Check the Foundation First

Hiring people is like selecting a material for an application.  Changeable properties like skills and knowledge matter, but intrinsic traits like Intelligence and Integrity are a person’s foundation.


After getting my first Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University I was hired by a plastics resin distributor, M.A. Hanna (now PolyOne).  One training session dealt with material properties.  Some properties commonly considered for an application were the material strength and impact resistance, the modulus (stiffness), the melting temperature, chemical resistance, etc.  Some properties can be affected by the design, and some cannot.  For example, the stiffness of a part can be improved by features like ribs or gussets.  The strength and impact resistance of a part can also be affected by the design.

But other things are not affected – or at least not significantly – by the design.  A plastic part splashed with a chemical it is susceptible to will be ruined, regardless of the design.  For example, while working as a Quality Inspector I heard about someone in another department who cleaned a polycarbonate dome for a targeting system using the nearest cleaning agent at hand.  Acetone.

Oops.  That dome instantaneously became riddled with stress cracks like overlapping spider webs.  The design didn’t matter.  The chemical was not compatible with the intrinsic inability of the material to resist it.

Potential employees are like plastics.  They have intrinsic properties, and properties that can be changed or improved.  A recent article on LinkedIn by Gary Swart discusses this: The Only 4 Dimensions That Matter In Hiring (& Why You’re Probably Evaluating Them Wrong).   The author identifies four categories in assessing a person for a job: 1) Personal Characteristics, 2) Motivation, 3) Skills, and 4) Knowledge.  (His follow-on article, included here for completeness, isn’t so helpful IMHO.)  Let me note one particular sentence Swart wrote before I sweep on to the main point of my essay:

“In my experience, placing too much emphasis on knowledge (at the expense of the other three dimensions) causes the majority of hiring mistakes.” 

How many times have creative, intelligent, skilled, and motivated people been rejected because they lacked one or two pieces of specific knowledge that a capable person could easily pick up?  (And there are many advantages to hiring people from outside the industry, as I wrote about recently in the New Hampshire Business Review.)

But the central point of his essay is that some characteristics of potential employees are fundamental to their nature.  He lists several traits, contending these are the things least-often examined during hiring: Integrity, Intelligence, Judgment, Passion, Strong Communicator, Initiative, and Energy.  Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff – I believe that the only truly intrinsic properties from that list are Integrity and Intelligence.

Judgment develops over time.  Passion, initiative, and energy can all be affected by the nature of the work, the culture, good leadership and inspiration, etc.  Communications skills can be developed: writing practice and feedback improved my skills enormously; similarly, people can improve their conversational skills.  Toastmasters International is a great venue for learning better public speaking, and I learned a lot from an Active Listening class.  With non-verbal communication being so important, people can study body language.

But – ah! – Integrity and Intelligence.  Those are intrinsic.  A person either has them or they don’t.

Even a person without a strong sense of integrity can fake it… for a while.  But when push comes to shove, doing the right thing can often yield to the demands of the moment.  People with real integrity hold the line even if it puts them at risk.  For example: At one point in Ford Motor Company I changing plants and products; I was handed a project and assured that everything was done but the paperwork.

But in fact there was a safety issue emerging as I accepted the hand-over; a wire harness uncontrolled by us and next to our product changed; it now incorporated airbag actuation wiring.  Ford has a rule: no “pinch points” on a harness with safety circuitry; our project created one.  I was told, by someone pushing this project with an annual cost savings of over $400K, to ship pieces for evaluation anyway – and I was told that they’d be sold.  I refused, saying that I would not contribute to even one vehicle that violated a known safety rule going out on the road.  This went up the food chain; this was big money.  People didn’t like my putting the brakes on.

Remember, I had just transferred in; I had no history, no credibility.  But I was right, and my boss – to his credit – backed me up.  We did everything we could think of, but it couldn’t be made to work.  At the end, we showed our best iteration to the Ford program manager.  He took a look for 30 seconds and said “Kill it.”  Again, to his and Ford’s credit.

I killed a huge cost savings project and won no friends.  But it was the right thing to do.

Intelligence is also intrinsic.  You are as bright as you are.  Layered on this are your knowledge, judgment, and wisdom, but Intelligence is their foundation.  To develop a large set of knowledge, good judgment, and eventually wisdom, one must have the native intelligence available.

How to measure it?  IQ tests are certainly one metric.  I would argue another metric is mental agility and the ability to jump subjects adroitly – though, again, this is not measurable.  A vivid imagination, I believe, also indicates high intelligence – as outlined interestingly in the sci-fi novel Sphere by Michael Chrichton. But ultimately, you know it when you see it as you speak with someone at length.

Does this mean that you’d hire someone without the person also having other characteristics described – knowledge, skills, etc.?  Of course not.

But it does suggest that people need to emphasize the intrinsic properties of people as they consider filling positions.  As Swart stated, and as I have opined multiple times starting with my essay on Ask The Headhunter, people can and are eager to learn new skills knowledge – if the foundation of Intelligence is there.

And a person of Integrity, one who does right even when there might be consequences?  Priceless.  Look for stories during conversations; behavioral interviews can include an ethical component.  Given the new trend in social media investigations of candidates, looking at people with whom they associate can also give indications of their character (though it’s also a little creepy).  Not for nothing did George Washington say:

Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.

Ultimately, though – trust your gut.  We all make instantaneous judgments about others when we meet – as I blogged about here – and that instinctive reaction is often spot-on.

Integrity.  Intelligence.  Check the foundation first.  Then worry about what’s built on it, and what knowledge and skill tweaks might be needed on a candidate who has 15 of your 17 requirements.


© 2013, David Hunt, PE

9 thoughts on “Check the Foundation First

  1. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Too many hiring managers and HR people only look at skills and not things like ability and integrity. I can learn a new skill very quickly. I can’t learn the ability to learn that skill or how to be more honest.

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