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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

Want Innovation? Hire For Skills, Not Attitudes

Pick-up nearly any business book and the recommendation is likely to be the same: when building a team, hire for attitudes and train for skills. In fact, my colleague Dan Schawbel has just written a posting with that very title: Hire for Attitude in which he interviewed Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude. It’s everywhere, and it  sort of makes sense, doesn’t it, because every day we have to get up and go into work, and if the team is a difficult one to be around — if their attitudes are bad — then it’s going to be another day of “no fun,” and our motivation will begin low before anything else even has a chance to frustrate us.

But, attitudes will only get you so far, and when real change is needed — innovation, for example — then attitudes are not likely to be enough to get you to where you want to go. In such situations, you need skills, and lots of them.

Hiring for skills, instead of attitude, changes everything. For one thing, if you do it right, and that means hiring the best obtainable, rather than simply settling for the best available, you’re going to be looking at a team of ambitious high-performers, not a team of happy-campers. When Jerry Robbins and Leonard Bernstein were assembling the team that created West Side Story, and launched a disruptive revolution on Broadway, they hired the biggest talents that they could find — including: playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and set-designer Oliver Smith –  and then the real fun began. Laurents introduced himself to Bernstein by explaining, in not-so-gentil language, just what he was not going to do — “I want to make one thing clear before we go any further…[Laurents screamed] I’m not writing any f*****g libretto for any goddamned Bernstein opera!” Similarly,  when Miles Davis put together what has been referred to as “the all-time classical hydrogen bomb and switchblade band,” made up of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, he selected players “who knew more about music than he did.”  He wasn’t afraid to so because he wanted to achieve something that no one else had ever done musically before, and he needed new skills to accomplish this!

The power of skills over attitude is so important that a close friend, who was part of a team that turned around the Middle East area of a well-known fast moving consumer goods giant, reflected that one of the lessons that they learned from this effort was that if you can’t get the skilled individual that you need, better to do without in that position than to hire someone with a good attitude but without the necessary skills! Imagine that: going without a team member, and covering with the existing team, rather than hiring-in a  mediocre talent and wishing you hadn’t!  No wonder the great jazz writer Nat Hentoff traced the genius of Miles Davis to: “The essence of Miles Davis can be determined by listening to the men he has surrounded himself with…,” and, incidentally, it’s equally true for the rest of us, as well.

Leaders of skill-based teams need to work hard to get the most out of these teams. That often means allowing constructive challenges to occur and being close enough to “referee such matches.” In such instances, leadership truly can become a “contact-sport.”  Skill-based teams are opportunities to allow talent to really soar, but only if the vision is precise and liberating, and if the talent assembled is allowed to contribute as much as they can. In our book, Virtuoso Teams, Andy Boynton and I found

that the best environment for innovation occurred when the team felt it had absolute freedom to contribute their ideas, while at the same moment top management believed that it was in complete control!  Sounds difficult, and it is; but if you can finesse the paradox, you can create magic! In fact, it was Herbie Hancock who said of Miles Davis’ leadership skills that “he could transform musicians into magicians.” This is only possible if you start with sufficient talent to make it possible at all, and then trust them to get on with it. This is not about attitudes at all, but raw talent.

So, here’s a new mantra: For everyday work, hire for attitude, train for skills; but when big change, such as innovation, is envisioned, then hire for skills (because you need them) and figure out how to deal with the attitudes (because, all too often, they come along with the skills).

This post originally appeared on on January 25, 2012

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