Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What Charles Darwin Teaches Us About Hiring

Charles Darwin once said "It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change".
History has proved this correct time and time again. In evolution, in civilisation and also in the world of business. Berkshire Hathaway has been able to weather at least 3 financial crises. Google changes it product lines and algorithms almost quarterly. Starbucks has continuously managed to change it's menu and flavours in response to customer preferences and different global customer tastes.
Every business will have problems, and the only way to overcome problems is to change and try a different approach. On top of this add a fast changing modern world - technology, globalization and increased competition.
Dealing with problems and change requires a key skill. Adaptability.
Yet adaptability is dying. In fact a recent survey carried out by PwC actually found that 63% of CEO's worldwide are unable to recruit employees that can adapt to the requirements of their business.
But like many unwanted epidemics, falling adaptability is actually something us hiring managers have created ourselves.

The curse of specialization

We live in era of specialization. Nowadays there is a specialist for everything - recently my wife was even offered the chance to be introduced to a specialist breast-feeding coach (who visits clients twice a week, is almost fully booked and earns over £60K a year. We settled for YouTube in the end and things are still going very well).
Specialization is useful but like anything has it's limits.
As hiring managers, we have become too focused on relevant experience. Finding "ideal fits", overlooking the fact that the real world is more blurred and sometimes common sense prevails. If our workers are too focussed on one particular thing they will begin to lack everyday essential skills. And they certainly won't be able to deal with unexpected problems.
This fascinating article called "One Patient, Too Many Doctors" in Time Magazine this year summarizes this perfectly. The study shows that over specialization in American hospitals is resulting in more costly, sloppy and disorganised health care.
One patient admitted for shortness of breath was seen by EIGHTEEN specialists before being sent home without the issue being resolved.
Rather than trying to hire specialists for everything, we also need people who can adapt easily to solve problems.

The curse of industry experience

As hiring managers, we are obviously inclined to go with previous relevant experience. It's human nature to go with something that "seems" more certain.
But by hiring the same people from the same sector, we are hiring less adaptable employees. Those who do the same thing over and over again, eventually get used to doing nothing else.
As many studies (including much evidence mentioned in a past blog) have shown, hiring people from competitors has limited success. These candidates are much less likely to have worked in a new environment where they have learned to adapt quickly.
Like everything else, adaptability is something that gets better through practice.
When recruiting for adaptability, candidates who have demonstrated the ability to learn different things over and over again are better than those who have been working in a single sector.
Overspecialisation is killing adaptability.

Most hiring managers don't value adaptability

Perhaps the biggest barrier to hiring more adaptable employees is the fact that most hiring managers are simply not aware of it.
Studies such as this produced by the Harvard Business Review even mention that adaptability is the new competitive advantage in the workplace today.
Yet interviews are still focussed mainly on experience, qualifications and past achievements. The 90's and 00's was the time of specialization - and we were interested in screening hard against very specific requirements.
The current and future circumstances are very different. Things are changing fast and will continue to - only those who can adapt quickly can make consistent impact.
And plus, how do hiring managers screen for adaptability? How can they measure it?
If they don't know, they will simply ignore it.
And will eventually get caught and passed by others who are more able to embrace new opportunities.


Employee adaptability is one of the most essential requirements in business today.
Hiring Managers must make a conscious effort to ensure that all hires are not simply able to carry out the expected tasks today, but also are able to change quickly to grasp new opportunities, solve problems and react quickly to competition.
Conveyor-belt style hiring is over.
As Darwin said, only those who can adapt quickly will survive.

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