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Are skills or character more important in recruitment?

Paul Hargreaves, author of Forces for Good: Creating a better world through purpose-driven businesses. He is also the CEO of Cotswold Fayre

At a time of rapid growth within my own company, the recruitment style was all about desperately filling skill holes, real or perceived, within the business. Imagine a bucket of water full of holes, and each time you recruit someone you are trying to plug the holes to stop some of the water leaking out of the bucket. Hardly strategic!

The consequence of this, is we had recruited people to plug skills gaps, rather than considering whether their character was a good fit. Initially recruiting someone who already fit the skills requirement made business sense, it takes time to train a person with good character with the skills they need for the job.

Going with your gut

As we hurried to plug our skills gap hole, we decided to interview for an experienced sales person to help us grow. An excellent candidate on paper came up, she gave a good interview and we were convinced her skills could bring significant business for the company. Despite this, we had a gut feeling that maybe she wasn’t quite right for the team, but we needed her skills and pushed this aside.

One wrong person can badly affect the atmosphere of a company, and two or three can almost drag the whole operation down. Andy Cope talks about these ‘mood-hoovers’: people who suck the life and good mood out of everyone else.

The new sales person did bring in significant new business to the company, but at the same time her behaviour towards the rest of the sales team and me was extremely manipulative. Wrongly, I turned a blind eye to this as her sales figures were extremely good, and I ignored the demotivating effect she was having on the rest of the team.

She eventually resigned, much to the relief of the whole sales team. She took our entire company database with her to a competitor, resulting in a prolonged court case. We won, but it left us with some astronomical legal fees.

I am confident that now I and my whole team have learned to act more quickly on our ‘gut’ feelings in both recruitment and management, and as a result have a very happy workforce. We regularly survey our employees, who respond anonymously to a series of questions on work and life within the company. In the past we have had some fairly widely divergent responses, but in the most recent survey, when asked the simple Yes/No question: ‘Do you enjoy coming to work?’, 100 per cent of the answers were ‘Yes’. (We did check that the ‘No’ button was working.) It is difficult for a mood-hoover to exist in that environment of positivity.

A good person can learn new skills

We recruited her because I didn’t want to waste time training a good person with the skills they needed for the job; I wanted to throw them in the deep end of the swimming pool and watch them swim. This is, of course, upside-down thinking. While skills and ability are clearly important, character is far more important.

The right person with the right glass-half-full attitude can easily learn most skills, and it is these positive people that will be the right people in the long term. My difficulty had been to focus properly on good recruitment when all I was trying to do was to fill gaps to stop the rest of the team working twelve-hour days every day.

During this period of growth, the company was perceived within the world of speciality food as being successful, and in one respect it was. However, to my shame, we had moved away from the initial core purpose of using business to change the world. I had started from that place, lost money initially, then worked very hard to turn a profit while still maintaining the ethical heart of the business. But at some point, making profit and running to keep up with the growth without proper structures in place had taken over. I had lost focus and had spent too many years firefighting, rather than putting the right structures in place to build a business that was able to make a positive difference to the world.

Having the same time again, I would pay more to recruit better people. I recommend that you pay as much as you can possibly afford to recruit the very best people you can, then add at least another 10 per cent. It can be difficult when balancing cash flow and profit and loss not to be led by what you can afford, but the best people will always save you the extra salary you are paying them, so don’t hold back. If you truly want to change the world as a business, you need the best the world has to offer to help you achieve the task. Fortunately, the best people are often attracted to businesses that have a world-changing purpose.

The answer to the question ‘What are the three keys to success in business?’ is ‘people, people, people’. Just as location is everything within the world of property, so people are everything within a business. And as much as this is a key area to get right, it is also the area in which many make most mistakes. In your business remember to go with your gut, and take the time to recruit on character – not just skills.

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