If you were interviewing for an important job, and the CEO of the company asked you this question point blank (which has one right answer for getting you that job offer) what would you say on the spot? The question:

Are you smart or do you work hard?

Daniel Schwartz, the chief executive of the parent company of Burger King, told New York Times columnist Adam Bryant (of "Corner Office" fame) that he likes to ask candidates that same exact question. The right answer?

Schwartz said: "You want hard workers. You'd be surprised how many people tell me, 'I don't need to work hard, I'm smart.' Really? Humility is important." 

Make hiring decisions has to be based on people's work ethic, not how smart or talented they are.

Science has already agreed with this premise. In 2007, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology described perseverance and passion for long-term goals as "Grit" (a non-cognitive trait that measured persistence), and rated it of equal or greater value than IQ and talent. 

The research suggests that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time. It's the people with intestinal fortitude who have overcome obstacles and persevered in life who may turn out to be your best hires. They have work ethic and attitude.

Popular Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Successcame to the same conclusion in her studies on motivation. She said, "Attitude is a better predictor of your success than your IQ."

Quite often, excellent entry-level candidates with drive and grit are being overlooked, not because they lack the ability to do the job, but because they don't have the usual buzz words that recruiters look for on their "lackluster" résumés, as compared to their more accomplished peers with internships, higher GPAs, extracurricular activities, or leadership roles.

Other less-experienced people, those who've struggled with illness, gone through challenging life transitions, been unemployed or underemployed, failed in launching a business, or who have just been dealt a bad hand in the game of life, are passed over because of employment gaps, the perception of "job hopping," or too many "excuses."   

What hiring managers are missing is hiring for the future--hiring people who are not afraid to take initiative and do whatever it takes to learn and succeed. Sometimes the best candidate is not the flashy rock star with the bells and whistles but the one with the most potential. 

Another CEO, David Williams of Fishbowl, fully admits to hiring traditionally "unqualified" people. Out of 18 software product developers, he says "only two had ever had any serious programming experience before."

Williams writes in Forbes: "We look for someone eager and hungry to learn, which has generally been a good barometer of the individual's work ethic as well. In 30 minutes, I can judge a prospective hire with pretty much 99 percent accuracy."

One final anecdote from a top CEO that drives the point home.

Adam Bryant also interviewed another CEO with the same hiring philosophy--Bill Green, former head of consulting firm Accenture. He told Bryant this uplifting story:

"I was recruiting at Babson College. This was in 1991. The last recruit of the day--I get this résumé. I get the blue sheet attached to it, which is the form I'm supposed to fill out with all this stuff and his résumé attached to the top. His résumé is very light--no clubs, no sports, no nothing. Babson, 3.2. Studied finance. Work experience: Sam's Diner, references on request.

"It's the last one of the day, and I've seen all these people come through strutting their stuff and they've got their portfolios and semester studying abroad. Here comes this guy. He sits. His name is Sam, and I say: 'Sam, let me just ask you. What else were you doing while you were here?' He says: 'Well, Sam's Diner. That's our family business, and I leave on Friday after classes, and I go and work till closing. I work all day Saturday till closing, and then I work Sunday until I close, and then I drive back to Babson.' I wrote, 'Hire him,' on the blue sheet. He had character. He faced a set of challenges. He figured out how to do both."

In other words, he had an amazing work ethic that is hard to beat. Green adds, "You could see the guy had charted a path for himself to make it work with the situation he had. He didn't ask for any help. He wasn't victimized by the thing. He just said, 'That's my dad's business, and I work there.' Confident. Proud."

Published on: Jan 29, 2018