Hire for attitude, Train for skill – The problems with that.

For the millionth time, I saw the words, “Hire for attitude, train for skill” used in relation to recruiting. Just decided to unpack this advice for what it entails.

1) What specifically gets the work done – attitude or skill? The skill is the basis for action. If attitude is present and skill is not, no work gets done. If skill is present, and attitude (presumably the right one) is not, it is possible to still get the work done. Of course, attitude ( or the lack of it) will cast a dark shadow over performance. But,if performance is the real object,skill is the light in which the object shines. And attitude is the shadow. The shadow can blend in or smear the lustre of appearance. It cannot create it. When push comes to shove, if people have to choose one, simply for the sake of getting things done, one has to opt for skill. 

2) How much time do we have? Part of the challenge is people don’t have the luxury of time to train. There are job vacancies that are causing performance delays and impacting business results. If skills are ready, who wouldn’t welcome them? Unless the candidate is a role-model of bad attitude, recruiters want to emphasize skills.

There is another angle to this. If the organization decides to only train for skills in-house, it is missing out the competitive enrichment that those who have learnt their skills elsewhere bring. Somebody who has worked elsewhere has skills honed differently. There is a distinct flavour, a special tang to how they do things. In adapting their skills to the new work environment, these candidates are creating space for an eclectic work-culture, one that borrows the best from the outside world. An organization that harps on attitude and believes only in using its own homegrown skillset is missing out on this opportunity.

3) What is the underlying rationale of “hire for attitude, train for skill”? I believe it is this : if someone has an attitude problem, the person is beyond redemption. And if the attitude is right, the skill can most definitely be learnt from scratch. Do all organizations share a universal understanding of the ‘right attitude’? Is there one? I haven’t heard of it.

From this, we can infer that the attitude every organization seeks is the one suited to its own context. This is a subjective and reasonable inference. It makes sense.The point to ponder is whether the attitude mostly seeps into a personafter the person has joined? What if the organization engenders the attitude more than what the person by herself could have sustained? After all, that’s the nature of an organization and its culture. It grows on people. During recruitment, psychometric assessments will no doubt check for the fit, but isn’t it a reasonable conjecture that the fit would only get stronger as the employee settles in. How they determine the degree of fit, how do they arrive at the threshold are interesting things to probe.

What is the lasting impact of a widely shared attitude in an organization? The attitude, particularly it’s signature aspects, becomes an orthodoxy of sorts. People become rigid in exhibiting it. If the performance requirements require the exact opposite of what employees do, attitude becomes an obstacle to adapting well. For example, a ‘can-do spirit’ is considered good attitude. If a company harbouring this attitude goes through a time where absolute pragmatism demands cutting losses & closing down one product line, this ‘can-do spirit’ can make people refuse to see the writing on the wall. The collective attitude will urge hanging in there, one more time, trying something new, doing something different. If attitude can also constrain our ability to respond, flexibility is a virtue to be built into the culture.

A good way to be flexible and build a resilient culture is by enabling a strong character with a challenging attitude and acknowledged skills to join from time to time. This character will pose a healthy challenge to the general work environment. He is like the antigen that stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies. The organization learns how to size up challenges, investigate whether a different response is warranted, respond and change while keeping its performance intact. 

4) Is it a real choice between attitude and skill? Why can’t an organization wait for a person who has both the attitude and the skill? I recall saying organizations are in a hurry. Here, I want them to test how much of a waiting game they can play. Anyways, the organization believes it can train for skills. So, the search is for attitude.

If an organization has to wait for a long time before the person with the required attitude shows up, it tells us that the organization puts a lot of premium on attitude. Extremely well-conceived organizations do that. But that does not mean one ought to imitate them. These organizations are so geared for high performance that the minute they get the right fit, they are able to get these new recruits to hit the ground running. They have painstakingly built the capability to enable the new recruits to perform. They have mastered the synergy created when the attitudinal hooks clasp the performance levers in perfect equilibrium. Without having this capability, it is unwise to put such a premium on attitude.

If your game is about numbers and scale, you end up becoming sanguine about attitude. You hire in a hurry. You make compromises. You can ensure you make the right compromises by waiting for ‘attitude and skill’ wherever possible and periodically taking in the recruit with the challenging attitude. All the while, you can build capability so you can put afford to put a premium on attitude or learn how to make do with a readily available attitude pattern

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