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Select Primarily For Basic Ability, Attitude And Cultural Fit

Professional service firms with a good record for taking on able people usually place a higher value on basic ability and attitude of mind than on specific technical skills. When people are selected for traineeships, most of the technical skills are provided subsequently through training, coaching and mentoring. When qualified and experienced professionals are hired for more senior posts, then, of course, technical competence is important. Nevertheless if some of the skills are not in evidence then it is possible to help people to acquire them. What is difficult, on the other hand, is to change people who do not have the right attitudes and values and who are unlikely to fit in with the firm’s culture. Professionals need to be very accomplished in dealing with clients and colleagues. They need to be almost obsessive about providing outstanding service. Ideally they should be good team players. They must have drive, initiative and organizing ability and the willingness to share and implement new ideas. Although these attributes can, to some extent, be developed they are to a large extent a function of people’s attitudes and character.

Three professional service firms that take this lesson to heart are business advisers PricewaterhouseCoopers, law firm DLA and advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. Ed Smith, UK Board Member at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, says:

We receive 20,000 applicants for 700 traineeships each year. Academic qualifications get people to the starting gate. We then sort people out on the basis of teamwork skills, use of initiative, confidence, willingness to take risks and evidence of some creativity and entrepreneurship. The latter quality is in relatively short supply among those attracted to the accountancy profession but extremely important to our sustainable growth.

Robert Halton, Human Resources Director at DLA, has this to say:

When we recruit new people we pay a lot of attention at the selection stage to whether or not candidates will fit into our culture. For example, as far as trainees are concerned a good degree gets people to the door. We then run assessment exercises and have interviews to check out behavioural competencies that reflect our cultural values. For example, we test teamworking attributes such as empathy, the ability to work well with other people and getting stuck into a joint effort. Another example is the extent to which they take initiatives. That tells us something about their drive to deliver good results. We also try to form a judgement about their potential ability to provide high-quality service to clients beyond technical competence. When we recruit qualified lawyers, of course, we pay attention to the candidates’ technical experience but again we place great emphasis on whether or not they will work well in our culture. The same goes for support staff recruitment. Although our human resource people manage the recruitment and selection process, the leaders of law teams make the final selections. They are all trained in selection techniques. We are a people business, and selecting good staff is a vital part of the leadership process in our view.

Tim Solomon, Managing Partner at the London office of Ogilvy & Mather, comments:

As you would expect in an advertising agency we look for people at all levels who are enterprising and have creative flair. We need people who are good at dreaming something up. It all starts with the letters of application. Those that stand out and appeal to us are in some ways novel. They are not full of corny gimmicks but are genuinely original.

During the selection process we get further data by saying to candidates for instance ‘You are going to open a new bar – tell us how it will be unique.’ Candidates are given some time to think about it and then respond. Above all we don’t want clones. Having said that, we don’t want people who are likely to be dissonant with our basic values either. These beliefs have stood the test of time and go back to the founder of the business, David Ogilvy. Although we are now part of a large international group, WPP, we still live by those values within Ogilvy & Mather itself. Among the more important are putting brands first; enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and inventive mavericks; encouraging candour, curiosity, originality, intellectual rigour and civility; having high professional standards; treating each other with kindness; prizing confidence and discouraging arrogance (a fine line); respect for the intelligence of our consumer audiences; judging ourselves as being successful only when brands have become more valuable; and finally an abhorrence of toadies, prima donnas and office politicians. We try, during the selection process, to assess how well candidates will fit into our culture just as much as testing their analytical, creative, communications and relationship abilities.