Hire for Attitude or Aptitude?

A stalwart in my profession (academics) always says, “Hire the best athlete.” Don’t worry about their attitude. He didn’t quite say it this way, but I bet that if faced with a choice of a star researcher who wasn’t nice to others, to put it simply, or someone who is a team player and perhaps less-than-a-star, but let’s posit that there is still competence at a very high level, he’d go with the former, and I with latter.

You often hear this said as should you hire for attitude or aptitude

There can be various factors that influence your choice between these two, but I think a factor that determines the ‘right’ answer is your notion of  how we generate knowledge in organizations.

If you think that knowledge production is a team sport, you’d be crazy to hire lone stars.

I’ll explain. I think the ‘team-ness’ of knowledge production is only increasing, for two structural reasons. While it’s always been true that insights occur disproportionately at the boundaries of conventional disciplines, the number of opportunities for such knowledge arbitrage to occur is now multiplying as the number of specialty domains multiply. Here, I’m referring to ‘now’ as being the last couple of decades, say, relative to the vast time spans before that. So that’s one structural reason.

As but one example, let us look at the task to get healthcare to work for five billion of the world’s seven billion people who are locked out of societies’ mainstreams. Of course, we need educators and behavior-specialists who can reduce routine and near-universal patient non-compliance, engineers who  can work on minimally engineered but robust devices, designers who can make these devices user-friendly, data security guys who can make sure that particularly less-educated people’s data are not compromised even by well-meaning do-good types who can’t relate to the masses, etcetera. You can easily see how interdisciplinary interaction has increased by volumes in this domain, especially in the last few years. And you can also easily see how knowledge production in this domain is an intensely team-oriented sport.

The second structural reason is seen more often in developing countries, where I work extensively. In such places, knowledge boundaries are not so well specified. What I mean by this is that you can’t always find the right specialist. If you were able to, you could, in theory, do your bit of the knowledge work and throw the result over the proverbial wall to the other specialist who can take it on. In a sense, really getting down-and-dirty in a team-setting isn’t as needed in New York as it might be in Nairobi. In the latter, society intrudes, in good and bad ways, into daily life in a way that makes it necessary to work intimately with others, to get the relevant information and to make sure people do what they’re meant to.

For example, as companies transition from providing plain-vanilla services to value-added services, they might need not just recruiters but perhaps more consultative recruiting. This is usually not a well-developed field though the recruiters will try to refashion themselves into, say, specialists who can build ‘employer brands.’   Most often, though, the companies will have to work closely with these nascent specialists as they learn on the job, creating a (small) team situation when one might not have been needed had consultative recruiting been better developed.

These factors matter more than ever, especially in the developing world. Given this, consider realizing that managing talent is a team sport.

 

 

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