December 21, 2020

Hire For What You Can’t Teach

Written by Mike Sarraille, George Randle and Dr. Josh Cotton

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

Herb Kelleher, iconic business leader and co-founder of Southwest Airlines, once said, “We draft great attitudes. If you don’t have a good attitude, we don’t want you, no matter how skilled you are. We can change skill levels through training. We can’t change attitude.”  

Kelleher’s approach makes logical sense: hire for what you can’t teach. Yet today, many companies do the exact opposite. 

We’ve seen it more times than we can count: given a choice between two candidates, companies choose the one who has the most skills over the one who has the best attitude or Character. 

This is the easy way to hire. Skills are measurable. Character isn’t. But easy doesn’t mean right. If you want to make the best hires—the people who will become high performers and drive your company’s success—you need to hire for what you can’t teach.

Hard Skills Are Teachable

When hiring, most companies look at hard skills, the fundamental functions required to execute a job. Examples of hard skills include typing and Microsoft Office skills in accounting, marketing, or computer programming.

In the hierarchy of what you look for in talent, these skills should fall near the bottom because they can be taught or gained through experience. 

In general, hard skills tend to be less critical than companies believe, especially for management roles. When Google did an employee survey to identify the traits of its most successful managers, technical abilities ranked dead last.

Now, you wouldn’t hire someone for a programming job if they don’t know how to program. For every position, there is a minimum standard that everyone has to meet for hard skills. The trick is that after someone completes the minimum standard, you stop looking at hard skills and instead look at their character attributes, which are nearly impossible to teach.

Once the minimum standards are met, you know that the candidate has the hard skills needed to succeed in the role. Any additional hard skills beyond that have diminishing returns and are less important than the candidate’s character and mindset. If a candidate has specific skill gaps or weaknesses compared to other candidates, you can always teach them. 

It’s also crucial that any minimum requirements for hard skills are ethical requirements to complete the job. Here’s a great example of a company failing to do this: we were asked by a manager to find someone with five years of Python coding experience.

At that point, Python had only been around for three and a half years. 

You Can’t Teach Character

Character is not a teachable skill. People either have it, or they don’t. You can’t teach someone how to be resilient in the face of failure or approach problems with curiosity—or at least, it would take years and a lot of effort to teach these traits.

So after a candidate meets the minimum requirements for hard skills, you should throw out the resume and focus exclusively on Character.

A person’s Character is the aggregate of their deeply ingrained attributes. It’s important to note here that personality and Character are not the same things. Character is a person’s deep inner attributes that drive their decisions and behaviors. Personality is how someone outwardly presents themselves to the world. 

Often, when companies say they’re hiring for Character, they’re hiring based on personality. Personality frequently determines a person’s likability, and in general, we are biased toward hiring who we like. 

This is a difficult way to hire. First, people can trick you into liking them, especially in a limited interaction like a hiring process. Second, hiring the people you want is a recipe for creating a workplace where everyone looks and acts the same, leading to groupthink.

A candidate’s likability is not indicative of their future performance in the way their Character is. So instead of focusing on whether you like a candidate, assess them for the foundational Character attributes that lead to success. 

Regardless of industry, there are nine foundational traits common to high performers:

  • Drive
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Effective intelligence
  • Team-ability
  • Curiosity
  • Emotional strength

These attributes cannot be taught, so they should be the focus of your hiring.

Hire for Character; Train for Skill

The most successful talent acquisition programs are founded on hiring for what you can’t teach. You can lead a candidate to the needed hard skills. You can’t teach the raw ingredients of talent. 

Plus, looking at a person’s hard skills only tells you what they can accomplish today. Their character shows you their future potential—all they can achieve with the proper training and development.

The world is constantly changing, and you never know what’s going to happen next. When you’re hiring, you don’t just want someone who can perform the job today. You want someone with the foundational character to succeed no matter how the role may change.

So hire for character; train for skill.

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Founder, Managing Partner & CEO | Website | + posts

Mike Sarraille is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and a former enlisted Recon Marine and Scout-Sniper. A graduate of the University of Texas McCombs Business School, he is the founder and CEO of Talent War Group, a specialized executive search firm, and talent advisory that finds high-performing business leaders for senior, executive, or other critical leadership positions. He is co-author of ‘The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent’ and a columnist for Men’s Journal and Men’s Fitness under ‘The Everyday Warrior’ column. He founded and served as a board of directors for the VETTED Foundation, a cutting-edge executive-level transition program.

Mike enlisted in the Marine Corps and later became a Recon Marine and also served as a scout sniper. He was selected for a Marine officer program, but after finishing his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M University, he sought a commission in the Navy to try out for the SEAL Teams.  He is also a recognized keynote speaker and subject matter expert in leadership development, talent acquisition, and talent management.

Managing Partner & Co-Director of Talent Advisory | Website | + posts

George Randle is an experienced talent executive, veteran, coach, mentor, and leader known for selecting, building, and reorganizing teams to reach their full business potential. George has 20+ years of Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 global Human Resources and Talent Acquisition experience building elite teams. George began his professional life by enlisting in the US Army Reserves.  While serving in the USAR, he received his bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University and was commissioned an officer. His career assignments included Berlin, US CENTCOM, and III Corps with deployments to Africa (Somalia and Kenya), Central America, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Following his successful military career, George transitioned to the corporate world, experiencing many of the same challenges the Military and Veterans face today. These challenges along with the recognition that building elite teams are his true passion, George ultimately transitioned to the Human Resources and Talent Acquisition function. He later went on to create one of the largest and most successful Veteran Hiring Programs for a Global Fortune 50 firm. Collectively, the teams George has built have hired over 85,000 professionals, including over 2000 executives. He is also a Hogan (HPI, HDS, and MVPI) Leadership Assessment Certified coach.

George currently resides in Austin, Texas, and is the co-author of the best-selling book, “The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent” and the Host of "The Talent War" Podcast.

Website | + posts

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies, and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.

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