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The Great “Aha!” in Hiring: Culture and Character First, Competency Second

Most businesses are founded on a new or better idea and a hope and a prayer. Unlike Cochlear Americas (, they don’t have the benefit of:

  • A product that will fundamentally change peoples’ lives
  • Hundreds of thousands of prospective customers worldwide in a market guaranteed to grow
  • A built-in mission that evokes passion in employees

No one appreciates these market advantages more than Chris Smith, President of Cochlear Americas: “It is amazing to be able to work for a company and see every day the impact of what you do.” In fact, Chris delights in the potential to bring hearing and new life to people of every age, babies to seniors, through cochlear implants. “Hear now. And always.” Even the tagline pulls at your heartstrings.

Those points were just background to Chris Smith’s key message in his presentation to the Association for Corporate Growth ( in early August. Despite Cochlear’s exceptional market position, Chris emphasized that you achieve sustainable growth by building a culture of servitude and community, which is based on hiring first for character and culture, and hiring second for competency—something I have been espousing for years. This is usually the great “aha!” for all those companies that do exactly the opposite.

Hiring for character and culture

It’s almost an adage in this country that you “hire for competence, but fire for character.” Although it’s true that none of us wants to fly on an airplane built by an apprentice, you can hire an apprentice and teach the necessary mechanical skills. What cannot be taught are the ethics that keep that apprentice from covering up a small crack in the fuselage instead of reporting or repairing it. Whatever else your business has going for it, it won’t matter unless you hire people with good character to fulfill your purpose.

There’s nothing neutral about character. Employees who do not share your corporate culture dilute it. They detract from the essence that defines your company and drives your achievement. Hiring good cultural matches not only helps to ensure a sustainable future for your business, it’s cost effective—leading to higher retention, engagement, and deeper relationships with customers. If you find that you have to fire someone for character, damage has already been done.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to know for certain whether the person you want to hire is a good match with your culture. Having a laser clear understanding of your company culture and developing carefully thought-out questions will help. Do you know what makes you unique? Can you define, specifically, what your values are? Can you describe what your work environment is like day to day? When everyone in your organization answers these kinds of questions the same, you can ask them of candidates and measure their responses against yours.

If the character fits with your culture, interview that person a second time to assess their competency.

Which comes first, serving or leading?

One of the companies I most admire is the cable company WOW! ( Their simple philosophy of living up to their name is cultivated and nurtured by four values, one of which is “servanthood.” To WOW!, and its CEO Colleen Abdoulah, this means deriving genuine satisfaction from taking care of each other and their customers. Hiring authentically “people-first” employees surely has much to do with Wow!’s exceptional growth and its year-after-year top rankings in many service categories, including the 2011 Consumer Reports magazine top service provider for Internet and television services.

Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept of “servant-leadership” in a 1970 essay describing the different choices people make in their leadership styles, either on the side of putting themselves first, or serving the needs of others first. “Leader-first” types are driven by power and acquiring material things. Servant-leaders take responsibility for the well-being of people and community. Greenleaf believed that only people who are content and motivated can reach their targets and fulfill a set of expectations.

It follows that if you have a culture of servitude, your managers are servant-leaders and share certain values about how to best support and promote the wellbeing of people, whether employees or customers. Can you hire people who have spent a lifetime putting themselves first and expect to train them to do otherwise? Probably not, no matter how competent their skills are. When you’re looking for effective new leaders, first make sure servanthood is central to their character before assessing other leadership competencies.

Fans and community

It makes sense to create a community of customer fans so that you can understand what’s important to them and develop your product or service offerings accordingly. Equally important, and less considered, is developing a culture of community that makes employees raving fans of your company.

Raving-fan employees are as obsessed with serving each other as they are with serving their customers. You can’t fake this obsession, and you can’t buy it. It’s based on sincerity, respect and integrity. Community is the natural outcome when you build your culture around the common good character of your employees, whose leaders care about their wellbeing.

A sense of community harnesses your collective talents and energies to achieve the big ideas—and to sweat the small stuff that employees busy battling egos and turf issues avoid or ignore. It’s often your attention to taking care of details that wins the business.

A guarantee

No one would suggest that a business can succeed without competent employees. What’s important to understand is that the long list of “required” competencies companies use as the first phase in screening candidates is the wrong way to go about finding the right people. Look first for the kind of character and culture fit that spawn servant leaders and a sense of community. Then train your people in any skills they lack. No matter what your product or service, you’ll have the advantage, and I can almost guarantee that your company will fulfill its potential and purpose.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a unique recruitment firm that helps companies find exceptional talent to accelerate their growth. TalenTrust LLC is located in Golden, CO. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@www.talentrust.comor 303-838-3334 x5

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