Hire for Will, Train for Skill

managers resource handbook


Have you ever tried to hire someone to fill an open position and have it not work out? Hiring new employees can be a lengthy and complex process for a manager, so making sure you hire the right people is essential to your success. But how do you do this? How do you assess job-seeking candidates to make sure they’re the right people for your organization?

The Hiring Process

Most organizations follow five primary steps in their hiring process:

Identifying the Necessary Skills – Managers who seek to bring on a new employee must first identify the job expectations, the required skills and finally the compensation range. Care must be put in defining the job description and minimum skills because candidates are initially filtered based on the basic job requirements.

Recruiting – As is the case with many organizations, the proposed position must be approved, after which recruiting efforts can begin. Recruiting efforts will typically involve collecting resumes and CVs, as well as phone screening candidates. Screening is often tied to the minimum skills required by the job posting.

On-Site Interviews – The on-site interview is for both the company and the candidate. The on-site interview is the most thorough opportunity for both parties to evaluate one another for the position.

Consensus Among Interviewers – Many firms have more than one interviewer, who collect and share notes from their respective interviews of the candidates. The purpose of the consensus meeting is to compare candidates in order to select the best one.

Extending the Offer – An offer for employment is extended once the interviewers agree upon the desired candidate.

How Confident Are You?

Though the recruiting and hiring process is relatively straight forward, much of the process relies solely on first impressions: selecting who to call based on a resume or CV; then who to bring in for a face-to-face interview based on a 20 minute phone call. For this reason, many managers understandably second-guess his or her hiring decisions after such cursory review of a CV, a phone screen or even a face-to-face interview. 

To make matters worse, many businesses tightly control hiring since increased staffing drives up cost to the business.  In fact, a hiring manager once confessed to me that he was afraid to offer a candidate a position because there had been tremendous pressure to avoid increasing staffing levels at his company.  After all the trouble he had gone through to get the new position approved, he was terrified of hiring the wrong person.

What to Look For

Knowing the process is not perfect, what can you do to make sure you’re picking the right candidate? I recently discovered the Small Business Big Marketing   podcast, which serves as a fantastic resource for any business.  (It’s a show out of Australia which discusses various marketing, business and strategic issues for businesses.)  Episode #91 provides an incredibly motivational interview of a man named Tom O’Toole, who is the successful owner of Beechworth Bakery.  

During the interview, Tom speaks at length about how business success depends on the company culture and the personal ownership that employees demonstrate in doing their jobs.  In response to a question about hiring, Tom states that the key to staffing is to ‘hire for will, train for skill.’   Hiring for will and training for skill suggests that cultural fit is an essential need when examining candidates, while specific skills can be learned. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

Businesses expend tremendous effort and resources in order to create the desired culture for its work force.  For starters, companies spend countless hours evaluating employees through elaborate performance management systems.  These systems not only evaluate what a person accomplished, but also how the went about their job. Further, more resources are consumed through annual refresher trainings on things like ethics and company values. Ultimately, all companies seek classic traits such as hard work, dedication and motivation in their employees. All of these behaviors are understandable because they can have bottom line results. The common denominator, though, is the people and how well the fit with the organization in terms of performance and values.

From my experience, running a team that includes at least one employee who doesn’t fit the desired mold can be extremely challenging for managers.  Not that those employees were any less qualified in terms of skills, they simply required a different style of management.  Sometimes it simply takes more energy on the part of the manager to ensure the employee is performing as desired. But in more extreme cases, individuals who do not mix well with the organizational norm can have a hard time connecting to other individuals, making it even more difficult for the manager to create the necessary culture within the team.  To be clear, this should not be confused with diversity – the differences I’m mentioning here are things like work ethic, motivation and values. 

Tom’s advice – hiring for will and training for skill – is spot on.  Specific job skills can be learned through training and mentoring.  In fact, the skills are more easily learned when the new employee naturally blends the team.  Will, on the other hand, cannot be learned and is part of our innate personalities.  Hiring employees who are a natural fit with the team and who embody the characteristics of what you as the manager look for will make integrating the new employee far easier. 

The Importance of Cultural Fit

Hiring for cultural fit within a team is just as important as the candidate’s resume itself.  In order to assess cultural fit, start by asking interview questions that reflect actual scenarios that your current employees have experienced. In addition, as you are going through your interviews of candidate, look for individuals who are self-starters and take it upon themselves to learn. The willingness of the individual to learn is a good indication that the individual is willing to change and adapt in order to increase their ability to perform. Further, look for behaviors that lend themselves to the specific role you are trying to fill. For instance, if your employees will be working closely with customers, seek individuals who have good interpersonal skills.

Hiring is not easy, and there is always uncertainty on the part of the hiring manager. But by looking closely at how well the individual can fit within the organization and adapt to its needs, you can help yourself considerably. So I encourage you to take Tom’s advice.  Hire for will, train for skill.

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