The Most Overlooked Hiring Factor

Think you already know the critical attribute you’re looking for in a candidate? Think again.

Maybe it’s qualifications. Or experience. Or hard skills. Or soft skills.  Or work ethic, or leadership ability, or cultural fit. Or maybe it’s a combination… but depending on the job, when you’re selecting the right person to hire or promote, one attribute is more important than the others.

But here’s another way to look at choosing the best person:

Always select the person who wants the job–not the position.

Don’t tell me there isn’t a difference. Years ago I had an opening for a shipping supervisor. We decided to stay internal. One candidate was clearly better than the rest: Had been in the department for over a decade, great skills, possessed a broad range of shipping and distribution experience, was excellent at training new employees… he was great.

Plus I was glad he was the best candidate because it helped send the message that, even though the company had just changed hands and I had recently been hired, I valued the experience of current employees and wasn’t just going to bring in “my guys.” Win-win, I thought.

I was wrong. He was terrible. It turned out he wanted the job because he was tired of sitting on a forklift and wanted to sit in a chair. He was tired of scheduled breaks and lunches and wanted to set his own schedule. He was tired of taking directions and wanted to be the one who gave directions. He was tired of punching a clock and wanted to come and go as he pleased.

He didn’t want the job. He didn’t want to motivate, inspire, lead, manage, discipline, improve, optimize, develop… all the stuff that comes with doing a leader’s job. He wanted a position. He wanted what he saw as the perks of the position. He felt he had already paid his dues, even though dues get paid, each and every day, and the only real measure of a person’s value is the tangible contribution he or she makes on a daily basis.

He wanted the position, not the job.

And that sucked, because I didn’t need a Shipping Supervisor. Shipping Supervisor is just a job title. What I needed was a guy or gal who loved getting product out the door. I needed someone who wanted to be in charge because they wanted to have greater impact how quickly and accurately we got product out the door. I didn’t need a person obsessed over a title. I needed a person obsessed about creating an outcome, day in and day out.

Sounds obvious, I know, but in this case it was only obvious in hindsight. During the selection process I focused on the past. I focused on what he had done. I didn’t focus on the future, on what he wanted to do. I focused on  qualifications, not on the initiatives and projects he had in mind,  and not on his motivations and aspirations and goals. I focused on what he had done, not on what he planned to do.

The Bottomline

In short, I needed someone who wanted to do the job. I needed someone driven to excel at those tasks so they could make things happen. I didn’t need someone who wanted the position because they wanted all the “stuff” that came with the position.

And that’s what you need. You don’t need a Director of Sales; you need a person who loves helping other people sell more. You don’t need an Engineering Manager; you need a person who loves creating new products. You don’t need a Supervisor of Whatever; you need a person who long ago made the choice that their happiness comes from someone else’s success and who thrives on working through other people to get stuff done.

You need people who want the job because they want the responsibility of making things happen. You need people who want the job because then they can be even more successful at what they do well, can help others be more successful… people who want the job because they want to do the job–and the title only makes it easier for them to do that job.

Always select the person who doesn’t care about the position.  Even if that person is less experienced or less skilled, his or her motivation and drive for doing the job will quickly make up for any shortcomings.

by Jeff Haden

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.


How to Hire for Results, Not Pedigree

Most job descriptions are incredibly inefficient — even counterproductive — talent-screening tools. Here’s a better way to make hiring decisions based on results, not resume.

Consider this: A typical job description lists a catalog of required skills, experiences, academic degrees, and personality traits. A typical job, on the other hand, boils down to five or six performance objectives that ultimately measure an employee’s success. That looks like a disconnect to me. And a fairly inefficient way to go about hiring.

Over the last 20 years, my firm has presented to more than 400 business groups like Vistage and YPO. At the beginning of each session we ask, “Who would you rather hire, someone who had all of the skills listed on a job description, or someone who could deliver the results required?” Except for one dubious company owner in New Jersey, roughly 10,000 leaders have answered “results.” I’m guessing you would, too.

Here’s how to get started on the path to hiring for results.

Describe the Objectives, Not the Person

A list of skills, experiences, degrees, and personality traits is not a job description. It’s a person description. And just because a person has all of the skills and abilities listed, it doesn’t mean the person is both competent and motivated to do the work required. Worse, it overlooks all of the great people who can do the work, but who have a different mix of skills than listed on the traditional skills-based job description. Unless the supply of top candidates far exceeds the demand for these people, the use of skills-infested job descriptions will backfire.

What Six Goals Are Non-Negotiable?

As an alternative, use your next job description to define the actual work that needs to be accomplished. Every job, from entry-level to president, has five to six performance objectives that define success. A few examples: design a product to meet certain specs; build a project team to upgrade a facility; make 12 presentations per month to C-level officers; reduce costs by 10% during the first year; and rewrite the software for the online store to handle a 3X surge in traffic. Together, the objectives you identify become a performance-based job description.

What Have You Done Lately?

If you can prove a person is both competent and motivated to do the work described in the performance-based job description, then you can be sure that person has exactly the skills, experiences, academic degrees, and competencies required for success. The best way to get your proof? For each of the job’s performance objectives, ask the candidate to describe a significant related accomplishment. (Here’s a link to the full version of the Performance-based Interview I recommend.) This way, you’re judging each candidate not based on what they have, but rather what they do with what they have.

A performance-based job description is a powerful tool for finding and hiring stronger people. It opens up the pool to more outstanding talent including diverse candidates, returning military veterans and high-achievers who don’t fit the traditional mold. Using past performance as a predictor of on-the-job success makes far more sense than box-checking skills, asking generic behavioral-based questions, or trusting your gut. Getting it right starts with defining the work that needs to be done. And often that’s the toughest part.

Who would you rather hire, someone with all of the skills, or someone who can deliver the results?


Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need

Everybody’s heard the complaints about recruiting lately.

Even with unemployment hovering around 9%, companies are grousing that they can’t find skilled workers, and filling a job can take months of hunting.

Employers are quick to lay blame. Schools aren’t giving kids the right kind of training. The government isn’t letting in enough high-skill immigrants. The list goes on and on.

But I believe that the real culprits are the employers themselves.

With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.

Bad for Companies, Bad for Economy

In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers—and it’s hurting companies and the economy. 

To get America’s job engine revving again, companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nation’s education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice. 

There are plenty of ways to get workers up to speed without investing too much time and money, such as putting new employees on extended probationary periods and relying more on internal hires, who know the ropes better than outsiders would. 

It’s a fundamental change from business as usual. But the way we’re doing things now just isn’t working. 

The Big Myths

The perceptions about a lack of skilled workers are pervasive. The staffing company ManpowerGroup, for instance, reports that 52% of U.S. employers surveyed say they have difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages. 

But the problem is an illusion. 

Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers can’t get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That’s an affordability problem, not a skill shortage. A real shortage means not being able to find appropriate candidates at market-clearing wages. We wouldn’t say there is a shortage of diamonds when they are incredibly expensive; we can buy all we want at the prevailing prices. 

The real problem, then, is more appropriately an inflexibility problem. Finding candidates to fit jobs is not like finding pistons to fit engines, where the requirements are precise and can’t be varied. Jobs can be organized in many different ways so that candidates who have very different credentials can do them successfully. 

Only about 10% of the people in IT jobs during the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s, for example, had IT-related degrees. While it might be great to have a Ph.D. graduate read your electrical meter, almost anyone with a little training could do the job pretty well. 

A Training Shortage

And make no mistake: There are plenty of people out there who could step into jobs with just a bit of training—even recent graduates who don’t have much job experience. Despite employers’ complaints about the education system, college students are pursuing more vocationally oriented course work than ever before, with degrees in highly specialized fields like pharmaceutical marketing and retail logistics. 

Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand. Much of that includes what vendors do when they bring in new equipment: “Here’s how to work this copier.” 

The shortage of opportunities to learn on the job helps explain the phenomenon of people queueing up for unpaid internships, in some cases even paying to get access to a situation where they can work free to get access to valuable on-the-job experience. 

Companies in other countries do things differently. In Europe, for instance, training is often mandated, and apprenticeships and other programs that help provide work experience are part of the infrastructure. 

The result: European countries aren’t having skill-shortage complaints at the same level as in the U.S., and the nations that have the most established apprenticeship programs—the Scandinavian nations, Germany and Switzerland—have low unemployment. 

Employers here at home rightly point to a significant constraint that they face in training workers: They train them and make the investment, but then someone else offers them more money and hires them away. 

The Way Forward

That is a real problem. What’s the answer? 

We aren’t going to get European-style apprenticeships in the U.S. They require too much cooperation among employers and bigger investments in infrastructure than any government entity is willing to provide. We’re also not going to go back to the lifetime-employment models that made years-long training programs possible. 

But I’m also convinced that some of the problem we’re up against is simply a failure of imagination. Here are three ways in which employees can get the skills they need without the employer having to invest in a lot of upfront training. 

Work with education providers: If job candidates don’t have the skills you need, make them go to school before you hire them. 

Community colleges in many states, especially North Carolina, have proved to be good partners with employers by tailoring very applied course work to the specific needs of the employer. Candidates qualify to be hired once they complete the courses—which they pay for themselves, at least in part. For instance, a manufacturer might require that prospective job candidates first pass a course on quality control or using certain machine tools. 

Going back to school isn’t just for new hires, either; it also works for internal candidates. In this setup, the employer pays the tuition costs through tuition reimbursement. But the employees make the bigger investment by spending their own time, almost always off work, learning the material. 

Bring back aspects of apprenticeship: In this arrangement, apprentices are paid less while they are mastering their craft—so employers aren’t paying for training and a big salary at the same time. Accounting firms, law firms and professional-services firms have long operated this way, and have made lots of money off their young associates. 

Of course, a full apprenticeship model—with testing and credentials associated with different stages of experience—wouldn’t work in all industries. But a simpler setup would: Companies could give their new workers a longer probationary period—with lower pay—until they get up to speed on the requirements of the job. 

Promote from within: Employees have useful knowledge that no outsider could have and should make great candidates for filling jobs higher up. In recent years, however, an incredible two-thirds of all vacancies, even in large companies, have been filled by hiring from the outside, according to data from Taleo Corp., a talent-management company. That figure has dropped somewhat lately because of market conditions. But a generation ago, the number was close to 10%, as internal promotions and transfers were used to fill virtually all positions. 

These days, many companies simply don’t believe their own workers have the necessary skills to take on new roles. But, once again, many workers could step into those jobs with a bit of training. 

And there’s one on-the-job education strategy that doesn’t cost companies a dime: Organize work so that employees are given projects that help them learn new skills. For example, a marketing manager may not know how to compute the return on marketing programs but might learn that skill while working on a team project with colleagues from the finance department. 

Pursuing options like these vastly expands the supply of talent that employers can tap, making it both cheaper and easier to fill jobs. Of course, it’s also much better for society. It helps build the supply of human capital in the economy, as well as opening the pathway for more people to get jobs. 

It’s an important instance where company self-interest and societal interest just happen to coincide.

By Peter Cappelli 

Dr. Cappelli is the George W. Taylor professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. He can be reached at


10 Ways to Avoid a Huge Hiring Mistake

Entrepreneur Vanessa Merit Nornberg developed a clear-cut roadmap that makes recruiting more predictable from the start.

Entrepreneur Vanessa Merit Nornberg knows the incredible importance of strong salespeople.

Leadership 2013, Vanessa NornbergThe founder of New York-based Metal Mafia, a wholesale line of body jewelry, sells over the phone 7,000 products like eyebrow and belly rings that cost just 2 cents to $2.

But how your employees sell–and how you allow them to sell–is not just about moving your product, she said Tuesday at the Inc. Leadership conference outside San Diego. “It’s what your company stands for, and what customers can expect from your company when they order or call to ask for help.”

As a result, if you don’t get a new-sales hire right, it is catastrophically expensive for your company, not just because of the time it takes to post a job and do interviews, but because of the longer-term damage that can happen when you allow bad salespeople to meet your clients, answer your phones, send your bills, and generally create a poor perception of your company.

So Nornberg developed a 10-part process that weeds out bad sales hires every step of the way.

1. Know who you’re looking for.
At Metal Mafia, Nornberg categorizes sales job candidates into three types: a) those who want to sell and have done it for a while b) those who would do sales because they would do any job and c) those who have never done sales but consider it an intriguing opportunity. Which would she take on, after nine years leading her own company? Only the third. Why? They’re open-minded, and interesting. The first group already has bad habits, and the second won’t be passionate about the work.

2. Make your job post matter.
You should tell candidates about what your company does and stands for. Include your mission statement. Make clear what your expectations are, from the start. For instance, Nornberg doesn’t allow employees to use Facebook during business hours, so she includes that fact in her job descriptions. You want potential employees to proactively identify with what you’re all about–before they even submit an application.

3. Test your applicants.
You can find out if people are detail-oriented and care about your job opening–and you can do it long before you take time to meet them. Nornberg plants three questions in her job descriptions that seekers must answer in their application (but without automated fields that prompt them to do so). She asks: a) What drives your principle motivation? (If you’re motivated by money or perks, forget it. That said, recognition would get you in the door.) b) Have you ever played a sport and, if so, which position? If not, what competitive activity have you participated in? (Nornberg skips soccer goalies, for instance. She’s not looking for those are “waiting for the ball to come to” them.) c) If you could do anything in the world, what would it be? (Nornberg has no interest in “yes men” who say they’d like to open an accessories company.) But if a candidate doesn’t respond to all three of these questions, in the manner that was requested, she won’t look at his resume either. “Delete,” said Nornberg.

4. Screen out applicants through a 10-minute phone interview.
Nornberg recommends you find out how the applicant sounds, what information she learns about your company between application submission and a call–and if she makes you excited to continue the conversation, like you would want her to do with new customers. “A great salesperson would be pouncing on the opportunity,” said Nornberg. In addition, suss out what sales means to the individual. You can do this by having the person talk through what they might do in a sales scenario. In her case, Nornberg asks, for example: If we open up a new line of rings, and the first customer you call says he already has rings, what would say? (“Thank you, good bye,” is not the right answer.)

5. Bring candidates in for a face-to-face interview with you.
At Metal Mafia, an in-person interview with Nornberg lasts an hour to hour-and-a-half. Nornberg uses the time to look analyze actions more than words. First, she pays careful attention to the candidate’s time of arrival. If he’s late, even by three minutes, she won’t see him. She notes his walk. A purposeful, enthusiastic walk is what she’s on the lookout for; she cuts a meek meander. She also notices if he brings anything “extra” to the meeting (say, a cell phone or coffee cup) and eliminates those who do. Of course, a deadfish handshake or interaction is a no-go.

6. Find out how the person thinks.
During the interview, Nornberg poses questions like, “You have 30 days to open 30 accounts, how do you know who to call?” If the potential hire says he’ll turn to Google, he’ll get 50,000 results, and no specific direction; he can’t work for Metal Mafia. But, if like a recent candidate, he says he’ll start by going to Korean beauty shops because he’s fluent in Korean, and they carry jewelry on their counters, he’s onto something. Nornberg also asks potential hires to tell her about a difficult or challenging situation they overcame as a child, and if they can, she takes note. “As a salesperson, you face objections and rejection on a regular basis,” explained Nornberg. She needs to know if they’re “the kind of person who’s reflective enough to learn from situations”–even the good ones.

7. Try a candidate out at the job.
Since Nornberg is keen to hire those who have never done sales before, she needs to find out if they can actually do it, and like it. She gives candidates a list of 12 to 15 shops to call immediately during an interview to find out if they’d like to carry Metal Mafia products. Those who get through the whole list and come back with a lot of interesting insights (which could be used to follow up) are on track; those who skip some, with no notes, are not going to like the job, and can’t work for the company.

8. On the fence? Get your team to weigh in.
Nornberg invites her eight-person sales team to meet with any iffy candidate who made it this far, and each person can pose one question. “These people sell for my company on a daily basis, so they know what it takes to get the job done,” she said. If they too have some sort of misgiving, the candidate can’t work for Metal Mafia.

9. Train your new hire.
Recruitment doesn’t end with the offer letter. You’ve got to give new people the tools to do the job well. Nornberg trains new staffers herself–for three weeks, eight hours a day. She focuses on teaching new people about Metal Mafia’s products. “No one wants to talk on the phone with someone who says, ‘Uhh, I don’t know. Let me ask my manager’,” Nornberg said. She also makes sure new people study competitors’ product lines, so they can offer up Metal Mafia’s in contrast.

10. Instill new behaviors.
When it comes to sales, Nornberg needs new people to focus not just on making deals but on listening to what customers say. She wants them to “not only hear what’s said, but also what’s not said.” She emphasizes the value of accuracy so that what new hires hear turns up correctly in an order, and that they communicate with customers exactly when to, say, receive an order. She also introduces a sense of what Metal Mafia’s value is to her customers, which is not price. Instead, they need to know it’s shipping on the same day as long as you order by 3 p.m., with packages 99 percent complete (compared to a 65 percent competitors’ fulfillment rate), and always getting a person on the phone in two rings or less if you call Metal Mafia between 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. eastern time. “Every time you make a sales call, your competitor can undercut you at any moment by a penny, $1, or $10 dollars,” she said. “It’s not going to get you where you need to get and your sales team won’t either.”

Only once a candidate makes it through all 10 steps is she confident of his candidacy. “If I think my customers are now willing to put their faith in your judgment, that everything you do screams Metal Mafia, you can sing my anthem, you can work for my company,” said Nornberg.

Allison Fass is deputy editor of A longtime business journalist at Forbes and The New York Times, Fass has also held roles in venture capital and innovation at Hearst Interactive Media and digital strategy at a start-up consultancy. @alliefass