Why Recruiting for Specific Skills Often Backfires

By LYNDA SPIEGEL

Jun 24, 2016 6:15 am ET

Lynda Spiegel is a founder of Rising Star Resumes, a career coaching and résumé service. She spent 15 years as a human-resources professional.

You need to hire a digital marketing strategist, so you confer with HR to write a job description that lists the skill set you’re looking for. Maybe certain academic credentials, or years of prior experience strike you as the right criteria for a great hire. Maybe you’re hung up on mastery of specific software programs or workflow management tools.

If that’s the way you go about recruiting, you’re making a big mistake.

For one, knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase in proportion to years of experience. Recent grads are some of the quickest learners in the workforce. In the warp-speed global world, knowledge is acquired by actually doing something, so a relative novice may be as qualified as a seasoned pro.

To recruit intelligently, rethink a candidate’s value proposition. The nature of work itself has undergone unprecedented change; the ways tasks are accomplished changes continually, rendering specific skills obsolete.

What this means is that companies need to hire for the ability to acquire skills, not the skills themselves, because it’s impossible for even the most strategic managers to predict what skills will be needed next year for functions that haven’t been invented yet. Companies need to hire for core traits, rather than specific skills.

What are those core traits? For one thing, they encompass social intelligence, which is what you’re looking for to determine “cultural fit.” Adaptability is another core skill that most career pivoters possess because they’ve held a variety of positions, and have demonstrated the ability to learn and adapt their knowledge to different environments. Companies should also recruit with an eye toward an innovative mind-set – candidates who want to examine process and reconfigure it are better employees than those who have merely perfected a technique.

In the end, what makes a person valuable isn’t an arsenal of learned skills; rather it’s the aptitude and positive attitude for absorbing new technology and workflows that matters. Being generally technically literate is more important than being being qualified in a specific program or app.

Aarron Walter, former User Experience Director at MailChimp, noted that “focusing too much on technical knowledge can lead companies to hire the wrong people.” His strategy – one that I passionately share – is that hiring people who are curious and have a collaborative mind-set represents the best recruitment ROI. David Cancel, CEO at Drift, wrote that “each time I have built a team, personal traits—not professional skills—have been what propelled the company forward.”

Similarly, business leaders who understand the importance of aligning recruitment with workplace realities need to rethink how they construct job postings. Millennial and Generation Z talent want to work where their values and the companies’ intersect, so companies need to state their mission in the job post to signal their employer brand. The best way to attract forward-thinking baby boomers is by replacing a laundry list of “required” skills that they may not yet possess, and instead, describe the character traits that suggest that they know how to learn them.