How to Hire for Attitude, Train for Job Skills

No doubt you’ve learned the hard way that when you fire a salesperson, it can cost you as much as 150% of their annual salary and benefits, plus lost sales and missed opportunities.  Obviously, there’s a lot riding on your hiring decisions.  As you know, good hiring practices are based on far more than evaluating an applicant’s selling skills.  Odds are, you didn’t let your last employee go because he or she lacked the skills to do the job; you fired them for a lack of personal skills or a mismatch with your organization.  This common situation has led to the maxim, “hire for attitude, train for job skills.”

When most hiring managers believe in the importance of “attitude,” why do they ignore it so often during the screening process?

“I had to have someone up and running quickly… I didn’t have time to train someone, and she had a great track record with our competition.”

Unfortunately, most people are hired based on what we refer to as The Fatal Flaw of Selection:  The belief that the primary reason for hiring someone is their prior work experience in an industry, specific marketplace or with a certain product.  This assumes that the individual’s past work experience was positive and productive.  It presumes that the person is available because of circumstances over which he or she had no control, rather than because of average or below-average performance.  And it certainly doesn’t guarantee the individual has the drive to succeed and the right attitude to achieve in a new position.

“He had a great attitude during the interview process… how was I to know he would be such a bad fit for our organization?”

Attitude is related to our “true colors” – personal qualities that are always present but most observable when the going gets tough – personal accountability, resiliency, results orientation, work ethic and so on.  Knowing that past experience and the accompanying job skills aren’t the whole story, the best-intentioned hiring managers use a comprehensive interview process and a generic personality test to try to get more insight.  But they still don’t get all the information they need.  People are performing—sometimes having been coached—during interviews.  Most commonly-used employment tests stop short… they don’t reveal an in-depth view of what an individual brings to the table or what makes them tick.

Wanting to do something, doing it, and doing it well are three very different things.

In thousands of cases over the years, we’ve worked with people who were qualified to do their jobs (based on past experience) and who truly wanted to do what they were hired to do…but who didn’t perform, despite this heartfelt intention.  Our Brooks Talent Index® assessment revealed that the most significant difference between those who performed well and those who didn’t lay in the area of personal skills.

Personal skills – another name for attitude – describe how clearly you see the tasks and abilities your job requires and how naturally focused you are on them.  For example, sales jobs typically require results orientation and resiliency.  You could be perfectly intelligent, but not naturally and fundamentally focused on results or able to rebound from setbacks quickly.  If not, you could have all the industry experience in the world, all the surface “people skills,” and all the desire to be a good salesperson… but not succeed at sales.

How can you uncover real information about a job applicant’s attitudes during the process of screening and selecting?  Let’s say you know previous salespeople have failed at the high-pressure approach your firm’s sales organization practices, and you’d like to find a new salesperson who has the resiliency (personal skill = attitude) to survive and succeed.  One fairly simple approach is simply to ask each applicant questions related to the key attitudes required for success in the sales role at your organization. For example:

  • To find out how resilient they are, ask them to describe a time they faced rejection or failure but made it through the experience.  See how they describe those times and how they learned from it.  You’ll be amazed how easy it is to separate those who are resilient from those who aren’t!
  • To discover how results-oriented they are, ask them about a time they didn’t achieve the results they needed to achieve.  You don’t want someone who claims never to have missed a target or botched a sale, you want someone who takes responsibility for achieving results.  Look for someone who can describe where they underperformed and show how they learned from the experience.

It’s a frustrating paradox of traditional hiring methods – attitude makes or breaks a new hire’s chances of success, but it’s frequently overlooked in the hiring process.  When someone is fired (or when it just doesn’t work out) it’s almost always because they don’t have the specific personal skills required to do the job well.  If you take the time to analyze what tasks and abilities are most essential to the position you’re hiring for, you can craft questions like these to help you separate potential solid new hires from those you’d eventually fire for attitude inadequacies.