Which is easier: learning a skill or learning a behavior?
Anyone with kids can tell you how difficult is it to teach someone to be diligent, honest, friendly, attentive to detail, ambitious, or any of a host of traits we hope to instill. Ever notice how some people seem to always be positive and willing to help out, while others tend to the morose?
There are habits we build over a lifetime, ways of doing things, ways of looking a the world and dealing with other people, that take a herculean effort to change. Many of these habits are what make us excel or fail at our chosen task, and make our collaborations either effective and inspiring or soul-draining time-sinks. And these habits and attributes come with us everywhere we go.
Yet it seems that the default in recruiting is to place an extraordinary amount of emphasis on similar experience, as opposed to complimentary attributes. This in a rapidly changing enterprise environment where markets and practices are in constant flux. This isn’t just ineffective, it’s lazy.
Obviously there are a great number of positions to fill where particular skills are everything and prohibitively difficult to learn on the job. While I’d like my heart surgeon to have a pleasant manner, his skill is far and away the overriding concern.
But much of management, for example, is involved not in performing specific tasks but in maximizing the potential of those around you. Inspired employees perform better, adapt better to change, and add value to their team and business. While you can teach a manager how to use the software in place and impart a profound understanding of the policies and procedures of a particular enterprise, teaching him to be an inspiring leader is much more difficult, if not impossible. Yes a manager needs to know his stuff, but he or she can learn it far more easily than he or she can learn how to get the most out of others.
Client services is another example — dedication, empathy, the willingness to go the extra mile, responsibility, the ability to inspire confidence — how do you teach this? Hire it instead. And look for it in unexpected places.
A case comes to mind from my own experience: I once hired a chef to manage a hotel. The gentleman in question said straight out “I don’t know anything about running a hotel”. Well, no, he didn’t. But he did know a great deal about running a team. He was honest, hardworking, reliable and willing to learn. He picked up the hotel management side remarkably quickly and years later has proven to be invaluable to the success of the business, so much so that when the property changed hands, the new owners made sure he stayed on.
Yes, your new hire needs to know his stuff and past experience is a good indicator of whether or not he does. But ask yourself these two questions:
Can we teach him the position-specific skills he needs to know?
Does he have the attributes we need but can’t teach him?
Do that, and you’ll find it gets easier to find, hire and retain excellence.