When Hiring Start with Your Culture – Why Attitude Beats Skill

Jack Welch said, “Hiring good people is hard.  Hiring great people is brutally hard. And yet nothing matters more in winning than getting the right people on the field.”

Jack’s advice is worth heeding, after all he knows a thing or two about hiring; he was the CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001.  During his tenure, Welch increased the value of GE more than 4,000 percent and when he left he received a record $417 million severance package.  It was the largest severance ever paid out to a departing CEO (to my knowledge, the record still stands).  To maintain the position of CEO in an organization the size of GE and then earn a severance of that size you must be more than good.  You’ve got to be really good.

Experience has taught me that the skills, or technical ability, is rarely the main reason that new employees succeed or fail in a new job.  Rather attitude and job fit are the main culprits.  We’ve talked about using objective data to help you hire for job fit.  Today I want to talk about hiring for attitude.

I’m referring to “attitude” as the core traits of a person that determine the behaviors they bring to the job every day.  Behaviors are the building blocks of your culture.

Hiring for Attitude begins with Culture in Mind

Think about Southwest Airlines for a minute.  How would you describe their culture?

In a December 2015 Harvard Business Review article Julie Weber, their Vice President of People, said this, “At Southwest, we talk about hiring not for skills but three attributes: a warrior spirit (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a servant’s heart (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously).”

If you are familiar with Southwest Airlines, I bet some component of fun was in your description of their culture.  The reason Southwest has a fun culture is that they intentionally hire fun people.  They hire for an attitude found in those employees who are the most successful.

Over the years, Southwest has used creative strategies to determine whether their potential employees truly have a fun-loving attitude.  For example, they have asked pilots, during the interview process, to change in to Bermuda shorts.  By judging their reaction, they could tell who might have a hard time fitting into their culture.

Southwest recognizes that culture is critical and that maintaining the culture they have worked hard to build depends on hiring the right person.  There are plenty of skilled pilots who are very qualified to fly an airplane.  These pilots may even excel at other airlines. However, if they are going to succeed at Southwest Airlines they need to have a fun-loving attitude.

What Traits Should You Hire For?

So, how would you describe the individuals that best live the culture you desire?

Think about your culture and traits of the individuals that best represent it.  List these out and refine them down to your 3-5 most important traits.

Next make a list of the individuals who have been most successful on your team.  Do they possess the traits on your list?

Now make a list of the individuals who have not succeeded on your team.  What cultural traits were they missing?

If you want to hire for attitude, to help maintain the culture you’ve worked hard to create, make certain that your hiring traits address the issues in those that have failed.

Focus on Attitude in the Interview

Design your interview approach to look for the traits you want.  List out the traits you’re looking for.  After you interview a person give them a score on a scale of one to ten on each trait.  Include in your notes why you scored the person the way you did.

Of course, you must consider technical skill.  Attitude alone isn’t going to make the person a good hire.  But if culture is important to your organization (and it should be), then attitude must be a critical component of your interview process.

Work with your human resources team to ensure that the focus on attitude is part of the overall recruiting, interviewing and hiring process.

Check in on Attitude after Hiring

When you make a hire, I recommend keeping tabs on the critical attitude factors to ensure that what you hired for really exists.  For the first three months after hire, take the time to score how the person is doing in living these important traits.

After the first three months, I recommend you continue doing this quarterly for the first year. Your interview notes will help you become more effective and precise as you hire for attitude and culture fit.

Remember, hire for attitude and teach for skill. You’ve worked too hard to build your culture.  Don’t risk it by hiring for skills and ignoring attitude.


Need some help getting started?  Download our Leadership Trait Assessment as a guide.

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