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Hire for Attitude or Hire for Skills?: Bridging the Gap in Your Small Business

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A couple weeks ago I came across an interesting article about the hiring tactics used by the likes of Facebook, Apple, and Southwest Airlines. What piqued my interest was the premium these companies place in their hiring process on a candidate’s vision, attitude and personality over actual skills and experience. Here’s one telling excerpt:

Some of the most successful businesses have a nontraditional, strengths-based approach to hiring– hire the best talent first, then worry about finding the right role for them. Facebook is one example of such a business. Facebook knows how valuable the right people are. A lot of times, they hire engineers for their skills and their vision of the future. Once a new hire is in the office, wondering what his responsibilities are, his instructions will be something along the lines of, “Take a look around, figure out what the problems or opportunities are, and help bridge them.”

The article ends with a punchline: “Hire for attitude. Skills can be taught. Passion can’t.”

InterviewShort, poignant, with a touch of idealism, it’s the kind of line that practically demands inspiration, and it probably made many a small business owner at least pause in consideration. But, how applicable is this really to small businesses? I imagine that in that pause, most inspiration melted away. Reality simply set in.

The truth is that these kinds of hiring tactics can only really work for the biggest of companies. The world inside (and around) most big corporations these days has little to do with reality. They exist in a kind of parallel universe where they operate and play by their own rules. Anyone who has ever worked for one can probably attest to this special time and space warp. (I’ve never personally worked for one, but that’s what I keep hearing.)

But when it comes to small businesses (especially newer ones) all the idealism in the world can’t change the reality of limited resources and experience, fewer positions, and a whole lot of the grunt work that newer companies have to do, and unless you’re running a high profile startup, your available positions lack the glamor and coolness of a job at Facebook, Apple, or Google

This approach to hiring works for big companies like Google and Apple because they have a laser-sharp focus when it comes to what they are looking for. It works because they have the resources to recruit and train their new employees and the time to wait till their skills catch up with their passions. It works because even when a new hire isn’t successful there are plenty of other people around to fill in the gap.

But does that mean your small business is doomed to skim the employment backwaters or that you must compromise on passion in exchange for skills and qualifications?

The answer is that there’s a balance.

As a small business owner, you have to be extra vigilant in your hiring process because you just can’t afford to make too many costly hiring mistakes. Here are some points to keep in mind:

If you compromised on skills or experience for attitude, then make sure there’s a defined path of development and education. Investing in an employee who has a lot of untapped potential can work out well. But it is a situation that will only be as good as the path of development you’ve laid out. You can, for example, set up an internal learning management system or enroll your new hire in an MBA online accredited course. If, however, you have no clear system for growth, development, and advancement, then the new hire is bound to fail. You also have to be certain that your business can afford to wait till the employee acquires the needed skills and experience on the job.

You have to be in touch with the needs of your company. This goes even for a one-person operation. Many times a new hire doesn’t work out because the small business owner was not focused enough on the right qualities. The hiring process starts with a job description– it’s as much for you as it is for your new hire. But, you have to also go beyond it. You have to consider some of the points I bring below regarding the size of your business, the candidate’s personality and attitude, and the nature of the position you are seeking to fill.

Be realistic. You can’t expect to hire a star employee with bright shiny credentials if you can only afford to pay this person peanuts. After you’ve narrowed down what you are looking for, you then must do some research to see what employees at other companies (big and small) are getting paid to do similar work. Here are some online resources to start that search:

  • Glassdoor– Want to know what salary to offer for a new position, or how to conduct an interview for that new sales rep you’re hiring? Get information on company salaries, reviews, and interview questions, as well as job listings left by anonymous users.
  • Wage Rate Calculator– A tool that figures the hourly wage of an employee, factoring in salary and benefit information, from HRWorld, a human-resources trade publication.
  • Salary.com’s Salary Wizard– A database of salaries for a range of employees, with a free trial for three jobs.

Realize, that even if you can’t afford the top players in your industry, it doesn’t mean you can’t get top workers, you just may have to change your hiring strategy. One example, would be targeting college students with an internship position that could later lead to full time employment. Another example, targeting a demographic that’s being overlooked by the bigger companies, such as older workers who could do a great job, but maybe need a little retraining.

The smaller the company, the more personality and vision matter. This is a golden rule of hiring for any small business. Your employees have to fit into the culture of your business. Big corporations can afford to be choosy; small businesses cannot afford to be otherwise. The smaller your business, the more important it is that you can really work on a personal level with the people you hire. Moreover, because there are fewer people working, there is less input. You all have to be going in the same direction or else the business will go nowhere.

The basics still need to be there. You can’t afford to compromise on too many core skills and experiences. I just hired someone to help me on a language course that I’m developing. She didn’t have the level of experience I was originally looking for (something she noted herself), but the basic skills were there, and her attitude was great. The arrangement has been working out very well so far, but I know I never would have chosen her if she didn’t at least possess those basic competencies.

Bottom line: Hire wisely. Mistakes can be very costly, but if you get it right it will bring your business innumerable benefits.

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