My Best Hiring Advice: Hunt for Untrainable Skills

Ken Larson

Everyone talks about the importance of identifying your core customers and core values, but what about your core employees?

After all, your most important resource is your people.

The average cost of a bad hire is estimated at 30% of the employee’s first-year earnings, but can scale up to 15x that employee’s annual salary. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh once estimated bad hires had cost the company “well over $100 million.”

If it’s so costly to hire the wrong people, why aren’t companies putting more effort into hiring the right people? Relying on an impressive resume is no longer enough — there’s much more to making the right decision about the people you bring in, including culture fit.

In my book, fit is always the first priority.

Most skills that end up listed on a resume are trainable and can be learned over time. Much more important are the skills and traits that simply can’t be taught and were developed in one’s earlier years. Everyone has their own internal operating system, and every single new hire will impact your culture either negatively or positively.

If you hire smarter, your chances of ensuring it’s a positive impact increase immensely.

Here’s how you can uncover the untrainable skills that best fit your culture and integrate them into your hiring framework.

5 Steps to Identify & Leverage Untrainable Skills

1) Identify the top talent you currently have.

Who are the top five employees within your entire organization that you couldn’t live without? Each leader should choose their top five without sharing, as individual perceptions are critical.

It may surprise you how many leaders in your organization choose the same top employees. I recently facilitated this exercise with one of my clients — nine different leaders all had the same person in their top spot. That person is the ideal core employee!

2) What are their most admirable traits?

Why couldn’t you live without these five people? Identify 5-7 skills or characteristics you appreciate about these employees (i.e. work ethic, resourcefulness, determination, commitment, honesty, student mentality, sense of humor, self-starter). It’s vital that these are things you simply cannot teach. People either have these at their core, or they don’t.

3) Start putting language around these traits.

Brainstorm short phrases for each trait (i.e. always gives their best, never gives up, hungry for knowledge, always doing something in the best interest of the company, continuous desire to improve, etc.).

4) Now, rank yourself on those traits.

… and everyone else in the company! Ranking yourself and others will help you evaluate who needs coaching and who may no longer be a fit. Use a 1-10 scale or perhaps letter grades — get other leaders to do the same, independently, then compare and discuss.

5) Instill all the above in your hiring framework.

Use your list of untrainable traits to frame your interview questions. If you go beyond the standard, mediocre interview questions, tailoring them around the traits you’re hunting for, you’ll be on track to find the right people.

What are the best questions you can ask during the interview process to uncover those traits? Remember to keep the questions open-ended, and always ask for multiple examples to illustrate consistency.

Imagine if 100% of your people exemplified the majority of these core, untrainable skills. Taking the time to find the right people — the ones who really gel well within your culture — will have exponential results for the company over time.

power of public peer pressure