3 min read

Recruit for attitude

In any given day at work, you can basically spend your time on three things:

  1. Running the business / firefighting (Run)
  2. Growing the business (Grow)
  3. Anticipating or creating change and changing the business accordingly (Transform)

Run, Grow, or Transform. Allocate hours between them. Run is a game of treading water. Grow is a game of swimming faster.  Transform is about changing lanes and being first in an entirely new game.

In a company with n>1 employees, the people you hire will directly impact how you allocate your time between the three. To spend the most time on Grow and Transform, technical skill doesn’t matter as much as you might think, and the best people to recruit are the ones with the best attitude.

In a smaller company, Running won't happen on its own. Ben Horowitz, in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, describes how "when you are a startup executive, nothing happens unless you make it happen. In the early days of a company, you have to take eight to ten new initiatives a day or the company will stand still".

Doing many new things without giant teams of people to focus on them will mean that you are the person who will have to do them. The financial analysis and cash forecasting has to get done. The e-commerce orders need to be booked manually into the ERP. The stock needs to be counted and checked out of the system at the logistics bay. The social media photos must be shot and posted on Instagram.

Compared to a startup, established companies may well have enough warm bodies to technically do the Run tasks you need. There are often people who could technically be in charge of those new initiatives that could save the business. However, when you ask them to react, they either delay, decline or do incorrectly. You will spend an enormous amount of time firefighting if you insist on taking on things yourself so that they get done right.

Whether you work in a startup or in an established company, the problem is that if you spend all your time rolling up your sleeves, you will only end up being an expensive pair of pants. It’s laudable to want to get your hands dirty and to want to do practical things to help move the business forward. But there is a limit to how much practical sleeve rolling value you can add divided by your salary cost to the business. To be certain, the company will only move forward if you make it move forward. First, it has to Run properly. But eventually, it also has to Grow.

The appropriate way of making time to focus on Grow and Transform is to hire people who will take ownership and responsibility over the Run portion. Some jobs require focused technical skill that is difficult to acquire without a formal education. The vast majority of jobs require technical skill that can be acquired on the job directly. In hiring for these jobs, you can solve across technical skill or experience and attitude.

Hiring is extremely difficult. It turns out people interview really well. The impression someone can give in a 30-minute interview has absolutely nothing to do on the job performance. Practical case study interview questions, for example, can help a lot in improving predictive power, but are not perfect. Candidates from large companies in particular are especially talented at interviews and fall short on real-world performance.

In practice, it is probably near impossible to guess what the real-world performance of an interview candidate will be on the job before asking them to actually do the job. Once on the role, however, the wheat really separates from the chaff. It turns out attitude can’t be faked, or faked well for long. Assuming all or most of the hygiene elements of a job are in place, people will vary on attitude at work and towards work. The key differentiator will be the degree of ownership they take towards their role, their team, and their company.

The important point to note is that technical skill can be taught. You can take a packaging line operator and ask them to become a skilled artisan because, given enough time, they will repeat the same hours of practice on one skill as they had on another. In the 2×2 matrix of technical skill vs attitude, the attitude row has all the benefits. Someone with the right attitude and the right technical skill is a prize for the company. Someone with the wrong attitude and the right technical skill is functionally useless and will poison the organization.

People with the appropriate attitude will feel enough ownership to take over more and more Run tasks from you until you can dedicate the majority of your time on Grow and Transform. Someone who looks at the board and thinks, “I can beat last week’s production volume today if I find a way of cutting out deadweight time on this process”.

Your business needs you to spend time on Growing and eventually Transforming. But you can’t do this if you spend all your time on Run. The way to break out of the cycle is to hire good people. Between hiring someone for skill and experience and hiring someone for their attitude, you should always hire for attitude.