Hiring: Skills vs. Aptitude

Should you hire for what they know or what they can learn?


A friend recently sent me a resume which stretched on for four pages. I advised her to revise to a single, compelling page. Shockingly (to me), some of her other hiring manager-friends advised her to put the extra detail back.

This got me thinking about two very different approaches to team and company-building: skills-centric and aptitude-centric.

The aptitude-centric hiring manager (HM) doesn’t give a crap about what tools you’ve used, what technologies you’re expert at, etc. She assumes that your job will constantly push you outside the boundaries of what you already know, and cares about your ability to learn fast and to be a culture fit. This kind of manager cares about what you’ve accomplished and particularly values a track record of success in a variety of verticals or industries—as this is proof of your ability to adapt and succeed in new situations quickly. The aptitude-centric hiring manager looks for evidence that you are smart and driven—a strong academic pedigree counts, as does a track record of quick promotions in prior roles. “Certifications” are a red flag. This HM likes one-page resumes: candidates demonstrate thinking and communication skills through condensing themselves to a single, easily digestible page. You get the job if you are smart, high-judgment, a quick learner, and a strong culture fit—and have at least enough background experience or education that they won’t spend too long training you.

The skills-centric hiring manager wants to hire you into a job you already know how to do. So, he cares a lot about your specific skills. He doesn’t care if your resume is a few pages long, as he is happy to keyword search across pages to see whether you already know what he cares about. This kind of HM looks for an engineer who is a “Java developer” or a PM who already knows about managing agile projects or ISO something-or-other, or projects within a certain industry. He loves certifications because they prove your competence in a relevant domain. In hiring you for a role where you will do X, the skills-centric HM cares about whether you’ve already succeeded at X—often in a very concrete way. Skills-centric HMs like long resumes that list everything you know.

You will find aptitude-centric HMs in companies and for roles where innovation is a priority—where the company is pushing the state of the art and you’re expected to help move the ball forward, and where figuring out the definition of success is part of the challenge. You’ll be expected to work a lot and do whatever it takes to succeed.

Skills-centric HMs are often more operations-oriented, in more established or stabile environments.

The aptitude-centric HM prides himself on getting the best possible talent for his “impossible” mission. The skills-centric HM is proud of making a wide variety of personalities effective in his organization.

The issue is more about the nature of the role (and its challenges) than the personality of the HM. If you take a skills-based approach to hiring on an innovation team, you won’t get high performance. If you hire a bunch of innovators for an operational team, they’ll be disruptive, unhappy, and quit.

Sitting in the shoes of a hiring manager, you need to ask yourself: what kind of team do I really need to build? Is the challenge dynamic? Are you expecting your team to innovate and solve hitherto unsolved problems? Or are you expecting your team to “pound it out”—do you need someone to follow an established formula for success?

If you’re building an innovation team, you desperately need to focus on aptitude. If you are building a team that just needs to execute on an established formula but at larger scale, you may be best off with a skills-based approach to hiring.

As an executive, you need to ask what kind of company you are building? If you are building a growth-stage innovation company, you need to bias for aptitude in almost every role, from receptionist to chief scientist. Your organization is rapidly expanding and adapting, and you need high-aptitude people in every role who can establish the principles for their areas and quickly grow into the next challenge.

Thanks to @JasonCrawford for reviewing a draft of this post.