hiring: finding the right mix of trainable v. untrainable skills

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Hiring the “best” applicant is never an easy feat. As recruiters, we ask questions, answer questions, shoot the breeze, guide office tours, give skills tests. Then we spend even more time researching applicants, checking their online presence and calling referrals. All the while, we’re evaluating and collaborating to make sure we choose the best candidate.

Of course, our goal is to predict how the candidate will perform after being hired. You want to fill a specific need at your company and usually look first for skills to fill it in just the right way. In fact, we often think of the trainable skills as those that are non-negotiable. But is that what determines the best candidate?

We need to remember that we’re hiring people, not a list of skills. Of course you want to start with a person who possesses a good foundation of the skills you need, but you’ll have to train any new hire with company-specific processes and procedures regardless. You will still play an important part in guiding all new hires in the right direction using ongoing feedback. In addition, they’ll gain valuable experience doing the job you’re giving them. And all employees have to keep up on their skills training as technology is moving fast and requires it.

As Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson said, “Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality.” A person’s characteristics have developed over years and years. These non-trainable characteristics are typically what determines their personality and how well they fit within a company and its current team. Studies have shown that new hires’ success is highly dependent on how well they fit in with the rest of the team.

Most important, however, is how well an applicant’s personal values align with that of your company. Those company values were probably built out of experiences with the existing team, which is why it’s an important indicator of how well the applicant will work with them.

Here are some other skills you can’t train for (but will definitely help an employee fit in with almost any culture):

  1. Positive attitude. You’ve heard it before: Some people naturally see the glass half filled. Those people actually have learned to focus their brains in a positive direction and often see success happen since their positivity isn’t dependent upon an outside factor. Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained happiness expert, said that positive people “perform significantly better . . . Intelligence rises, creativity rises, energy levels rise.” People with positive attitudes are usually willing to do whatever it takes to get a job done—and they do it with positivity. In fact, one study suggests that almost 90 percent of turnover occurs as a result of employees’ attitude, rather than lack of skills. It’s a lot easier to hire people who already have their brains trained to see the positive, rather than asking them to “adjust” their attitude later on.
  2. Humility. Applicants who are humble are teachable. They must be willing to be wrong and own a mistake when it happens. Google (who was once well known for its difficult and quirky interview questions) has since decided to focus on people who are humble and are eager to continue learning and growing, who know how to fail and turn it into a positive.
  3. Honesty. Oftentimes, honesty goes along with being humble. Most company cultures will benefit from people who own up to things and are open with other team members. You know you can trust these people in every situation. And you—as well as everyone else on your team—know you can count on honest people to do what they say they’ll do. One Baylor study showed that applicants who were honest (and humble) predicted better performance on the job. You can’t go wrong with hiring someone who’s willing to be open and honest about how things really are.
  4. Team player. You know who they are: they’re people who are more interested in seeing the team win than their own individual success (of course that’s still important within the team’s success, but it’s not important that everybody know who did what). These people buy-in to the team’s overall mission and not only respond positively when asked to help out another team member, but they thrive in building each other up. A good indicator to know if applicants are team players is to really listen to the words they use when explaining past success: Does an applicant say “I” did this or that—or “we” had a success?
  5. Passion. You are hiring people to, well, work and work hard. So you want them to do everything it takes to get the job done but also be passionate about the work they’re doing. These are probably the same people who will work to really hone their skills and stay up-to-date in their industry. These people take on a project and follow it through to completion—and beyond—because they understand your company’s vision and long-term goals. They’re invested and are excited about the contribution your company is making in the world (and can see their part in that). They care about the company and their work reflects that.

These are skills that most any culture can benefit from. Yes, it makes sense to start filling any job opening with a list of skills you’d like. And while it’s ideal to find someone who has all the trainable skills, as well as the non-trainable characteristics that make a great employee, it’s not always likely. Let’s change our focus to finding the right combination of trainable and non-trainable skills that make the most sense for your company, its culture, and that particular job position.

By jeana quigley
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Comments (1)

Thanks for this list. It refocused me as I thought my criteria had erred.

October 8, 2015   |   Reply
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