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Should You Hire For Skill Or Spirit?

Fast Company wants you to have your best year yet in 2012; click for more advice and tips on how to work smarter, manage your career, and lead a more meaningful life.

Companies spend a huge amount of time and resources crafting business strategies. Even so, most of these strategies end in failure.

I saw one company spend half a million dollars and hundreds of employee hours implementing a new strategy, only to admit that it wasn’t working. They had to spend even more money and lay off employees trying to put things back to the way they were before. The next time the company tried to introduce a new strategy, it was met with considerable employee resistance.

If employees don’t buy into a strategy, it’s doomed to failure from the start. After all, strategy doesn’t execute itself. People execute it. This is why it’s vital to integrate strategy and people.

Because people represent the potential of the business, high-growth companies need high-growth employees. Employee development is the key ingredient in breaking through to the next level of growth. Employees have to develop new skills that allow them to perform at higher levels so that they can quickly deliver on the potential of the strategy and the company itself.

While it’s certainly possible to hire for new capabilities, there are tremendous benefits of promoting from within. Just a few benefits include: retaining technical knowledge; honoring the informal, social fabric of the organization; and fostering the culture of the company.

Employee development needs to be included in both strategy creation and execution. There are two main ways to assess people and their development: skills and spirit.

Skills are things that can be trained. A leader can be coached on how to become more influential and engage their team to achieve great results. An employee can be trained technical skills such as engineering, accounting, and marketing that they need to do their jobs really, really well.

Spirit refers to the "soft" skills that can’t be trained effectively. You have to hire for them. These are hard to find but are necessary for a company to function smoothly.

One of these skills is teamwork—the ability to put the needs of the group ahead of personal desires. Another is heart, as in "put your heart into it." This describes true commitment and passionate engagement. Employees with heart take ownership of their jobs and go the extra mile.

One of my clients, a growing manufacturing company, got a huge order that had to be delivered on a rush basis. Everyone at the company had to pull out all the stops to get the job done on time.

Two women working on the manufacturing floor had the idea to make posters to keep track of progress. These were updated several times a day so that everyone could see how close they were to completion. The posters helped keep everyone motivated, and with a lot of extra effort the order was filed with zero errors.

The two women demonstrated both teamwork and heart. They were promoted to management positions shortly afterwards.

Too often, companies hire for skills without enough consideration for spirit. When that happens, you end up with a bunch of wonks who can’t work together. There needs to be a balance between skills and spirit across the entire company.

This same balance needs to exist within individual senior managers. A VP of global marketing at a IT company recently asked me about this. He told me that one of his senior managers had great skills and was a decent leader, but he wasn’t showing any heart—he just didn’t seem to care about the company. The VP said that the manager’s bad attitude was starting to wear off on his entire team.

My reply was clear and simple. I told him that if the manager’s heart wasn’t in it, there were two options: move him into a purely technical position or let him go. Senior managers are a microcosm of your company. They are the role models for other employees. As such, they need to have both skills and spirit.

Integrating strategy and people accelerates the potential growth of any organization and is critical for high-growth companies.

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[Image: Flickr user Roger H. Goun]

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  • BTS

    Improving strategy execution has emerged as the key to achieving better results. CEO’s regularly cite it as a top priority, but few agree on how to make it happen. A raft of business literature counsels that constructing new business processes is the desired approach. But such literatureobscures a precise truth: Superior execution can be achieved by a small number of specific activities that develop managers’ alignment, mindset and capabilities.
    Consider an alternative framework: E=AMC. Exceptional Strategy Execution (E) is neither a process nor a mechanical formula for efficiency. Making it happen requires focused investments in building Alignment (A), Mindset (M) and Capability (C). E:AMC means that firms succeed not just on the basis of a mechanical formula for efficiency but also on the decisions that energize and inspire people: the power of their principles, the strength of their culture, the alignment and behavior of their leaders. It means helping our clients to realize that if a firm wants to win, strategic alignment and capability must be kept intact, while the spirit is allowed to soar.  
    In the current economic environment, CEOs are finding that the usual approaches to strategy implementation are no longer sufficient. Facing this challenge, leading organizations are consistently leveraging business simulations to deliver superior strategy execution. A few hours of practice in a simulated environment disseminates best practices around execution, builds critical skills, increases the confidence necessary for effective back-on-the-job implementation and avoids costly mistakes that could cripple a company. For a company, the result is tangible: The execution of a new strategy is greatly accelerated.
    To read more, click here. Or visit

  • Todd Wilson

    Spirit.  When I've hired for skill over spirit (in my definition, also known as "fit"), I've been right 50% of the time.  When I've hired for spirit over skill, I've been right 90% of the time.  

  • Franka Winchester

    “This article brings up the most important commodity out there; leveraging human capital. Yes technology is important in terms of understanding how to utilize/leverage it for your company and harness its power, but “talent” is the true source of what make a company go from “good” to spectacular. Look at the example of Apple, Steve Jobs with his eerie ability to inspire and ignite passions, that takes a special skill of understanding how to really connect with people. It is important to look for candidates with a “contagious energy,” positivity and flexible attitude. In Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great,” He talks about “class five” leaders which have caused companies to become some of the most amazing performing companies in the world. Companies like Boeing’s William Allen and Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton have these qualities and these companies have converted “long-term mediocrity into long-term superiority.” These companies made the giant “leap” because of their leaders – their human capital.
    This article addresses true objective when hiring management level candidates – look for those that foster teamwork, value/validate individuals and inspire greatness. Especially, those already under your company’s nose – those from within. Look for employees that everyone seems to know or enjoys working with. Those employees’ customers/clients ask for by name – these are the ones to keep your management eye on. Technical skills and abilities can be trained and learned to some degree, of course they need to have experience what is relevant and necessary to do the job. In addition, increasing knowledge and further career training will foster loyalty in your employees.
    By combining human talent with your company’s capabilities will only allot growth, and I couldn’t agree more that companies tend to overlook this characteristic. Spirit and heart have so much power to increase productivity and can turn a company completely around. It is so important to know your culture and hire for cultural “fit” than just amazing skill set.”

    Franka Winchester
    Pacific Crest Group

  • Brian Colton

    This is a great article.  As our economic landscape is dominated by service industry related jobs and businesses, "softskills" and their importance are becoming more evident.  In the past, they were underemphasized.  I do not agree, however, that soft skills and technical skills exist as absolutes or are they mutually exculsive.  They are generally found as character traits along a contiuum- like a scale from 1 to 10, for example.  Therefore, both "soft skills (heart and spirit)" and technical skills can be coached and taught.  The difficulty lies in having the humility, heart and talent within the organization to teach those skills.  It all comes down to company culture and that starts at the top with Senior VPs, CEOs and Owners.  We can give lip service to emphasizing "heart" and "spirit" but if it is not ingrained in the business culture and vision, it will not fly.   The culture does not grow or expand much beyond just talking about having heart and spirit if this is the case.  

    Karen's jaded comments about greed and selfishness are true to a certain extent.  I have experienced greed and selfishness in corporate America.  I work now for an excellent organization that emphasizes the importance of soft skill and technical skill training and assets.  I also work with small business owners and I am inspired daily by their ingenuity, skill, spirit and heart.  Many of them are pursuing a dream or idea with tremendous risk on their part.  Their efforts often do not yield results for many years- I do not see much greed there.  The American dream is still alive.   The more the business owners I work with possess both soft skills (heart and spirit) and job specific technical skills approaching the "10" level, the more successful they are.


    Brian Colton
    Business Account Executive
    Mountain America Credit Union

  • George S

    I find this article somewhat disturbing. While working for the federal government, I have encountered issues where people have been hired for spirit with the understanding that skills can be taught, however one must also understand a balance is needed for any company to succeed. We are currently dealing with most of our staff being hired for their spirit, but they lack skills to the extent that most the employees barely know how to turn on the computer. We are dealing with individual who lack the necessary technical skills to complete those tasks. Take design for example, sure anyone can learn those skills, but to have the knack to understand and apply that knowledge it takes talent. Talent cannot be taught, regardless of how much people practice those skills.

    At this point, we are noticing that we are being held back by those who are hired for spirit. Those individuals who are guided by spirit have a hard time to accept change, thus allow the company to evolve as technology grows. I understand the need to obtain more spirit motivated individuals, but I caution those interested in having more of one type as oppose to the other. The best company would be an equal balance between the groups to be successful.

  • Kevin Pavert

    believe your article is well written and on the mark. In an interview I once
    asked "What was seen to be my greatest challenge" and I was told
    "Winning people back over" to which I replied "I don't believe
    that will be a challenge". 

    Within the first week of employment ( I am being graceful with my estimate of
    time) I quickly identified the cause of failing strategies and low morale.
    There were two key elements missing in the organisations infrastructure in
    relation to safety. They were leadership and more importantly the engagement of
    all stakeholders. 

    Quite often in leadership we see the 'Peter Principle' in play, where people
    are advanced beyond their level of competence. I agree with David's view that
    during the interview process inexperienced people appear easily swayed by
    on-paper qualifications. 

    Strong leaders display qualities that come natural, these qualities cannot be
    taught, mimicked or copied because they are forged in the core of a person’s
    character. In order for strategies to be effective it is imperative we engage
    all stakeholders to ensure they not only own the strategy but more importantly
    understand the long term benefits of its success. There is so much to be learnt
    from the people we employ, regardless of status or title and if they are given
    the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience in a forum that values
    their opinion a team spirit is born. I have a saying that I use all the
    time.... "We can’t have our finger on the pulse if our hands are in our

    Good leaders are treasure hunters. They identify character traits and qualities
    in others that are often overlooked and their investment of time spent
    nurturing these qualities will inevitably produce a loyal and dedicated
    resource of great value. 

    Technical skills can be taught to a willing and capable learner that feels
    valued. There are two investments an organisation can make that will return
    tremendous dividends. 

    Firstly: Invest in strong leadership that balances on-paper qualifications with
    a persons expressed passion, desire and drive to see others exceed their

    Secondly: Invest in training programs that enhance the skills of their
    employees. Survey their wants and develop a program that is uniquely tailored
    to their needs. 

    Kind Regards 

  • Antonio del Rosario

    for management positions or any leadership positions, vital to hire someone w both skills and spirit but if i had to err on one side, it would have to be spirit. skills can be trained but if they don't have the spirit (passion, teamwork, energy) for the vision then they can't be a leader but if they have the spirit it's easier to train someone into anything. dr David Kulla said it best in the interview i did w him on blogtalkradio: "I wasn't retaining my staff because I didn't appreciate them.  I worked on myself so I can appreciate my staff better." his business is not just thriving but he is expanding to a bigger office in Manhattan! his spirit as a leader/business owner was open to learning.  what a great example.  pesonal development caps your income and progress. leaders are made not born! - antonio, host blogtalkradio the spirit of business

  • karen

    No company hires for heart or spirit. They hire for skills. They only care about what the employees can do to make management money.

    Just look at Zygna news that said that the so called "executives" tried to take the company stocks away from the employee or they would 'fire' them!!  

    At the end of the day, human nature is made of selfishness and greed! Money rules any company now a days...and they don't care how much heart or people skills you really have. It is barely an afterthought.

    And there is a big difference in what companies and management "say" and what they "do". And in most cases they want you to "do" what they "say" not as they "do".  In other words, lots of bull shit and very little 'heart' or 'spirit'!!! I have never worked for a company that was otherwise. I think that's why I am so jaded!! 

    So 'spirit' and 'heart' and all that stuff is great to talk about but to practice it in today's world where the only measure of success is impossible.


    Good and Interesting fetch some good Notes........Thank you 

  • Jill Thiare

    So if you've recently hired someone and realize that they are lacking in spirit and are generally a mis-match for the position - how do you ethically let them go? "Lacking in Spirit" is hard to quantify and document...

  • Nick Heap

    South West Airlines recruited for attitude not skills. The story is in "Nuts" which full of great ideas. 

    I think organisations can create a climate where spirit flourishes. Then they don't have to rely on the odd exceptional individual. I worked for ICI in the UK from 1968 to 1982. They did it. They didn't encourage reckless risk taking but it was clear that rules were a guide not a straight jacket and they were forgiving of mistakes and encouraged learning. 
    I've written a couple of short pieces on the creative organisation and the developmental organisation that suggest practical things organisations can do to encourage "spirit". Here is a more general piece on spirit and development

  • Glen Loock

    This is a very interesting article; however, I think it left
    a critical segment out. FIT! You can have the spirit and the skills but if you
    are a pair of wing tips in a flip flop sandal environment it is not going to work.
    As was mention in several of the comments you can train skills, (to a degree)
    spirit is a much more difficult thing to train but it can be done. Something
    that is not trainable is FIT. You either do or you don’t. A suit and tie
    executive does not work well in a high tech start-up. They are not a match.
    Ideally you find a candidate that has the spirit you want, with the skills you
    need, and the fit that will work.

  • Dragan

    We need both. "Only a Sith deals in absolutes..."  :-)
    Regarding training spirit or soft skills, I beleive they can be trained, its just that, from my expirience, companies often do not want to engage in this, dont know how or dont have the money to do so.Dragan SimicHuman Development Professionalhttp://www.change-...

  • Michelle Randall

    As the author, I'm thrilled that the provocative title has lead to such rich debate.

    My point is this, an organization must have a balance between skills and spirit. Individual senior leaders, or anyone who aspires to those roles, must be balanced within themselves. The rest of the team doesn't.

    People development must be a part of the business strategy. Assess the organization's tendency toward skills or spirit so you can hire, train and develop the organization toward balance.

    The benefits of doing this is your ability to expand the bullseye of potential and achieve high-stakes growth!

    Michelle Randall
    President, Enriching Leadership International

  • Daniel Castro

    Daniel @ Madison

    Madison, you are right. Spirit cannot be taught, that is why many companies fail in trying to implement models like Servant Leadership. It is because it cannot be approached like something that can be taught. However, it can be activated. Spirit is inside of every one, we all have, just like we have slightly differences in our DNA that it is expressed in diversity the same is true for the heart of the people, it is like a plant that is a result of a seed which was processed to produce. The issue is that it takes more than training; it takes personal commitment from the direct leader to develop the people surrounding him. This is the most expensive investment because it does not take money but life to do it. It not only takes your time but the whole of you. Companies fail on this because they are made of people who think they know how to develop people just like people thinks they know how to do parenting which by the way we can find a lot failure there too. I know this because some of the managers who report to me have told me they have achieved development in areas they never think should even be done.

    Daniel Castro
    Plant Manager

  • H. Pilkington

    I hope companies who attempt to implement this wisdom do so the right way. Too many places have hiring and selection criteria based on the values they think their company has, or what it should have, rather than what it actually has. Even more hire and promote based on buy in without investing in the training their employees need in order to maintain and improve efficiency and avoid bogging down corporate initiatives with gross incompetence.


    Very interesting article.  It's fantastic that more and more organizational leaders are recognizing the need for a more rounded skill set from among their associates.
    But I would argue that the concept that Spirit and Heart are not trainable shows a lack of faith in the human ability to adapt and change and is indicative of a system that has not provided the proper motivation, education or training (likely because such educational and training resources are so scarce).
    All employees possess a certain level of performance in each of the 4 areas and anyone who is teachable can be taught to improve in any area in which they desire to improve.  The problem is that, although there are a plethora of educational programs available to individuals and organizations wishing to improve in their Leadership or Technical Expertise, there are precious few resources for training people how to improve in the softer skills of Teamwork and Heart.
    In my opinion, the key to improving these areas is through education and understanding of personality profiling.  There are personality profiles that are more naturally bent toward the harder skills of Leadership and Technical Excellence and there are those that are more naturally inclined toward the softer skills of Teamwork and Heart.  The better we understand each of the personality types, the more we are able to train ourselves to function in specific personality styles under specific circumstances as a learned behavior to improve our performance or results.
    I know this because I learned this and several years ago, developed training materials to help other Managers and Program Managers utilize personality profiling to improve their ability to effectively motivate others by training them to assess the personality profiles of those they are charged to motivate and then adapting their approach in order to improve their motivational effectiveness.  But this training could also be used to help people learn, under the correct circumstances, to have more Teamwork or more Heart as the situation demands.

  • Mark

    Hire for talent and attitude and train for skills. You can't put in what God left out. It's hard to teach attitude but it is easy to train skills. If someone has the right attitude and talent it makes teaching skills easy. Rarely will someone acquire and then use the rights skills without the right attitude so they usually go hand in hand. 

  • Bruce Weeks

    Very well said Mark. I have been hiring and managing
    people for over 30 years and what you say is spot on. I believe if you hire
    "Good" people that are reasonably intelligent, they will learn and
    outperform many of the “paper shakers” who attempt to acquire and retain
    employment solely on their education and credentials. Self-serving, entitled
    individuals tend to hire people like themselves and suck energy from those who
    actually selflessly contribute to the betterment of the company.  If this is acceptable to the culture of a
    company and becomes the norm, the company is doomed.

  • M. Kinney

    Great article.  I've been arguing this point for years.  Seems to me people forget this is how the more advanced units in the military operate.  SEAL's, Ranger's, Special Forces, the pilots in SOAR - they recruit for heart and a desire to win at all odds.  Then they train these soldiers to the tip of the spear, provide them with the most advanced tools available and that's how you get the Special Forces community we have today.

    Can you imagine what it would be like today if every soldier coming in to the military had to show experience in firearms, demolitions, map reading or logistics before they were accepted into the service?