What to Look for (Besides Skills) When Hiring

You don’t necessarily need people who have experience in your trade, but you do need people who have a positive attitude and willingness to learn.

Danielle Riha
January 28, 2022

We’ve said it before that you should hire for potential, not experience. The reasons why are plentiful—not the least of which include company loyalty, leadership growth, and innovation through a fresh perspective.

But while it sounds good and feels good to say you’ll hire for potential, what does that actually look like in practice? To answer that question, we pitched it to top industry experts and asked for their best practices and advice when it comes to hiring for potential. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Determine culture fit by asking about their personality, attitude and core values.

Scott Molchan, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Million Dollar Landscaper)

Individual personalities and how they fit into the company culture is more important than ever. Why? We've noticed that employees like to feel that they are not only part of a team, but that they are also a part of something important. If their personal values and work ethic match with that of the company culture, it makes everything from training and retaining that employee easier and more sustainable.

Randy Goruk, Construction Industry Consultant (Leaders Edge 360)

Employers should always look for a cultural fit when hiring new employees. If there is mis-alignment with culture or values between a new hire and an employer, challenges of retention, morale and team chemistry surface.

Bart Gragg, Construction Industry Consultant (Blue Collar University)

Employers should look for cultural fit. If you think about being a member of a club, you can see the difference between just being a member of the club and belonging to the club. So, will the prospective employee belong? Or will they just be a member?

Tammy Vasquez, HVAC Industry Consultant (Business Development Resources, Inc.)

Does the candidate have the same energy and pace as current team members? Ask about the individual’s values and try to understand if they match the company’s values. Spend time understanding where that candidate spends their time—what books or podcasts do they listen to, community service, family, sports etc.

Gloria Strauthers, Cleaning Industry Consultant (Exodus Management and Consulting)

The common denominator between an employee and an employer is core values. When you seek to add to your organization, you should hire with commonalities in core values at the forefront rather than skills. Why? Job skills can always be acquired through experiential processes. Core values create a mechanism for consistent decision-making. Individuals who share the same core values use the same principles when arriving at decisions. The outcome minimizes conflict and a balanced approach to offering solutions that increase productivity.

Ruth King, HVAC Industry Consultant (Profitability Movement)

Good attitudes and work ethics are more important than skills. Without these, even the most skilled potential employee won’t be an asset to your company. Skills can be trained. Attitudes and work ethics cannot be trained.


Bahaa Moukadam, Business Coach (SeeMetrics Partners)

While it is becoming a common mantra to hire for cultural fit, employers must be careful not to eliminate excellent candidates from consideration because their style may be different from what is common within the organization. You need a few rebels that question the status quo and seek new ways to do things. Innovators tend to have a different way of thinking and communicating from the average employee. They may rub people the wrong way, but this should not be a reason to not hire them if they have a solid track record and the right attitude and skill set to shake things up a bit. Yes, cultural fit is important, but be careful not to confuse style with cultural fit.

2. Assess interest and willingness to learn new things.

Neal Glatt, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Grow the Bench)

Skills are far less important than coachability and longevity. Hard skills quickly become outdated with innovation, but the ability to learn quickly will always be in demand. I believe it takes at least a year to build a solid enough relationship to produce effectively, so hiring someone who will stick around long enough to see a positive ROI is critical.

Kelly Dowell, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Keldo Digital)

I think what’s most telling is the things that aren’t said. As a proxy for eagerness to learn, pay attention to what they’re doing before the interview. Are they playing on their phone, or are they reading the plaques and awards on your wall, or maybe flipping through green industry magazines in your lobby? To get a sense of their time management skills, did they show up early, are they on time, or are they late? If you tell them this will be a 15-20 minute interview, do they keep their answers short, or do they talk your ear off for an hour? And, strangely enough, if you can get a peek inside their vehicle to see how tidy or unorganized it is, that will give you a sense of how they’re going to treat your equipment, and how they operate in general.

Joe Policastro, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Cycle CPA)

Candidates with specific experience may be hard to come by, instead look for people with good character and a good attitude. Look for people that want to, and are able to be trained.

Jeffrey Scott, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Jeffrey Scott Consulting, Inc.)

Employers should look for people that take initiative and who can work independently. Also look for people who are hungry to learn more and improve themselves.

3. Be less concerned with specific accomplishments and more interested in the process that led to the accomplishments.

Mike Raymer, Staffing, Recruiting and Retention Consultant (Gray Wolf Strategies)

Aptitude is something that seems to often get overlooked in my opinion. When I evaluate candidates, I’m not only looking to hear how much experience they have, but more specifically, to learn what led them through that experience. I like to hear the story of when everything clicked. For example, when did they have the eureka moment when overcoming a challenge on the job? I typically ask questions like “tell me about a time when you were struggling with a particular task or tell me what the problem was, if you overcame it and what resources you leveraged to reach success?

Bahaa Moukadam, Business Coach (SeeMetrics Partners)

When looking for talent, employers must closely examine the career history of each candidate to understand progression throughout their career.  Interviewers should have deep conversations about each position the candidate held to explore what they were hired to do; what they accomplished in specific and measurable results; how they influenced people they worked with; how they were perceived by their peers, direct reports, and managers; and why they left each position. These conversations will provide a deep insight into the candidate’s skills, values, affinity for collaboration, energy and drive.

Tammy Vasquez, HVAC Industry Consultant (Business Development Resources, Inc.)

Be open to talking to candidates from outside your industry, where skills or previous work experience are transferable. Look for previous experiences that demonstrate the use of their skills to deliver a client experience that aligns with your company’s values.

4. Attempt to understand why they’re in your industry (or why they want to join it) and what about your company is appealing to them.

Mike Raymer, Staffing, Recruiting and Retention Consultant (Gray Wolf Strategies)

When evaluating new candidates, it is important to discover if a candidate has a genuine interest in what they do. It is also important to learn what motivates their desire for it.

Let's first examine interest. I’m not only referring to the interest the candidate has in the job requirement, but also their interest in the field they specialize in. This question will allow you to gain a deeper insight into why they are really here. I believe understanding why a person has interest in a particular career area will allow me to vet out apathetic individuals who are only seeking their next job vs someone who is seeking their next career move.

You should also attempt to learn about a candidate's desire. Questions about why a person wants to work in a particular field is vital for understanding how far and how hard a person will push when faced with adversity on the job. I particularly look to onboard candidates that desire high levels of success. Never underestimate the candidate that has big dreams, especially if those dreams align with your company’s culture.

Randy Goruk, Construction Industry Consultant (Leaders Edge 360)

Employers should consider if the new hire has long-term potential. Leaders with a plan to profitably grow the business, should also have a plan of identifying and intentionally growing capable people.

David Krysh, Landscaping Industry Consultant (Bruce Wilson & Company)

A willingness to learn new things and wear different hats in the organization. Be honest about the nature of the work with the candidate, especially if and when they might be expected to deviate from their normal responsibilities. Try to talk them out of the position to see how committed they are to the role and the company; don’t wait until they’re on the job for three months to hear, “I didn’t think was what we were going to be doing.”

Ernie Coutermarsh, Distribution Industry Consultant (EC Consulting)

Be picky and don't hire just anyone. Make sure that the candidates know what it means to be a part of the company - that it’s not just a job. The only way you can grow is to bring people into the organization that want to grow with you and share some of that responsibility and accountability and derive the satisfaction that comes from achievement.

Jack Jostes, host of The Landscaper’s Guide Podcast and CEO of Ramblin Jackson, summarized the points above by advising that instead of just skills and specific relevant experience, employers should look for:

  • Attitude: Does the applicant demonstrate a positive attitude about work? About their personal life? Do they seem receptive to coaching and training?
  • Past success: Does the applicant have prior success in learning a new skill? Were they promoted in a previous position? Did they crush the 75 Hard Challenge or a marathon? People with prior success are likely to be successful in the future.
  • Preparation: Did the applicant read anything about your company before the interview? I always ask: “what do you know about me?” A prepared applicant will have read reviews of our company, read employee reviews, and have a solid understanding of our company based on the information they can find online. An unprepared applicant will treat me like interview #1278 and not have a sense of preparedness.
  • Willingness to learn: Does the applicant demonstrate a willingness to learn new skills? I often ask: “Tell me something new you’ve learned in the last six months.” A learner has likely taken up a new hobby or has done something to learn something new. This is key.

You don’t necessarily need people who have prior experience in your trade, but Jack points out that “You do need people who have a positive attitude, past success, are prepared for the interview, and are willing to learn from you and your team.”

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