Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande, the gifted writer and accomplished doctor, published yet another of his must-read accounts of the health-care crisis and the innovators trying to change things for the better. One of the organizations he highlighted was a physician practice in Atlantic City, N.J., that has "reinvented the idea of a primary-care clinic in almost every way."

The Special Care Center does all kinds of things differently from other medical practices, including hiring full-time "health coaches" who work with the doctors but spend almost all of their time with the practice's low-income patients, helping them manage chronic illnesses and improve their lifestyles.

How does the practice's leader, Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, find the right people for these unusual (but critical) jobs? "We recruit for attitude and train for skill," Dr. Fernandopulle told Dr. Gawande. "We don't recruit from health care. This kind of care requires a very different mind-set from usual care. For example, what is the answer for a patient who walks up to the front desk with a question? The answer is 'Yes.' 'Can I see a doctor?' 'Yes.' 'Can I get help making my ultrasound appointment?' 'Yes.' Health care trains people to say no to patients."

Now that's an effective prescription for innovation! Over the years, as I've studied high-impact organizations that are changing the game in their fields, they've adopted a range of strategies and business models. But they all agree on one core "people" proposition: They hire for attitude and train for skill. They believe that one of the biggest challenges they face is to fill their ranks with executives and front-line employees whose personal values are in sync with the values that make the organization tick. As a result, they believe that character counts for more than credentials

Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ING Direct USA, has invented a whole new approach to retail banking. Over the past decade, as he has recruited thousands of employees to his organization, he has made it a point not to look to his competitors as a source of talent. "If you want to renew and re-energize an industry," he told me, "don't hire people from that industry. You've got to untrain them and then retrain them. I'd rather hire a jazz musician, a dancer, or a captain in the Israeli army. They can learn about banking. It's much harder for bankers to unlearn their bad habits."

The game-changers at Southwest Airlines, who have prospered for nearly 40 years by challenging conventional wisdom in the airline business, have embraced the "hire for attitude" philosophy more intensely than any big organization I've encountered. Sherry Phelps, who spent 33 years at Southwest, and, as a top executive in the People Department, helped design many of its hiring practices, explained the philosophy to me.

"The first thing we look for is the 'warrior spirit'," Phelps says. "So much of our history was born out of battles — fighting for the right to be an airline, fighting off the big guys who wanted to squash us, now fighting off the low-cost airlines trying to emulate us. We are battle-born, battle-tried people. Anyone we add has to have some of that warrior spirit."

That's one reason Southwest, much like ING Direct, is reluctant to fill its ranks with industry veterans — people with the right skills but the wrong attitude to contribute to the cause. When it comes to flight attendants or baggage handlers, Phelps and her colleagues prefer to recruit, say, teachers or waiters or police officers (and often do) than grizzled airline veterans. "We would rather take an eager, hungry, customer-oriented mind and mold it to what works well at Southwest, than try to change the habits of someone who's come up through an organization that views life differently," she says. That's not to say Southwest never hires refugees from the legacy airlines. But, notes Phelps, "It doesn't happen as often as you might think."

In other words, the company evaluates talent based on the proposition that who you are as a person counts for as much as what you know at any point in time — and subjects prospective employees to a barrage of character tests before they join the organization. Over the years, Southwest has elevated to something of a science the practice of identifying its star performers, understanding what makes them tick, and devising interviews, group exercises, and other techniques to probe for those same attributes in new employees. "We're looking for what makes you who you are," Phelps says.

It's hard to imagine three more different fields than health care in Atlantic City, retail banking on the Internet, and airline service across the country. But Specialty Care Center, ING Direct, and Southwest Airlines all understand that you can't create something special, distinctive, and compelling in the marketplace unless you build something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. And the best way to build something special in the workplace is to hire for attitude and train for skill.

What are the attitudes that define your best performers? And what are the techniques you've devised to search for those attitudes in new performers?

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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