Why You Should Hire for Fit Over Talent

If you’re in any sort of leadership position or building your startup, it’s a problem you’ll face sooner or later. How do I make sure I hire the right people for my team?
The typical process for hiring goes something like this: create a job description for the position you need to fill, post the opening online, then start sifting through resumes.
Resumes are designed to make the hiring process easier. They give you a snapshot of someone’s professional career. They can be really helpful in narrowing down your applicant pool.
But there’s a problem. Anyone with any semblance of creative writing skills can craft a resume that makes them look like the next big thing. A resume only gives you a picture of what the applicant wants you to see.
More often than not, a resume lists generic job responsibilities and projects from a person’s past experience. This helps give you an idea about what they’ve done in the past, but it completely avoids mentioning the quality of those projects and the way they interacted with their co-workers.
If you want to hire people that will contribute to the long-term success of your organization, there are a few principles that will set you on the right track.

Hiring for fit is more important than hiring for talent

If you want your organization to thrive, you need to have solid teams. And if you want solid teams, you need to make sure you have the right people on those teams.
Patrick Lencioni, in The Ideal Team Player, writes about the importance of building your teams around defined qualities. He chose three that are the foundation for everything else: humble, hungry, and smart.
Hiring people with the right character traits is the key aspect of hiring for fit. It isn’t just about hiring people with whom you’d like to be friends. Approaching cultural fit this way can very easily perpetuate bias.
Prior to hiring, it’s important to spend some time defining the key characteristics of an employee at your organization. Whether you choose Lencioni’s or develop your own, having a clear idea of those traits will help guide you through the interview process.
Hiring for this type of fit, character fit, is more important than hiring for talent because skills can be taught. It’s significantly harder to develop someone’s character or soft skills than their hard skills.
Character matters because you aren’t just hiring an isolated individual. In most cases, you are hiring someone that will be interacting with other people on a team, and potential customers or vendors as well. Even the best talent can be undone by someone who drives others away and burns bridges everywhere he goes.
Hiring for character fit can even multiply the efficacy of your existing employees. Someone with the right talent can do a good job on her own. Someone with the right character, along with that talent, can do her job and even encourage others to do a better job at the same time.

A caveat: fit is more important, but talent still matters

Character fit is an essential component of the hiring process, but talent still matters (especially for certain positions). Hiring someone for a technical job in which he has zero experience might not be the best idea.
When you look to hire someone, you should at least have a baseline understanding of the skills needed to get started in that role. You can teach the specifics and the nuances, but you don’t want to start from scratch.
If you hire someone with a growth mindset, though, you don’t need to set that baseline skill level very high. People with growth mindsets are voracious learners, believing they can develop and learn new skills to get the job done. These people like to learn and improve. When you hire for this trait, the person you see after a year on the job will have improved and developed compared to the person you hired on day one.

The cover letter is more important than the resume

As the great philosopher, Homer Simpson, says, “Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.” So it is with a resume. A well-written resume is sometimes better evidence of good writing skills and imagination than actual work experience.
A cover letter, though, is meant to give you a snapshot of the person applying for the job. It’s a chance for this person to share about herself on a more personal level, giving you a glimpse into her character and personality.
Yes, a cover letter can be just as truth-bending as a resume, but it at least starts to fill out the picture of who this person is. No piece of writing is a substitute for a live conversation, but the cover letter gets the ball rolling.

Fit matters even for remote work

If you’re hiring for a remote position, it might be tempting to think that fit doesn’t matter. You might think a person’s character flaws or poor fit won’t disrupt the team because he’ll never be around the team. Depending on the nature of the position, this may or may not be true.
For a remote position, consider how this person comes across in digital communication. During the interview process, is it easy to be offended or misread things he writes? Are video calls frustrating for some reason or another? If you find yourself having difficulty communicating with this person digitally, chances are, the rest of the team will, too.

How do you hire for fit?

The first step is to determine what “fit” means for your organization. Most crucial in this is defining the character traits you want in your team members. Spend some time with your leadership or executive team defining and describing these qualities. Use them as a framework for your hiring processes, and also for the coaching of current employees.
Beyond character fit, consider any quirks or nuances present in your organization. Are there things that would make it exceptionally difficult for a new person to acclimate? Is there anything unique about your work environment that might make it or break it for someone? Whether it’s the layout of your office space or the flexibility (or lack thereof) of your workweek, take these things into consideration.
At some point during the interview process, invite some of the potential team members to give input. Be cautious with this, because it’s a double-edged sword. The prospective team members will be spending the most time with this new hire, so it’s important to get their input. At the same time, take their feedback with a grain of salt because a good fit is not the same thing as a good friend.
Finally, ask your support staff about how they were treated. Do you have an assistant who set up the interviews or a receptionist who greeted this person on her way into the building? If so, ask them for their impressions. Did this potential hire treat them with respect? If she did, that’s a good sign. On the other hand, was she dismissive and rude? That’s a serious red flag. During an interview, people tend to be on their best behavior. If you see this sort of poor behavior then, chances are, it will be worse when they start.