Attitudes for Altitude

Lesson learned: Hire for attitude and potential, not just experience.
Category: Person skills development / hiring.

The following post is a “Lesson Learned” that comes from the analysis of the failed projects documented in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” or from the experiences the editorial team have had working with clients around the world. The post is published here to spark discussion and help individuals and organizations think about what it takes to improve project success rates.

There is little room to dispute that people are a significant factor in the outcomes a project achieves. A strong team that works together effectively can dramatically improve the chances of success. In stark contrast, a single bad apple can potentially sour an entire pie. While technical skills are one of the pillars of a strong team, attitudes are another. Healthy attitudes towards work and colleagues can be the multiplier that is the difference between mediocre and marvellous. In recent years, more and more organizations have seized upon this fundamental truth. Where educational credentials and experience were once the sole focus of the hiring decision, today, positive attitudes are the new currency in which value is seen.

As people wake up to the value of positive attitudes, smart organizations are looking for people with the “right fit”, not just the “right experience”. Skills and knowledge can be trained and developed, healthy attitudes are harder to recreate.

In the interest of understanding this trend, in recent months I’ve been asking hiring managers and corporate leaders what types of attitudes they value most in an employee. Six important themes have emerged from those discussions. Organizations want people who:

  1. Take ownership of their work
  2. Are able and willing to collaborate
  3. Focus on quality
  4. Are self-starters
  5. Are creative and flexible in their thoughts
  6. Are able to see something through from start to end

They want people who accept responsibilities rather than shirk them. People who think for themselves and don’t need to be guided every step along the way. People who see their role as flexible rather than rigid. People with a willingness to share information and the ability to synthesize their own ideas with those from others. Organizations want people who take pride in their workmanship, see things through to a conclusion and see the value of doing it right the first time. People who care about the customer and think from the customers perspective. People who can self-motivate and who lean towards action over inaction. People who can think beyond the obvious and break out of the “first option adoption” trap. Imagine a team that lacks those characteristics. Now imagine a team that has them. If you were paying the project bills, which team would you rather have on your side?

Sadly in today’s society attitude is something that is rarely discussed. Few organizations help their people develop the right perspectives, and unless fortunate enough to be adopted by a gifted mentor, many people go through their entire careers without ever seeing how their own personal attitudes have shaped their lives.

Can you really develop these attitudes or are they innate? I’m not sure we fully know the answer to that question, but I suspect it is a bit of both. Certainly I have seen that were a person has the right role models they can indeed adopt news ways of both thinking and behaving. Although it is challenging for us to overcome our natural styles, I believe it can in fact be done. Perhaps the first step we as individuals need to take is to open our eyes to the attitudes we have. Being honest with ourselves is the critical first step that allows us to benchmark ourselves against the competition. It is the open door through which positive changes can be made and the avenue through which positive role models can be sought out.

For organizations, there is a challenge too. Although you can’t mandate positive attitudes, you can both influence corporate culture and hire for attitude. Getting this one right can be the difference between having a project that soars to great heights or one that crashes to the ground as another expensive failure.

Resolution strategies to consider:

Step back and critically examine your own personal style / Look for role models who have the skills you need to develop / Seek out a mentor or coach / If you are a manager with responsibility for hiring establish methods for evaluating attitudes, not just technical knowledge.


Robert Goatham