A couple of days ago I re-read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 1.
About 3/4ths of the way through the book, I came upon a passage where Gladwell talks about the role summer vacation plays in creating academic separation between socioeconomic classes of people.
Take a look at this data set. 2. Credit for the statistics go to John Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander.2 From 1st through 5th grade, the data shows the scores of 650 Baltimore public school students on a major reading and math skills exam (The California Achievement Test).
Now observe how the initially small gap between the low and high socioeconomic status children continues to grow – from about 9% to nearly 14% within 5 years.
Finally, observe the statistics I found the most interesting.
First, let’s look at each group’s academic gains during the school year:
As you can see, the lower socioeconomic status children don’t trail the high socioeconomic status children (they actually lead), and they keep pace with the middle-class children in three of five years. But let’s look at the last data set:
Score Changes During Summer Vacation:
Where the high socioeconomic children got ahead (and the low/middle socioeconomic status children fell behind) was during the summers.
Again, credit to Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Alexander for the statistics and study here. What’s important to note, though, is that the academic gap between the students grows exponentially (in both raw numbers and percentage) mostly as a product of gains made during the summertime.
This is a time when the wealthier children had structured activities built into their day to day lives (that allowed them to continue learning and developing) 3. I know that many of you are thinking “sample size/other independent variables etc.”, but to these criticisms, I say “read the book”. Gladwell makes a compelling (empirically backed) case for the role of continued education during the summertime (or lack thereof) having an effect on academic performance.while the poorer and middle-class children saw their skills atrophy in the absence of any real structure.
This brings me to the inherent value of asking a candidate during an interview: “What do you do for fun?”
What a candidate does for fun (over the weekends and after work hours during weekdays) can yield considerable insight into their long term growth trajectory.
Studies show that 33% of high school students and 42% of college graduates will never read another book after they graduate. What this tells me is that much of the population stops investing in a major source of learning and development once they leave the structured/regimented environment of the classroom.
A senior consultant at a big three management consultancy firm 4 once said to me “Never stop learning – if you stop learning you become obsolete and you get replaced.”
To be fair… the nature of most work is such that this is not the case. As cited above, a sizable portion of the population doesn’t continue to actively develop themselves once they complete their formal education, and this results in most jobs having a rather low water level… making someone that takes an active role in their continued development relatively unique in the marketplace.
As such, give me an unpolished candidate that is committed to continuous (lifelong) learning over a more experienced candidate that views him or herself as a finished product any day of the week.
If I’m interviewing you I want to know what you do for fun in your downtime – it tells me a lot about the type of employee you’re going to be.
Having conducted hundreds of interviews, I’ve developed a tendency over time to place heavy emphasis on candidate temperament and demonstrated work ethic (over skillset).
A candidate needs to have certain skills on their resume to be considered for an interview, to begin with, but once the interview starts then a candidate’s poise, how they handle adversity in the workplace, and their demonstrated willingness to take on meaningful challenges plays a far larger role in shaping my ultimate impression of them than any particular technical knowledge they may possess.
After all, an interview is a snapshot of a candidate’s work (and life) experience, and the way they describe those experiences (and present themselves) often says a great deal more about what they bring to the table than their resume does. If it didn’t why wouldn’t we just have candidates with the right resume experiences take a technical knowledge exam and hire the highest scoring? For me, treating an interview like such a test misses the mark on what an interview is designed to capture.
That isn’t to say skill and experience aren’t important (on the contrary, it’s the most critical component of many roles). But I fundamentally believe that non-technical, “soft skill” attributes are a critical piece to consider in the hiring process.
Once you get beyond “table stakes” skills (minimum requirements to do a job effectively), much of the rest can be taught if the candidate has the right mindset and is a cultural fit for the organization. Give an intelligent, hard-working self-starter who brings the right attitude to work the tools to succeed, and given enough time he/she will.
Of course, this brings up the larger issue of making sure as interviewers/recruiters we don’t become so wowed by a candidate with a winning personality that we ignore red flags in their background. If one has an opening for a chemical engineer, one probably wants to hire a candidate with a background in chemical engineering. No matter how charismatic and determined to succeed a candidate is, sometimes if he/she has no applicable experience (or not enough) it may be a good idea to pass. If a position has an incredibly steep learning curve, bringing in an inexperienced hire is setting them up for failure.
Ultimately, as HR professionals we need to weigh the requirements of a job and the associated learning curve against any soft skills/non-tangible attributes that a seemingly winning (albeit inexperienced) candidate may possess. This is as much art as it is science, and is something many HR professionals hone over years interviewing for a myriad of different positions.