Hire character: train skill

How many times have we seen those sentiments albeit with different phrasing?

Business leaders from Jack Welch to Richard Branson and organisations from McKinsey to Harvard Business School make the same point. A survey of 500 leaders found that the right “personality” was judged the most important quality in a worker by 78% compared with “skill set” which scored 39%.

So why is this self-evident point so routinely ignored?

Jobs may go unfilled for months while an employer seeks exactly the right experience. In consultancy, employers can significantly damage the profitability of projects by employing associates while they try and hire the “ideal” permanent hire. This is not to suggest skills/experience have no relevance! Simply that they are only part of the make-up of a great hire and one that is often exaggerated.

There are a few reasons employers often choose to prioritise skill over character:

  • When deciding on shortlisting for interview it’s easier to evaluate skills and experience than judge character from a CV. The latter can be broadly inferred by an experienced CV reviewer but is ultimately more subjective
  • It’s thought to be a lower risk: organisations can often be very good at assessing skills objectively but personality is by definition often subjective. Personality tests can help but are not wholly reliable indicators of future success. They can also be time consuming and expensive. So an organisation/hirer reverts to “needs this experience” when advertising and interviewing.
  • It can be difficult to define a set of character/personality/talent traits so it’s difficult for an employer and recruiter to establish what a role or business might need let alone agree on them. Thus companies risk hiring “me-too” staff. Not always a bad thing but a clear risk of ignoring other talent(s) and anathema for Diversity.
  • It challenges internal dogma. If the role has always been filled by someone with ABC experience it can be tough on previous job holders and colleagues if someone dares ask the question “do we actually need this experience?”. Even more so if a person is hired who then excels in the role without ABC!
  • Sometimes certain experience IS actually necessary however. One wouldn’t want to be treated in hospital by someone with a great attitude or character but no knowledge or skill!

So why should firms consider hiring character over obvious skills and experience?

In the field of management consultancy recruitment, demonstrable relevant experience on a CV may make the difference between employees being billable and not. Sometimes, however employers can take so long waiting to hire the right skill set that they could have hired a less close fit candidate and equipped them with the skills and experience in the time.

An innovative firm we met recently does just that. They overwhelmingly hire on culture and personal attributes and then give new consultants free to clients for a period to gain the experience to make them billable. All parties including the client are happy. This can be a more efficient approach and worth the investment to provide them with those extra skills. Furthermore likely duration of the time to find the right experience in a candidate is often unknown so it can be better to make a decision rather than none at all.

Another management consultancy employer has recently given Prism the same generic candidate briefing for two very different roles. The logic? “We are seeking a top-flight management consultant because they usually have the traits we are looking for: ambition, communication, stakeholder management, analysis, project management, curiosity and innovation, teamwork, ability to pick things up quickly. As we want someone who is flexible and with huge career potential these are all very transferable qualities.”


Clearly, if a candidate with both character and skill is available then that’s an easy hire.

Often however employers, especially seeking to fill management consultancy jobs, can search for months for the “ideal” candidate. Sometimes they have to end up compromising on the character and personality traits that are actually much more important to success in the role and the business. Probably the worst outcome.

For more information on optimising your hiring approach or attracting the best candidates email Chris Sale, Managing Director, Prism Executive Recruitment [email protected], call him on 01344 636426 or visit our Client Services page.


Personality traits are deemed more crucial by 78% of leaders compared to skill sets, as these play a significant role in a worker's success. Hiring based on character can lead to more efficient recruitment. Skills can be taught but become outdated very fast: how you work equips you for both flexibility and future progression.
Skill evaluation is often seen as less risky and more objective than character traits. Attempting to assess character can be a more time-consuming process and lead to issues when trying to compare different candidates and make it more of a subjective decision.
Many successful firms prioritise hiring based on culture and personal attributes. They then provide training and experience to develop the necessary skills, which often results in a more diverse and inclusive hiring process.

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