Why Attitude Matters as much as Skills

When Mark Murphy, bestselling author and CEO of Leadership IQ, tracked 20 000 new hires over a three-year period, and then discovered that a whopping 46% of them failed within 18 months, he wasn’t telling us anything new.  After all, as bad as that result sounds, it is consistent with the findings of other similar studies. Murphy, however, did offer something interesting when he went on to explain in his book, Hiring for Attitude, the reasons why those hires failed.  Only 11% of them failed because of a deficiency in skills.  The top four reasons for failure all had to do with a deficiency in attitude – 26% were unresponsive to coaching, 23% had low levels of emotional intelligence, 17% lacked motivation and 15% had temperament issues.

Not surprisingly, Murphy went on to advocate revolutionising the recruitment process by making attitude as important as a criterion for hiring as technical competence.  As head-hunters we are keenly aware of how sharply our clients feel the pain of a skills gap, and it’s far from surprising that their focus is on filling that need as quickly as possible.  Part of our in-depth service as retained search specialists is to help our clients assess attitude in order to ensure the best possible hire.  During the search and interviewing process technical skills are far easier to assess than soft skills.  Hiring for attitude requires specific interviewing techniques and questions in order to unearth the personality behind the candidate. We probe the candidates so that clients can more accurately gauge whether the person is truly open to learning, collaborative, innovative in their thinking, able to assimilate feedback, resilient in the face of setbacks or failure, etcetera.

What is key to the process, though, is to get to the very DNA of our client’s company culture.  It makes sense that if you want to hire a person with the ‘right’ attitude for your business you need a blueprint that accurately maps the ‘star’ attitudes already embedded in the culture, as well as the troublesome ones. Putting a highly skilled, expert executive who is hard-driving and authoritarian in charge of a team whose high performance has always been inspired by a social culture full of camaraderie is mostly likely going to be one of those failed hires.  A bad hire is not only costly in terms of the expense of recruitment and lost business opportunities; it is also expensive in its lasting emotional and social impact.

Successful companies that have been hiring for attitude for many years, such as Google and Apple, have a complete grasp of the uniqueness of their culture, and a crystal clear picture of the attitudes that work best in their culture.  This empowers them to look beyond the skills they need, so that they can hire the people they want.  Such a thorough understanding of one’s own company culture results from rigorous focus and reflection on the human qualities that far more accurately describe ‘who we are’ than the tailored vision, mission and value statements which quite often more accurately express ‘how we want to be seen’.  Evaluating the attitudes of your top talent helps to develop the profile of the people you want in your organisation.  It’s equally useful to assess the attitudes of low performers, and those Murphy describes as ‘Talented Terrors’ – your people with fantastic skills and awful attitudes.

Attitude is the greatest determinant of whether an individual is going to rise to significant heights in their personal growth, professional development and performance improvement. While it’s within the power of an organisation to enhance the skills sets of its people, attitudes are only changed when an individual has the deeply personal motivation to adopt a different one.  This has inspired a growing number of top companies to operate by the mantra ‘Hire for attitude.  Train for skills.’  By focusing on the attitudes that align with your brand’s characteristics, you reinforce your company culture with every new hire.  As you focus on finding a cultural fit with each new employee, you build a workforce that is far more likely to be engaged, and less likely to turn over.