The Other Side of Experience, Part 2: Attitude and Leadership

This article is part of a four-part series that explores six important candidate attributes recruiters should consider while interviewing ó as opposed to utilizing experience as the sole criterion, as is typically done. The rationale for looking beyond experience has been outlined in Part 1 of this series, and I urge you to read the essential explanations and reasoning behind this line of thinking before you move on to reading Part 2. For a quick review, the attributes to be considered in “the other side of experience” are:

  • Attitude
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Productivity
  • Communication skills
  • Potential
  • Relationships/teamwork capabilities

This article will cover attitude and leadership capabilities. The other attributes will be covered in the third and fourth parts of this series. Let’s now begin with attitude. Attitude Attitude is one of the most critical attributes for success. Earl Nightingale, the American radio announcer, author, motivator, and public speaker, said that “a great attitude does much more than turn on the lights in our worlds; it seems to magically connect us to all sorts of serendipitous opportunities that were somehow absent before the change.” As someone who has been, among other things, dealing with employees with performance and interpersonal problems for years, I can say with absolute certainty that a poor attitude is almost always part of the problem. At times, it is most of the problem. As a result, attitude is usually the first thing I address. Employees possessing bad attitudes tend to exhibit, at a bare minimum, most of the following traits:

  • They are extremely difficult to work with.
  • They tend to have a negative influence on other employees.
  • They are willing to spend far more time on the problem at hand than attempting to generate a solution.

Regardless of experience, education or accomplishments, I avoid hiring candidates who do not have some semblance of a positive attitude. However, desperate the need to fill a given position, I would rather keep looking for a candidate with a positive, can-do attitude than hire someone that is going to make all of us feel like jumping off a bridge. Positive employees have the ability to rise above business’ day-to-day obstacles and make things happen. The results might not be perfect, but it is so much better than listening to an employee complain endlessly about management, compensation, benefits, lack of resources, working conditions, how it was better in their old company, or any other circumstances that do not measure up to their expectations. Even though most people attempt to be at their best during an interview, there are a number of qualities you can look for that will provide good insight into a candidate’s attitude. Some of the things I look for are:

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  • Speaking positively of former employers. This is probably #1 on my list. If a person speaks poorly of their last company, I have great concerns about what they will find wrong with this company and how their attitude will impact those around them.
  • Possessing some level of confidence. Most people that have a positive attitude tend to have some degree of confidence. They understand that each day is a challenge and that few of us have all of the resources we need to get the job done, but that if we are confident in our ability to meet our objectives, the chances of success are far greater.
  • Optimism about future success. Candidates should believe that they will find a way be successful in meeting the objectives of the position for which they are interviewing. Hannibal (not the cannibal in the movies; the other Hannibal) said, “We will find a way, or make one.” I love this type of attitude and optimism, but I do not see it as often as I would like.
  • A track record of overcoming adversity. Almost all of us who have become successful have overcome what seemed like insurmountable obstacles that stood in the way of being successful at one time or another. It is necessary for me to know that the candidate has overcome adversity at some time in the past and is not afraid of doing it again. Ask about the most difficult problem they have had to face and how they managed to prevail.
  • A good work ethic. Few things replace hard work. I admire people who are willing to work hard. Armand Hammer once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” That man knew a few things about success. Probe for examples of hard work and look for a track record that shows hard work as the rule as opposed to the exception.
  • Willingness to initiate action. I personally have always believed that it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. It is necessary to see this same willingness to take action in the people I hire. Hiring people who wait around to be told what to do will never help you to build a world-class organization. Never! Ask questions that identify examples of the candidate taking the initiative to do what had to be done and worrying about the consequences later.

There are, of course, many other things to be examined and probed in the interviewing process that will illuminate a candidate’s attitude. But, if you start off with the points I have provided above, you are well on your way to getting a handle on the type of attitude a candidate possesses. Leadership Capabilities Someone once said that leadership is action, not position. If you have studied leadership for even one day over the last few years, you know this to be true, as real leadership is in short supply today (in most organizations, it is pitiful). That’s the bad news. The good news is that leadership is a characteristic that is present in all of us to some degree. We are all potential leaders. There is no such thing as a person who does not possess an ounce of this most valuable entity. Leadership is that rare and elusive quality that is defined by an individual’s ability to rally a team, department, or company to a given purpose and bring out a level of greatness in employees who did not even know they possessed it in the first place (great leaders endow much of the credit onto the people they have lead, but that is material for another day). It is impossible to know from where the new and innovative leaders of your organization will emerge, but hiring candidates who possess this ethereal and subtle quality is of great importance. The need for strong and decisive leadership can occur at any time. Have you identified your organization’s future leaders? When interviewing, I look at the following criteria to try to get a sense of the candidate’s ability to lead when that critical moment arises. A leader:

  • Communicates effectively. Effective communication is absolutely essential for meaningful leadership. It’s not easy to lead the troops if they do not have a clear picture of where they are gong, why they are going there, and the reason they are going.
  • Provides examples of leadership. All candidates who exhibit potential leadership have done something in their past that can demonstrate the ownership of this attribute. It could be anything from taking over a project in midstream to organizing a charity event for a religious organization. Look for these leadership abilities in the candidates you interview. This is a particularly good thing to do, because as the organization grows and meets new and unforeseen challenges, you will see the results of a workforce that has leadership as a core competency.
  • Instills trust. Leaders have the ability to make you trust and believe in them. The feeling is elusive but it is there. We know it when we see it. Leading people is hard if they do not trust or believe you know what you are doing. How does the candidate make you feel during the interview? Are you excited about the possibility of hiring them? If not, can that alone be reason to look at other candidates before making a decision?
  • Delegates responsibility. The role of a leader is not to do or try to do every job in the company. People who attempt this fail every time. What I look for are people who have delegated responsibility to others and have still been successful in the overall outcome. Ask questions about the candidate’s successes in managing any type of project and about how they managed to achieve results through the efforts of other people.
  • Empowers others. Great leaders understand Aristotle’s concept of the balance between rights and responsibilities. In a nutshell, if you assign an employee a responsibility, you automatically assign him/her all of the concordant rights to get the job done. This simple concept is lost on most organizations, and that is one of the major problems in American leadership today. We assign individual responsibility for a task or project but seldom get out of the employee’s way and let them do their job. That does not work. Look for candidates who understand this concept of true empowerment as opposed to buzzword empowerment, and ask questions relating to how they have empowered others to help get the job done.
  • Supports the team. Leaders tend to look for support from the people they lead. This is okay, but the relationship must be symbiotic. Great leaders know that their responsibility is to go to the troops on a regular basis and see how they can support their efforts in getting the job done. Look for examples of past activities that have demonstrated support for the team they were leading. A good question might be: Have you ever been in charge of any type of project in a leadership capacity, and how did you support the team’s effort in being successful?

Let’s be realistic. Judging the softer skills that candidates possess is not easy to do. It is as much an art as it is a science. We are so used to focusing on experience and matching qualifications with specifications that we very often equate experience with a great hire and this is not always the case. However, if you can instill the above-mentioned thoughts into your assessment while interviewing, you will have a better understanding of the candidate’s people skills, style, and overall outlook on the workplace. Armed with this information you can make more informed hiring decisions and hopefully build a better company, because you are hiring better employees. Part 3 of this series will focus on productivity and communication skills.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See twitter.com/howardadamsky if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at H.adamsky@comcast.net

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