Hire for attitude: train for skill

Hire for attitude: train for skill

The other day, I received an email from one of my former MBA students. He is currently working in Scandinavia for a large hotel group, and his work seems quite interesting. After inquiring about what new activities I am involved in, and asking if I would be interested in speaking at a large conference his company is organizing, he wrote that he had a leadership question that was on his mind these days. Here is a part of what he wrote:

“As a team manager I am constantly reminded of your remark: Hire for attitude, train for skills. I have made a mistake by falling in the skills trap and we are now struggling with the consequences. But my question is really how do you identify the wanted attitude in the recruitment process?”

Of course, it is a big question, and one without easy answers. So, first I told him that it was gratifying to know that former students remember some concepts from our classes, and (even better) that they actually use them, and reflect about them. When I was drafting an answer for him, it caused me to think about how I came to know and use this idea.

I think I first heard this expression at a Tom Peters seminar, when I was a either student or a young manager, and it has proven to be one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. In a variety of contexts–in my own business or personal dealings, in my seminars, and with my consulting clients–it is a thought that I have come back to again and again. If we make sure to hire people with the right attitudes, and who love to learn, a lot of the skill issues seem to take care of themselves.

Hiring for attitude…in practice: Of course, even if one subscribes to the intrinsic truth of this way of thinking, implementation is another matter. Hiring for attitude simply takes more time and clearer perception than hiring for skill, since attitude is far more difficult than skill to identify and measure. So, my former student’s question is indeed the critical one: how to judge a potential hire’s attitude during the recruitment phase.

And, while I believe that I have some pretty good insight about the concept, after using it and reflecting on it for more than twenty years, I will admit that I do not have a great and definitive answer to my former student’s question. In any case, here is some of what I wrote:

As to your leadership question: First of all, I am happy you remember the “hire for attitude” concept. I believe in it more every day as I work with companies and interview all kinds of people. The only advice I have about identifying attitudes is to spend the time to get to know the people you are thinking about hiring, and when possible involve other members of your team in the process.

Another aphorism that has become part of my belief system over the years is “hire slowly, fire quickly”. I am not sure exactly where it comes from, but I remember discussing this notion with Jim Koch, the brewer of Samuel Adams beer, in the 1980s when we first knew each other. The beverage company I was running at that time became the first distributor for Koch’s brands, before they were well-known throughout America, and Jim and I had several discussions about training and employee policies. We both decided we liked this concept.

By “hire slowly” I mean extend the interview and trial periods long enough to really get to know the individual. I read a story recently about Whole Foods, the highly respected American grocery chain, and it said that they have new employees work on a crew for a trial period. Near the end of this trial, the crew members vote anonymously on whether to keep the new member on board or not. Without knowing all the details of their system, I tend to like it, as it gives primary responsibility to those directly affected by the hiring issue.

By “fire quickly”, I mean fix your mistakes rather than dwell on them. To me, this expression should not imply that we can ever be cold or brutal on the human side, only to say that when the “fit” is not there, we should admit the hiring mistake and try to fix it as quickly as we can.

A bit more on this, and a few stories, next time…

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