How to hire the right person for the job

01 October 2019

In the competition to source skilled workers, Kevin Appleton suggests employers need to look beyond education level and work experience

I finished my previous piece for IRN with this reflection:

It could be that one of our industry’s challenges is that we have been rather unsuccessful in the war for talent, compared to other, superficially “sexier” industries.

For any business, or industry, to grow efficiently it needs to have visionary, creative and inspiring leaders.

employment pictogram

I have been challenged, not unreasonably, with the follow-up question: “How do we win in the war for talent and ensure we have the best leaders?” Here are a few thoughts.

Why education does not guarantee success 

To slay one dragon immediately, there is not a strong correlation between educational attainment and success in our industry (or others).

Academics Thomas Ng and Daniel C Feldman produced some (2009) research into how educational attainment contributed to job performance across a range of industries.

In summary, it found that although there was some correlation between education level and degree of individual performance effectiveness in an organisation, it was a relatively modest factor (maybe contributing 25% of the overall effect in certain performance attributes).

Formal qualifications do not guarantee ability or competency

It also (and this feels intuitively right) found that educational attainment was likely to be a stronger factor in predicting success in more complex work environments.

It is the case that there is a correlation between educational attainment and income levels, but this is seemingly because hiring companies, in their efforts to be efficient, use education as a proxy for likely ability in the hiring process.

So, while getting a better education is likely to get you in front of more job opportunities and therefore increase your lifetime earnings (good news for the individual), it does not guarantee the employer will get a more effective employee (bad news for the employer).

Why ‘relevant experience’ is overrated

It’s not about relevant experience (in the long term). In much the same way as education can be a false indicator of potential future performance, so too is relevant industry experience.

Job and organisational tenure (length of service) did not compensate, or add to, the effects of educational attainment in the Ng-Feldman study.

Again, this seems to chime with our own practical experience. There is, in every industry, a merry-go-round of “industry types” who move from company to company using their specific experience as currency to gain advancement, but don’t seem to deliver particularly strong performance in return for this.

Of course, there are occasions when experience is valuable, often to stabilise performance at relatively junior operational and technical levels. It can be good to have someone who quickly “knows what they’re doing” on the hire desk or in the workshop.

However, the evidence seems to suggest that there is a difference between “knowing what to do” in a day-to-day sense and having sufficient skill to “improve what is being done” over the longer term.

Why mindset is so important

There appears to be a growing consensus that strong business (or sporting, or life) performance is more correlated to a willingness to be open-minded, take calculated risks and be able learn from and incorporate, experiences of failure.

The popular clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, talks about the importance of “dragon slaying” to our long-term mental well-being and effectiveness.

This refers to the ability to face up to the things that scare us, and threaten to keep us away from seizing opportunity, with the expectation that reward (financial, spiritual, psychological or emotional) will come from learning controlled and respectful mastery of our own fears (Note: this is very different from being a reckless risk-taker who simply doesn’t care for consequence).

So what to do? It seems to me that there are a few things that would make a difference.

5 Ways to improve your recruitment process 
  1. Show potential employees what you can offer
    Make your external employee branding materials reflect a place where people are encouraged to make a difference (if indeed they are – they’ll soon work it out if the promise doesn’t match the reality).

  2. Invest heavily in candidate screening
    Rather than depending on the simple “education plus experience” tick-boxes, candidate screening and evaluation systems are a useful tool that test the attitudes and learning capacities of potential employees.

    Using such systems will help rental companies - and indeed all businesses - avoid hiring staff that prove unable to thrive in the workplace.

    There are some great tools and techniques available for this, but they need work and commitment to integrate into a business.

  3. Do not hire a candidate just to fill a job role 
    There is some evidence that maybe only 20% of people have some “dragon-slaying” aptitude [the ability to overcome their own weaknesses and fears].

    Within this 20% there will be even fewer that have the basic skills and intelligence you might need, so be prepared to say “no” and reject candidates more often.

    If you are keener to fill a role with someone than you are to fill it with the right person, then you’ll be much less likely to get high-performers.

  4. Identify the specific qualifications required for the job
    When in the hiring process, favour educational attainment a little more for the roles that are more highly technical in nature (finance, IT), but recognise its limitations as a performance predictor in most other areas.

  5. Prioritise attitude
    Give licence and opportunity to those - whether they are a potential employee or an existing one - who show the right kinds of attitudes. 

    It is always better to take a risk and be slightly disappointed, than to lose someone who had the latent talent and ability but wasn’t challenged.

*This article was first published under the title ‘Winning the talent war’ in the October 2019 issue of IRN magazine. To download it and other issues, click here.

Kevin Appleton

About the author

Kevin Appleton is an experienced senior executive and advisor in the equipment rental, logistics and construction service industries.

He is a former CEO of Lavendon Group and a chairman and/or non-executive director of a number of companies in the rental and logistics sectors. To comment on these articles, e-mail: [email protected]


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Ollie Hodges Publisher Tel: +44 (0)1892 786253 E-mail: [email protected]
Lewis Tyler
Lewis Tyler Editor Tel: 44 (0)1892 786285 E-mail: [email protected]