Why Resumes Are Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Impressive credentials are nice. But character and values are the qualities that matter most when making a hire.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer

(Business 2.0) – Many companies use flawed techniques to find, screen, and hire executive talent. The problem begins with the emphasis placed on resumes; it just doesn't make sense to base a hiring decision on a few sheets of paper that tick off past experience. Even ignoring the fact that candidates routinely exaggerate (or worse) when they describe their accomplishments, a resume is merely a summary of positions held and degrees attained. It says almost nothing about the traits that matter most when it comes to predicting candidates' workplace effectiveness--how they behave, the values they hold dear, and what it's like to actually work with them side by side, day after day.

That kind of information is hard to come by in our litigious society, where labor attorneys counsel employers to confirm only functional information about a former employee, such as formal title, dates of employment, and possibly salary. Compounding the problem, many follow-up interviews also miss the mark: We form opinions based on first impressions, respond to candidates on the basis of interpersonal similarity, and squander interview time reviewing the resume instead of probing to learn what a person is really like.

A few years ago, I served on the board of a small software company that wanted to hire a new CEO. We did what most companies do: We scrutinized resumes to see who would best fit the job. We were particularly impressed by one candidate's credentials--MBA from a top school and a senior position at a similar company--so our interviews focused mostly on recruiting him. Trouble is, interviewing well is a talent based on quick responses and smooth talk, but those aren't the skills one needs to manage people and technology. Ultimately, we got exactly what we hired--smart talk and great presentations--but sales stagnated and employee morale declined.

Focusing on credentials can be misleading. Sometimes it can exaggerate a candidate's abilities. Remember the Peter Principle? (That's the idea that people get promoted to their level of incompetence.) In other cases, resumes can overlook valuable traits that transcend formal training. You wouldn't find much academic experience on the resumes of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, for example--both are college dropouts. At the other extreme, one might assume that an entrepreneur from Stanford's computer science Ph.D. program would concentrate on the technical dimensions of business. But when I had lunch with Google co-founder Larry Page a few years ago, he was obsessed with the company's organizational culture--a "touchy-feely" concern that he views as key to its continued success. And indeed, Google's fast-moving and wildly creative workplace environment remains a significant source of the company's competitive advantage.

The U.S. Army has an interesting perspective on leadership development, which is nicely captured in its slogan "Be, Know, Do." Obviously, it's important to have technical skills (knowing) and the ability to execute (doing). But basic values--being--come first. The military recognizes that character is essential to a leader's nature, not something acquired by taking a class or holding a particular job title. In the post-Enron, post-Tyco, post-WorldCom era, that's a lesson that American corporations should have learned by now. So how do the smartest companies find out what lies beneath the resume?

Firms such as Southwest Airlines emphasize behavioral interviewing, asking people not so much about accomplishments but how they might react to hypothetical situations, how they spend their free time, and how they embody core values. Some companies actively match individual values to corporate culture by having job candidates fill out a survey to see if their responses match those of company leaders--a strategy that's been shown to accurately predict corporate effectiveness. After all, talking yourself into a top job isn't really all that difficult. But commanding respect and leading successfully are skills that are almost impossible to fake.