Hire for Attitude

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership


Attitude ~ Values:

In a recent speech to a group of business leaders, Peter Salvati, CEO of DPR Construction, said that he makes sure his team “Hires for attitude, trains for skills” And of course, he does the same when he is hiring or promoting his leadership team.

To my way of thinking, attitude is pretty close to the same thing as values when hiring people. What we are saying is, “Will they fit into our culture?” Moreover, as the graphic reminds us, everything—including culture — is based on values.


My experience is that generally, we get things backward. We hire for skills. It often begins right at the start-up stage when we are looking to take our company to the next level. We need that specialty skill: accounting, engineering, marketing, sales, etc. So we do what is easy and look for the right skills resume. We avoid the hard task of discovering a person’s values.

By taking the easy route, we often wind up with a haphazard group of values and then wonder why we don’t have a consistent culture. We wonder why we need to micromanage people and make all the important decisions

Culture Overpowers Everything

Here’s why I believe this is such an important concept. An organization’s culture is “how things get done around here.” That in turn, means how decisions are made.

Moreover, we all make decisions based on, or at least significantly influenced by, our values. Therefore, values determine the culture

That is also why I say that a CEO/Owner has only one job, and that’s to actively manage the corporate culture. Of course, it follows that the best time to begin is when the corporation is young and relatively small. Imagine the task that the Wells Fargo leadership team has to change the culture in that organization. It’s much better to clearly define the core values of the organization and then hire employees that will affirm and promote those values. I can always train for skills; it is very difficult at best to try and change a person’s closely held values.

History Proves the Point

At least once a year, one of the company leaders with whom I work will tell a version of the same story. They tell me that either they finally let a toxic top performer go because that person was so disruptive, or a top performer left, and there wasn’t a huge negative effect. In both cases, almost everyone left in the organization cheered. They often asked, “What took you so long?”

That’s a good question; “What took so long?” It is almost always obvious that the offending person was toxic to the culture. They did not share the same values. They didn’t fit in. Their employees, peers and sometimes customers tried their best to avoid them.

When working this issue through, it almost always boils down to:

  • I didn’t want to be wrong about hiring that person
  • I didn’t think we could do without that person’s skill
  • I figured they’d change and get on board
  • I figured the team could deal with it


The first thing we have to do is evaluate our organization’s true core values. They aren’t usually the ones on the cafeteria walls, or the website, or the coffee mugs. They might be if you were very deliberate from the beginning. However, they usually aren’t those “words or phrases” we advertise. How does your organization make decisions? Reverse engineer those decisions. What values must you have had to make them?

Once you “know” your real core values, do the hard work of finding the right questions to ask prospective employees to determine if they share your values. Hire to values (or attitude if you prefer) and train for skills.

Then, be slow to hire and quick to fire. Do not let toxic employees stay one nanosecond longer than it takes to properly evaluate your perception of their performance. Once you are sure you or the environment has not caused the problem with this employee, then let them go. As Peter Drucker said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."