Time and time again, in business books, in articles, or in face to face conversations, I come across the idea that, when it comes to the recruitment process, people are far more important than skills:
“Great companies hire people, not skills”
“You can teach skills, but you can’t teach attitude”
“It’s all about hiring the right people”
Have you ever had an interview where you had the right skills (according to the job description), the meeting went well enough, and yet you didn’t get the offer?
Of course you have. I have. We all have.
I’ve interviewed many candidates who on paper had exemplary and near identical academic credentials, and yet some I loved and some I hated. Despite them being technically very similar, I had completely different views on them.
The reason for this is as follows:
Skills are commodities, and are readily available.
This is particularly true at the graduate recruitment level. Tens of thousands of maths or engineering or economics graduates enter the workforce every year with largely the same maths, engineering or economics skills.
But people are unique on the other hand.
There might be ten maths graduates in front of me with identical degrees and identical grades, but I guarantee only one of them will be, in my opinion, the best person for the job.
You see, when I’m looking at you across the interview table, I see a person who yes, brings some relevant skills, but brings a whole lot more besides – their entire personality and all that goes into it, some good, some bad.
These are some of the important questions I will be weighing:
Do you seem genuine?
Do you fit the culture here?
What is really motivating you?
Will my team get on with you?
What is your body language saying to me, and does it tend to support your claims for the job, or undermine them?
Can I trust you? Trust is the basis of any relationship. If I am to manage you and support you, I need to have a very strong feeling that I can trust you.
Many of these questions are answered not in my analytical, conscious mind, but in my unconscious mind, which has an incredible capacity to assess people’s intentions – friend or foe? – almost instantly.
Our species – homo sapiens – has existed for around 200,000 years. Over that period our brains have evolved this phenomenal early warning system where the unconscious mind immediately suggests answers to what we are experiencing in front of us. This is why we have gut reactions about strangers and their intentions the second we lay our eyes on them.
Moreover, we look for patterns in everything. We assess – unconsciously – people wearing glasses as more intelligent than people not wearing glasses. It’s a stereotype of course, but a pattern which we readily accept as true (even if not). This image above – and many like it – came up when I searched for “intelligent woman” on Shutterstock, helping to re-inforce the stereotype.
In the same way, if the way you look or the way you walk, or just your name(!) reminds me of someone who has let me down in the past, I will be less inclined to trust you. This is based on no evidence about you of course, but just on what my unconscious mind is powerfully suggesting to me.
All of these factors are influencing your interviewer’s assessment of you, largely without anyone in the room even being aware that this is going on.
This explains why, even if you are supremely intelligent, skilled and in many respects the perfect candidate, your interview can be completely derailed by a lack of eye contact, or an unfriendly attitude, for example.
This well-known Netflix culture document, which surfaced on the internet last decade, specifically states that “talented jerks” are not the people whom Netflix is interested in hiring. People are more important than skills.
For graduates in particular this is a tough message. Leaving University, you can easily have an unassailable confidence in the value of your hard-earned academic prowess. You can easily be forgiven for thinking that, since companies are advertising for marketing graduates, the most important thing is to be brilliant at marketing. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many academically gifted graduates just “wing it” at their interview, and fail miserably when it came to convincing me that they were “the one”.
Those who have been in work for some time will have a broader appreciation of the value of coming across as genuine and authentic. For graduates, there seems to be an under-appreciation of the value of making this right kind of first impression.
I was speaking to a group of students earlier this year, and I asked them how important they thought it was for an interviewer to like them.
Only two hands out of forty or so went up. I was shocked. I asked them “Why would I hire someone I don’t like? Managing people is hard enough without shooting myself in the foot!”. They got the point.
I suspect these behavioural aspects are so under appreciated simply because of the pure intensity of the academic challenge for students today. The cost of tertiary education is higher than ever, competition for graduate places is increasingly global, and many graduates already struggle to find a graduate level job, and end up starting their working lives in Starbucks.
There is so much focus on getting a fantastic degree as a door-opener into work – and seemingly much less focus on these intangible aspects.
Remember that the recruitment process, while starting in a mechanical or automated way with your CV and keyword checker, is ultimately a people process. I’m not sure that anywhere yet has a computer actually interviewed and then hired a person. No doubt that day will loom over us, but in the meantime, do not underestimate the human element – with all its fallibility – in the hiring process.
Remember also that when you reach the interview stage, your skills have already met the minimum required level, otherwise you would have already been rejected. In the interview, your focus has to be on building a persuasive rapport where you sell yourself, not your skills. The decision is to hire you, not your skills.
There will be an expectation that you can be taught new skills – something that is perfectly reasonable. New graduates are in many ways simply raw material, equipped with the basic skills and ripe to be moulded by their first employer. I wrote about this aspect in more detail here.
However, no company will take on the task of changing you. If something about your character or personality or indeed body language in the interview causes a red flag to go up, then you are doomed. Hiring good people is a tough gig and most employers won’t take the risk on someone with apparent baggage.
The good news is that there are many effective ways to present yourself in a way that appeals effectively to your interviewer’s conscious – and unconscious – mind. I have written several articles to help you understand from a scientific perspective how to influence your interviewer’s first impression of you in a positive way.
Take advantage of these, and my other resources, to ensure you have a true grasp of how to influence your interviewer to the greatest effect. They are looking for a great person to hire, so make sure it’s you!
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Image credits: Shutterstock