‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills’

The way a successful airline finds employees who fit in with its distinctive culture holds lessons for the public sector.

Some years ago I was the director of a nonprofit agency. We provided services to handicapped individuals and their families. The work was hard, the clients really needed our services, the staff was highly trained and very committed, and we took pride in the impact we made on people’s lives.

But Bill, one of our most talented staff members, was a puzzle to me. On one hand, he was creative, funny, very persistent, smart, and usually got great results. Some of our multi-problem clients made real progress from Bill’s services. On the other hand, he often came across as the “smartest guy in the room.” He didn’t suffer from a small ego and didn’t hesitate to tell other staff when he had a better idea. His arrogant attitude won him no friends in the agency. To be fair, his ideas often were superior, but that only made matters worse from his colleagues’ point of view.

I tried to help Bill see that arrogance wasn’t in his interest, that other staff who might learn from him weren’t open to his ideas, that he could be more effective by teaming with other staff when working with a given family. Bill would have none of it; he saw himself as the brightest star in our agency. Ultimately, he had to leave.

I thought long and hard about what I came to call “the Bill problem”: great skills, creative ideas, lousy team player. What could I have done to keep Bill and help him soften his sharp edges? Then I came across a book about Southwest Airlines, Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It–An Insider’s View, and it totally changed the way I looked at the ways managers hire and develop staff.

The author, Lorraine Grubbs-West, cites nine lessons she learned as a senior executive at Southwest, from developing a culture of continual learning and creative methods for “onboarding” new employees (immersing them in the unique high-energy Southwest culture) to maintaining high standards for employees while giving them enormous support and quality training. But the most powerful lesson, for me, was the very first one: “Hire for attitude, train for skills.”

As I read on, Grubbs-West’s point became clear. It’s not that Southwest doesn’t value skills. Rather, she’s arguing that we can’t train people to have attitudes (just as athletic coaches like to say that “you can’t teach speed”) that are valuable to our organizations and that attitude is at least as important as skills in building the organization. Southwest’s message is also that our attitudes don’t tend to change dramatically during our lives, and when they do change, it’s not because of some employee-development program. As the author puts it, “Hire ‘nice’ ’cause you can’t train ‘nice.'” Organizations can most certainly train for the skills they need.

Southwest’s approach to “hiring for attitude” is easy to describe, but hard for many organizations to implement. The company:

• Makes people want to work for Southwest. The company’s ads convey its love of creativity, individuality, irreverence and humor, as well as its commitment to what it calls “positively outrageous customer service.”

• Defines the kinds of employees it wants and communicates that widely. Over the years, the company has identified the key attributes that build and sustain its culture (thinking outside the box, preference for a team approach, taking the job seriously but not himself or herself seriously), and it focuses on those throughout the recruitment process.

• Uses its marketing and public-relations strategies to support its recruiting efforts.

• Makes all of its employees recruiters. Southwest employees are continually “interviewing” applicants for jobs at the company. They notice how applicants greet the receptionist, how they respond to people in the hallway, and so on. Southwest employees love the company culture and are determined to hire only those who will contribute to it.

Fine and well, you might be thinking, but what about people whose skills are both wonderful and rare but whose attitudes don’t fit well with the organization’s culture. Shouldn’t we make exceptions to the Southwest rule and hire such people?

Yes, there are such people, and if their skills are not only rare and wonderful, but also well suited to achieve very high organizational priorities, you can make the case to hire them. In my experience however, there are very few such people. Sadly, I’ve seen many people hired (or retained) because their skills seemed to be indispensable to the organization’s success, only to cause far more problems than they were worth because of their attitudes. And, of course, once such people are hired, you have a very difficult time parting company with them.

Most public organizations would do well to follow the Southwest example: Know the attributes your culture needs, rigorously assess them during the recruitment process, and hire (primarily) for attitude. Just make sure it’s the right attitude. Don’t hire people like Bill.

To access an archive of Russ’ past columns at Governing.com, click here.

*this column originally appeared on Governing.com,  Nov /09 /11  .copyright c. 2011.