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How picking attitude over aptitude saw me hire someone at a petrol station

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I honestly can’t remember the last time I looked at the CV of someone as part of an interview process at Moneypenny. If my 20 plus years’ of experience as an employer has taught me anything, it’s that you’ll never get a real sense of a person, or their capabilities in a workplace, from looking at a piece of paper. CVs are an early filter of applicants but after round one, they’re in the bin.

I’m not alone in thinking this either. I’ve noticed an increasing number of people in business also turn their backs on hard skills to focus on the important stuff. Recently, EY said it was dropping its degree classification for its graduate scheme in favour of entrance exams, levelling the playing field for freshly graduated hopefuls and ensuring no talent slips through the net. If one of the largest employers of graduates in the UK sees the benefit on focusing on what it wants, then surely it must be a worthwhile exercise. 

Ritz Carlton also has its own tried-and-tested selection method. Close attention is paid to soft skills important to the hotel chain: communication skills, body language and attire, during a stealthy two week interview process. Many won’t make the cut, but this approach pays off with a low turnover of staff which reflects the culture of the brand.

Whilst we ask potential Moneypenny employees to undertake skills testing, the thing that really ticks our boxes is the right attitude. For us, this is a naturally cheerful, friendly, can-do attitude – and it’s undoubtedly been one of the keys to our success. We place such a focus on this, in fact, that one of the main attributes we look for when hiring any employee is an innate ability to develop relationships, along with excellent problem solving skills. Anything else is simply a bonus.

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Distilling our “perfect employee” formula didn’t happen overnight though, and mistakes were made along the way. Our first screw-up was hiring someone who blew us away in their interview, but came across as rude and abrupt on the phone, which obviously didn’t work. For us it was a shock. 

At that point we hadn’t considered assessing telephone manner, but it was a light bulb moment. We now call all of our applicants out of the blue to check their demeanour on the phone. Some are clear and chatty for example, while others sound like they are just making an appointment. We know what works for us.

Once we started calling candidates, we knew we’d cracked it. We look for great communicators. We can tell someone what to say, but we have to rely on them to know how to say it. If a person isn’t a natural communicator, they will never become a great communicator. These skills can’t be taught, so we won’t waste our time – or theirs – by attempting to change this. 

We also apply this theory on a senior level. We’ve hired people for senior positions who were the stereotypical manager, but they lacked creativity. In hindsight, the manager’s MBA “how to” guide on the bookshelf was a dead giveaway. We have a gung-ho team to which over the years we have added free-thinkers. A disruptive attitude can be very healthy to the business. The best ideas are born this way.

It’s also one of the reasons we don’t use recruitment companies when hiring our PAs. We have 450 employees who we’ve turned into 450 headhunters – they know what we need more than a recruiter ever could. It is a self-perpetuating recruitment strategy which has proved incredibly successful and we seldom ever advertise.

This means that our next recruits could come from anywhere. I recently found myself in a petrol station late one evening, for instance, and I was greeted with an unbelievably welcoming “Hi, how are you?” There was no reason for her to greet me that way. She wasn’t trained to do that, but it was in her DNA and I felt valued yet obliged to give her an engaging response. 

She was perfect and exactly the sort of person we look for. Luckily for us she is now one of our fantastic PAs and shares our key ingredients of a perfect employee; a willingness to learn, an ability to keep calm under fire, a glass-half-full outlook, and above all, a smile – it really, really matters.

And if I could impart any piece of wisdom I have leant from being an employer, it’s that once you have found employees with the right assets for your business, never let them lose sight of what these assets are and always remind them of why they are valued.

Ed Reeves is the co-founder and director of answering service and outsourced switchboard provider Moneypenny.

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