Every job, whether it’s programming, accounting, or analytics, requires skills. Skills are learned, based in knowledge, and can be easily measured. If an employer wants to know about programming skills, they can give the candidate a programming problem to solve and see how quickly you solve it and the degree of accuracy of your solution.

Traits (also called qualities, aptitudes, characteristics, etc.) seem to be innate rather than learned, though they may enhance the ability to learn – if a candidate doesn’t have an aptitude for math, they can still learn math, but someone who has that aptitude will learn it faster and more easily. Trait Psychologists believe that traits are aspects of personality that are stable over time and make up the uniqueness of an individual.

In recruiting, you can set a requisite skill level as measured by tests or previous job performance, and thereby level the playing field as to skills, but what do skills tell you? Skills tell you how a leader will perform under normal or ideal conditions. Traits provide a window into how an executive will operate under pressure, with limited resources, as a member of a team, or as a leader.

Forged in Fire is on the History Channel. On that program three experienced bladesmiths have to forge a certain blade in a very short time, and their blades are then tested for strength, cutting power, etc. They are given only specifications for the blade and raw materials. All these bladesmiths are pretty equal in skill – it would be far too dangerous to bring in amateurs under these conditions. Invariably, the success of the competition (for a $10,000 prize) depends on traits like resourcefulness, creativity, and resilience, often with a good dose of humor.

Recruiting for accounting, data, technology, and ecommerce executives requires similar trait discernment. Almost everyone who comes through the door will have comparable skills. So what are the traits that distinguish an acceptable hire from an extraordinary hire? A recent Board member reported their preference for these traits – leadership, equanimity, inclusion, and compassion:

  • Leadership: the ability to infuse a job or a task with purpose and meaning for the person who is going to execute on it.
  • Equanimity: A level head – grace under pressure.
  • Inclusion: Open to thinking and ideas no matter where they come from, without bias.
  • Compassion: Treating people as they wish to be treated.

The Board member further expressed screening requirements for the opposite traits (micro-management, volatility, elitism, and harshness).  There are many right answers regarding positive and negative trait pairs.

In recruiting executives, particularly at high levels of an organization, look for the traits you want and screen for those are problematic – if someone has all the skills and accomplishments in the world but lacks the traits your organization needs or has too many that are undesirable, trust yourself to move to the next candidate.



BrainWorks is a prominent boutique executive search firm offering a 29-year track record of successfully sourcing and placing top talent. By harnessing proven strategies, collaborating with stakeholders, and leveraging a diverse and talented candidate network, BrainWorks helps businesses find, attract, and ultimately hire talented professionals that create differentiated results. To learn more about how Brainworks can help you, contact us.

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