What matters more, skills or attitude? Entrepreneurs often say that they value intangible qualities above bullet points on a resumé. But in practice, many are hesitant to hire an employee who hasn't already held an identical job. And sometimes the quest to find the best candidate becomes a hunt for the person with the longest list of credentials.

Paul Millman has reasons not to fall into this trap. He is the president of Chroma Technology, a Bellows Falls, Vermont-based manufacturer of optical filters for scientific equipment. Before Millman co-founded Chroma, in 1991, he held a string of short-lived sales jobs, including one at a company with which he now competes. Millman had no scientific training, but he absorbed a lot selling optical filters, enough to launch a competing business.

Millman's views haven't exactly been reflected in Chroma's hiring process, however. Chroma is owned and run by its 98 employees. Four of Chroma's employees serve on a steering committee, which makes most management decisions for the company.

Last fall, when Chroma added some customer service positions, the committee created a job posting requiring applicants to have either a biology degree or at least five years of experience in the optical filters industry. The committee figured that sort of experience would come in handy, given that the new reps would also be charged with helping customers—mostly biologists—select the right optical filters for their needs. But very few people applied. The positions sat empty for six months.

Millman was perplexed by the stringent requirements. "I didn't have those credentials," he says. And in the company's early days, people routinely performed tasks in which they hadn't been formally trained. One of Millman's co-founders was even able to develop software for Chroma's manufacturing equipment, despite never having had a programming job. Plus, says Millman, Chroma already has some scientists on staff.

Every company wants the best employees it can afford, but some businesses have unrealistic expectations. "Sometimes companies expect a combination of Superman and Batman," says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, the author of Great People Decisions and a partner at the executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International. In reality, the best employees are those who buy into the founder's vision and are willing to do what it takes to achieve it, says Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Those aren't necessarily the people with the most experience. While studying how successful serial entrepreneurs approach decision making, Sarasvathy found that they placed a greater emphasis on a candidate's aptitude and commitment than on a candidate's previous positions.

That is wise because an impressive resumé may give a false impression about a candidate's potential, says Boris Groysberg, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Chasing Stars. In research for his book, he found that star employees from various businesses owed much of their success to their companies' processes and cultures. When these employees moved to other companies that lacked the same infrastructure, most failed to match their past performances.

Ultimately, Chroma did manage to find a new customer service rep with a biology degree. But it also ended up hiring two reps who did not meet the criteria in the job posting, and both of them have worked out just fine.

Treatment:

Decide which qualifications are truly essential and which skills can be learned on the job. An excessive list of requirements may discourage good people from applying.

Develop an on-boarding program. Even the most experienced hires need time to adjust to a new environment.