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What Does Your Wanted Poster Say?

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As Ernest Shackleton prepared for his Antarctic expedition he had to find men (sorry ladies, he was looking for men only) for the journey.  His advertisement said: 

Men Wanted For Hazardous Journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

This, the most famous newspaper advertisement ever penned, placed its original author, Sir Ernest Shackleton, in the position of having to select the crew from among the 5,000 men the ad brought to his office. His mission was historic and dangerous. He was clear about what type of people he needed for his journey and he was straight about it – no sugar coating things.

At our firm, we started to realize after bringing in several newer consultants that we hadn’t done as good a job as we could about setting expectations about the reality of our business.  We got to thinking that we needed to be really clear about what our work is and what our work isn’t. Using Shakelton’s advertisement as inspiration, we created our own Wanted Poster. It says:

Wanted: for uncertain journey. Lots of ambiguity, Tough clients, little direction, winding roads (some with dead ends), unclear destination. Happy Life and Rewarding Career in Case of Success. 

Wanted:  Vitality, Humor Social Intelligence and Persistence. 

Early in my career I remember reading a compelling article entitled Hire For Attitude Train For Skill. I’ve never forgotten it. I often quote it and it has certainly been my personal mantra when looking for great candidates. Last year I read an equally compelling article in the New York Times titled: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? The article referenced a hefty academic study about character traits and how they are huge predictors of individual success. The study identified 24 traits identified across cultures, time, etc. that tend to be predictive of individual success. This was a refreshing spin on the age-old question of what makes someone successful.  At our company we decided to retool our recruiting and interview approach; we designed a new approach and took it for a test drive. 

As a company, we rank-ordered what we thought were the top seven character traits that we felt were most important for our consultants to have. Not surprisingly, curiosity was number one (every single person identified this) tied with creativity and integrity.  What was less obvious was our teams’ ranking of vitality, humor, persistence and social intelligence as also being at the top of the list. Our Wanted Poster in hand, we asked: if these are the success traits we are looking for in our candidates how do we screen for these characteristics? This is where things got interesting.

Using the top traits, we created an interview jar (a jar filled with an assortment of questions we ask the candidate to pull from) and designed interview questions to surface examples of how candidates embodied each of the top seven character traits.  And to help the candidate gain a sense of who we really are, the interviewers also participate in answering a question or two from the Interview Jar.  This approach creates a deeper and more compelling conversation that helps assess overall fit: candidate for our firm and our firm for the candidate.

Our bottom line belief is smart people with the right attitude can learn what they need to learn. Character is undoubtedly built over time, woven from the threads that make up our life’s experience. I’d rather hire someone and train them in project management or facilitation. That is a heck of a lot easier than sending someone to a week-long class to develop a sense of humor or vitality.

Did your agency make the cut on 8 Federal Agencies Most Attractive to New Grads? If not, what are you going to do about it? What does your wanted poster need to say to attract the folks you need? What are the character traits that you need your people to embody to meet your agency’s mission? 

Don’t have a wanted poster, maybe it’s time you created one. The key: don’t sugar coat things.  Be real, like Shackleton was. While you may not end up with 5K applicants (you are thinking lord I hope not!), the ones you do attract may be really ready to roll up their sleeves, get the job done and stick around for a while.

If you’d like a list of the Top 24 Character Traits, email sagan@corneralliance.com. I’ll send you the list we used to rank our top seven.

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Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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