Hire for Skill, Fire for Fit

I recently had lunch with an inspirational business owner who clearly bucks a pervasive trend in business today. This trend is best characterized by the headline of this Head Noise Blog. Hire for Skill, Fire for Fit.

Scott Havens, a consummate connector and business development exec with the Power Group recently introduced me to Scott Carson, President of Blue Ocean Consulting. We met over a casual lunch. Scott Carson’s firm is an IT consulting and software development company.

However, Scott’s background is far from the technology industry. He earned his stripes in the rental car and fleet management industry. Worked his way up the ranks and honed the soft management skills and business disciplines over many years.

His business experience in sectors completely outside of technology, coupled with his proven ability to lead a talented team, identify customer needs, position and market the company’s products and services have resulted in a business with an impressive growth trajectory just since he took over. And just think of it, Scott can’t write even one single line of code!

He was fortunate to have been found by a business owner with an understanding of the big picture and the value of a broader set of management skills than simply those intricately tuned to the IT or technology market or industry.

“Everyone wants a unicorn”

It’s a well-kept secret.   Headhunters know it. And they often benefit from it by gaining repeat searches. Hiring managers create exacting criteria when they are in search of new talent.   In fact, as one headhunter explained it has reached the point that, “everyone wants a unicorn.”

Hiring managers don’t want the responsibility of assessing the intangible. So, they hire for easily identifiable skills that can be readily validated. They are so singularly focused on skills and industry-specific experience, they ignore the fit and they ignore or dramatically discount the most essential traits required to successfully manage. And, that often determines the fate of that new hire. They end up being fired for fit.

One of the most high profile examples of this hire for skill philosophy was Time Inc.’s hiring and firing of Jack Griffin as CEO of Time’s magazine business several years ago.   Griffin was impressive and highly regarded as CEO of Meredith Publishing. He had all of the industry experience. But, his management style inside the Time Inc. building was a bad match. Talent began to exodus almost immediately. Morale plunged. Griffin, a proven senior executive was fired after just 6 months on the job. He had deep industry experience but he clearly did not fit.

Tightly defined skills and very narrowly defined industry experience criteria have become so exacting in the search specs that it becomes nearly impossible to find that one perfect person with the laundry list of skills and they instantly rule out candidates with tremendous potential, not to mention the motivation and desire to perform. Searches get extended and completely impersonal data driven HR systems with their algorithms that depend on key word searches exclude nearly every candidate.

Then, when the unicorn is found, they are blindly hired because it is so hard to find someone who fits the stringent mold.

Accordingly, the soft skills in the majority of these cases seem to take a back seat and have little if any value. That is, until hiring managers realize that experience and those skills do have value.

That is when it is usually too late.

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Hiring managers suddenly discover these skills when their new or recently hired unicorn who has 20+ years of experience manufacturing red widgets for the automotive ball bearing industry in an autonomous plant containing certain specialized machinery, a workforce with over 50 either union or non-union employees, a title of VP or greater for at least 10 years, budget responsibility of $XX million or more, a degree in quantum physics plus an MBA from only an Ivy League school, proven experience growing revenue by a minimum of 20% or more for the last 10 years (including through the 2007-2011 recession) begins to create a disruptive and non-productive work environment. Hiring managers wake up when talent begins to flee and sales begin to decline.

In that typical search process, no one valued the intangible skills. No one evaluated the candidate’s management style or his/her chemistry with the type of workforce in place. Does the manager have a vision and can he/she sell it? Can he/she lead versus manage? How do they communicate? How do they deal with morale problems? How do they interface with clients or customers?   Can he/she sell? Do they have an innate sense of marketing and advertising and brand positioning? Does he/she comprehend and know how to leverage social media?

Maybe most important of all, how do they recruit, motivate and retain talent.

Virtually none of these traits seem to matter in the search process today. HR systems that vigorously screen out all but the unicorns completely fail to assess or place value on the answers to any of those questions not to mention old fashioned traits like heart, honesty, integrity, empathy, leadership or work ethic.

Execs like Scott Carson with Blue Ocean prove the fact that companies are missing the boat. They are not maximizing business opportunity when because they devalue innate management skills as well as those skills honed over a career.

Most ironic of all is the fact that the market and industry-specific experience that they so ardently prioritize are by far more easily learned than the traits the ascribe litte or no value to!

Note: If you have an interesting and/or educational CEO story of Head Noise caliber, write to me at cbishop@capitusgroup.com. I’d love to speak with you and share your story in my Head Noise blog. You can tell your story either on the record or, without attribution.

Cameron Bishop is a partner with The Capitus Group. The firm provides comprehensive business value enhancement and transition strategy solutions. Partners and Advisory Directors comprise an experienced team of business professionals who have successfully owned, run, grown and sold companies. Capitus utilizes proven value enhancement and risk reduction techniques to enable superior transition options.


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