “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they will work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they will work for you through blood, sweat, and tears”.

1.TEDxWarwick; Mads Faurholt-Jorgensen; How to master recruiting;
2.Michael Dill; Hire on Attitude, Train on Skills;
3.Stephen Goldberg; Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills;
4.On Line Recruitment; News; Skills Vs Attitude: Which Is More Important?;
5.Harvard Business Review Hiring And Recruitment; Bill Taylor; Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill
6.FastCompany; Peter Carbonara; Hire For Attitude, Train For Skills

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