What Should You Seek in a New Hire?

“Hire character. Train skill.”

That directive was made popular by Peter Schutz, the former CEO of Porsche whose book, The Driving Force: Getting Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People, was a bestseller.

Schutz applied this principle at several Fortune 500 firms along his career path, but would the same idea apply to hires that a painting contractor might make? This article will take a closer look at the question and cite some contractors and other personnel experts who can help shape your hiring practices.

Painting is trainable
Let’s start with a basic premise that experienced painters and employees are more likely to perform efficient and high-quality work, resulting in happier customers and more profitable projects. So when you are faced with a hiring decision, the answer — hire the most experienced, skilled applicant available — is easy, right?

Well, only if that applicant exhibits the character, attitude and personal qualities that fit your company culture, according to hiring specialists. Multiple studies have shown that skills can be taught and transferred, but changing character is a near impossible task. Schutz’s work cited one study that showed people who were dismissed from jobs across multiple industries were dismissed for reasons associated with character 89 percent of the time, while just 11 percent of dismissals were skill-related.

While there’s a world of nuance and skill sets that separate a competent, quality painter from a novice, keep in mind that all of it is teachable. And many training opportunities are available, such as this series of skill-specific instructional videos from Sherwin-Williams, or formal training opportunities such as apprenticeship available through PCA. This program provides a clear, standardized and approachable training program that contractors can use to develop staff and personnel at no cost.

Character sets them apart
For contractors such as Jason Phillips with Phillips Home Improvements in Plano, TX, skills matter, but it’s the character of his team that he relies on practically every day.

“Our team, all of my leaders here contribute to this culture of teamwork,” he says. “We use the term ‘drink the Kool Aid.’ And if you don’t drink the Kool Aid around here, you don’t fit in, and it becomes obvious very quickly.

“We want team members that are all in. Because when we’re all in, we can do so much more. It’s about building a culture, and really taking care of one another. So we took the word team and paired it with the word family, and came up with ‘teamily.’ I always have to explain it, but internally, everybody knows who the ‘teamily’ is. It’s that culture of when we work together, when we care about each other, we thrive together.”

Phillips notes that having high-character people was particularly valuable in times of crisis, such as that we all recently experienced with COVID.

“The way they responded was amazing,” he says. “I went to them and said, ‘Hey, I’m drinking your Kool Aid right now.’”

Aideline Amarán of Amaran Group in Miami, Fla., reports that having high-character people helped her deal with a COVID-driven slowdown when her team had to shift gears from strictly painting to repairs and other projects that kept revenue flowing.

“My team was like, ‘We’re here, whatever you need. We’re painters, but we’ll do whatever it takes,’” she says. “I’m very proud of them and all the support I get from my team.”

Key interview questions to use
So how do you ensure your hiring practices will result in high-character hires? Business consultant and author Anthony Tjan suggests a few interview questions that could be revealing.

  • What trait from your parents would you want to ensure you and your kids have for the rest of your life? The goal here is to generate a thoughtful, unrehearsed response and illuminate what the candidate values most.
  • What is 25 times 25? You’re not hiring a calculator, but the goal here is to see how a candidate responds to a challenging or awkward situation.
  • Tell me about three people whose lives you have positively changed. What would they say if I called them tomorrow? Organizations need people who can lift each other up, according to Tjan. The answer to this question can help demonstrate a candidate’s ability to do so.
  • Can I imagine taking this person home with me for the holidays? This question is one for the interviewer, says Tjan. And it’s not necessarily a literal yes or no that you’re looking for, but rather a gut reaction to the time you just spent meeting the candidate.
  • How did the candidate interact with you? Here’s a question for your receptionist, or other personnel the candidate may have interacted with before or after your interview. The manner in which people treat strangers can reveal facets of character that could be particularly important in the painting business, where positive human interaction is a must.

Great hires build a strong team
For Dave Scaturro of Alpine Painting in Patterson, N.J, high-character hires have paid great dividends, and he expects those returns to continue.

“Surround yourself with really great people,” he says. “From your office staff to your field craftsman, make sure you’re hiring the right people with the right attitude and the right work ethic. Those people are going to advance you tenfold.”