First Who, Then What

We have all known a leader who’s struggled trying to fill an open position because they wanted the perfect combination of hard skills and really weren’t persuaded by exceptional soft skills.  These leaders are holding out for a candidate’s work experience that includes a particular previous employer, or an unusual technical skill, or a certain project experience.

Surprisingly, when these same hiring managers are asked whether or not they would have been better off hiring a smart, energetic person to whom they could teach the hard skills, they answered “yes”  — especially when they’ve been waiting for those elusive hard skills for months.

To make matters worse, in almost every case in which a hiring manager was seduced by some particular hard skill for which they’ve hired, they fired for misaligned soft skills.  Rarely do we hear of someone being fired for not having a hard skill they professed to have.  Yet, how often have we heard someone fired for poor work ethic, no initiative, poor people skills, or they just don’t fit?

So why are hiring managers still so hung up on searching for candidates with ideal hard skills when they know most (not all) critical hard skills can be learned?  One reason is these leaders aren’t sure how to screen for those soft skills.  Another reason may be the IBM syndrome: the leader stands a better chance of being criticized for taking a risk on an unknown than for going with someone who has a “proven” track record.  The flaw in that reasoning is we don’t know if the candidate’s perceived success is due to their own skill, others on their team, the environment, or just a perception created by this candidate.

When hiring managers review candidates, they should challenge their bias towards hard skills and ask themselves what someone with good soft skills can learn.  One of Jim Collins’ most important leadership principles is “first who, then what.”

Empowered hiring managers focus on “who” and the successful “what” then comes.

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