Weekly Wrap: With Employees, Does Personality Trump Skills, Competence?

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A long time ago, I worked with a company that valued managers with great personalities over just about anything else.

There was one particular guy who corporate management viewed as a superstar because he had such great “presence.” He had been lauded with all sorts of company honors, and although he certainly did make a great impression when you met him, it was hard to tell just what it was he did well.

A guy who worked closely with him (who later worked for me) started talking about this superstar manager one night over a drink. When I asked him what made ‘Tom” such a star, this guy rolled his eyes and said, “Tom can be really difficult to work for. Yeah, he has great  presence, but he also has the attention span of a gnat.”

Personality trumps skill set

And, that’s when I finally figured out that when it came to impressing corporate leadership, personality and presence seemed to top competence and skill any day of the week.

I had a flashback to all of this recently when a survey from the Swedish global learning institute Hyper Island titled Tomorrow’s Most Wanted came across my desk. It “polled over 500 top leaders (CEO’s, Managing Directors, Creative Directors) and employees across agencies and companies within the communication, tech and business development industries, measuring perceptions of future challenges, readiness for those challenges, and the skills and qualities needed to meet them.”

The survey found, not surprisingly, that overwhelmingly,”Personality” was seen as the most desirable quality in a worker, with 78 percent of respondents giving it a top rating as opposed to “Skill set” at only 39 percent. “Cultural Alignment” came in at 53 percent.

I get that personality is important, but is it that much more important than the skills someone brings to the table? Well, I certainly don’t think so — but I seem to be in the minority on that.

“Specific competence is less important”

As Johanna Frelin, the CEO of Hyper Island, observed:

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What we found most compelling about this research is how clearly it highlights that personality, not competence, is the determining factor of who’s going to get the most attractive jobs among tomorrow’s recruits. Also, there is a growing desire for talent with a unique combination of skill and flexibility — people who can collaborate, adapt quickly and are enjoyable company, but also have the drive to get things done. All those traits boil down to a personality that is essential for businesses operating in an ever-changing digital landscape. Thus, specific competence is less important.”

I agree that people need to bring a lot of different skills to the table in today’s complex and rapid-changing world of work, and certainly personality and the need to collaborate and adapt are critical. You’ll get no argument from me on that.

But, at the core of all of that personality and collaboration needs to be a solid foundation based on a strong and specific skill set. I don’t buy the notion that “specific competence is less important,” and I think that’s a dangerous road for hiring and talent managers to go down.

In other words, personality and presence will only take you so far if you don’t have the bottom-line skills to get the job done. And, Lord help you if you also have “the attention span of a gnat.”

A big push for benefits for contract employees

Of course, there’s more than the debate about personality versus competence in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Benefits for Microsoft’s contract workers. According to the Seattle Times, “For the first time, Microsoft will mandate a basic level of benefits for the tens of thousands of contract workers employed on the software giant’s behalf. During the next 12 months, the company will require its U.S. suppliers — which provide workers who do everything from serving food and driving buses to testing software — to give 15 days paid leave a year to their employees who work on Microsoft projects. Previously, Microsoft required only that its vendors comply with labor laws.”
  • New $15/hour minimum wage may not affect Seattle’s largest employer. There has been lots of talk about whether Seattle’s new $15/hour minimum wage makes sense, but here’s one more wrinkle: the city’s largest employer may not have to pay it. Again, from the Seattle Times: “The largest employer within the city isn’t bumping up pay for its lowest-paid workers  — and says it’s unclear whether it must do so in the future. The University of Washington contends it falls into a gray area, along with other public entities. The law … begins by raising the minimum wage at large employers with more than 500 workers to $11 an hour on April 1. Those employers must pay $15 an hour by 2017 (or 2018 if the organization provides medical benefits). But whether a city can set wages for the UW, the state community colleges, Seattle Public Schools, King County, the Port of Seattle and other public entities is still up for debate.”
  • Have a contingent worker challenge? Here’s a TLNT webinar you should check out. Contingent workers are growing rapidly in many organizations, but how to handle them can be a real challenge for talent managers who haven’t had to worry much beyond if someone was full-time or part-time. And, that’s why you need to check out this free TLNT webinar on 5 Ways to Make a Contingent Workforce Program More Strategic & Compliant. It’s being held next Thursday, April 2 at 2 pm Eastern/11 am Pacific, and you can sign up for this free event here.
  • Talking to baristas about race. I never thought Starbucks idea to get baristas to talk to customers about race made any sense, and it only lasted a week, but Rolling Stone talked to Starbucks behind-the-counter help to get their impressions. Their thoughts? That talking about race while working is a bad idea. As the magazine put it, “Having the conversation and “racing together” is a great way to perpetually start the process of addressing social injustice while perpetually delaying the enactment of any means to do so. It makes the acknowledgment of a problem equivalent to its solution. Starbucks, an entity with vast abilities to generate, fund and defend social change wants you to get the ball rolling, after which it will do exactly nothing, in the hopes that you feel so good about what we all accomplished together that you don’t notice the lack of a follow-up.” 
  • One last management lesson from the clueless boss in Office SpaceThe movie Office Space never gets old, and one of the great characters in the film is an incredibly clueless manager by the name of Bill Lumbergh and played by actor Gary Cole. Software development firm Atlassian has brought him back for a series of ads, and they’re just about as funny as the original film. Here’s one last one you should enjoy:

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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3 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: With Employees, Does Personality Trump Skills, Competence?

  1. “And, Lord help you if you also have ‘the attention span of a gnat.’”

    Yes, and Lord help those reporting to that individual, too!:)

  2. Ah, that quality of having “poh-tential”; i.e., being selfish, impulsive and loud– anyone who’s responsible, well-mannered, considerate and doesn’t have to be chased down to do the bare minimum must be an “approval-seeking” sissy, right?

  3. And lord help you if you are a woman, because all the qualities deemed “superstar” in a man will get a woman labeled as aggressive and uncooperative, even by her female colleagues.

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