Whom to select for a long-term role?

When you have a choice of people to pick from who would you go with? The focus of this article is on long-term decisions such as while hiring a person for a role in your organization. I am also thinking of faculty members selecting students for research as well as students selecting faculty members as their thesis advisor. Let us call all these situations as one where someone needs to be appointed in a role. When I say there is a choice of people to pick from, it is not necessary that all candidates are available at the same time. They may show up one at a time. Many times people are in a hurry to choose and just pick the first person that is qualified. While that is absolutely understandable as there are tasks and projects waiting to be worked on, but picking the wrong person can cause more harm than help.

As a first cut, it is reasonable to think that someone qualified must be selected. There is no question that the person must be one who has the background, professional skills, and relevant experience to perform the tasks. However, should the best person be given the job? It has been well documented that a dream team of the superstars do not necessarily produce the best work as a team (recall the US Men’s basketball teams that lost despite having superstar players). That is one aspect, but there is another aspect. How do you know if a person is qualified? There are many that are qualified on paper, or that may appear unqualified on paper. But let us for now just assume that we are able to determine if a candidate is qualified or not.

Sometimes people have the notion that if we selected the wrong person we can always dismiss the person. While that is true in theory, the greatest practical impact is that the person could have caused harm to the culture and collegiality of the organization. However, more often what would happen is that when a person is not the greatest match, they are not necessarily bad enough to dismiss either. Then you get stuck with the person for the long haul. So what do we do? In fact, there is a lot of evidence that one should hire for personality and attitude, as opposed to just job-related skills. The idea is (whenever feasible) to train for the skills assuming they have a basic level of qualification. Even when not feasible, such as for students selecting a thesis advisor, it is important to check personality and attitude.

All this is fine and dandy, but how does one test for personality and attitude? In particular, how does one do that in a short period of time of an interview, as there is hardly any time to even test for qualifications (unless say the candidate already spent time on an internship). There are plenty of websites that have suggestions for hiring managers to look into, I would recommend doing that. However, it is relatively less emphasized in the academic world and I wish to say a little more. As a faculty member I try to only take research students that have already taken a class with me. It gives me an opportunity to assess personality, character, and attitude. Also it gives the student the ability to see things I value and see if there is a match.

But there is a danger to this idea of personality and attitude. Not everything needs to match exactly. Here are things that could be similar, complementary, and independent:

Things that would be nice to be similar:

It would be ideal if there is a match in terms of core values. While there may not be a perfect match, as long as the candidate’s core values do not go against that of the organization or group, it would be sufficient. Also, it would be ideal if success is measured similarly. For example, if the company measures success as the number of new customers while the candidate measures satisfaction of existing customers, there could be a mismatch.

Things that would be nice to be complementary:

One of the dangers of maintaining company culture is the lack of diversity. In the long run this could be disastrous. Hence it is important to pay attention to diversity, whether it is ethnicity, gender, skills, problem-solving approaches, or working style. This would significantly increase the chances of success of the organization in terms of customer reach, sustained growth, and employee satisfaction. Diversification must be done deliberately to enable that.

Things that can be independent:

One of the dangers of focusing on personality and attitude is that it may touch upon topics like politics and religion, both of which I feel should be independent of the criteria for selecting a candidate for a job or role. There are other aspects as well such as work hours, work locations (if appropriate), and any job accommodations. They should not be criteria to accept or reject a candidate. They neither need to be similar nor complementary to those of the others in the organization!

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