Over the years I've started six companies: five were profitable in their first year, with three of them becoming U.S. leaders in that same time span. From this experience, I've learned that the most important part of a company is not its technology, buildings, offices, or brand; rather, the most important element of any company is its people. How so? Because even though we live in a technical world, we also live in a human world. So when people are performing at their peak, your company can do amazing things.
In order to get the best people, it's vital that you hire based on attitude and talent. You can't train people on attitude or teach them a talent, but you can always educate and train to enhance specific skills and talents that will yield superior results.
The attitude of anyone you hire needs to be positive--that's a given. But attitude goes beyond that and also filters down to impact people's talents. For example, if you're hiring a software programmer, the talent that person should posses is very different than that of a marketing person. Therefore, you want to make sure the person has an exceptional talent for programming, not just a competency for it. Competency and talent are different things.
If someone has had the training that gives them a level of competency in something, you'll see references of the competency in their education and background, but their attitude toward the specific competency may seem somewhat bland or mechanical in an interview. However, when someone has more than a competency--when they also have a talent for the subject area--not only do you see evidence of the talent in their background, but you'll also see it in their attitude. They'll get excited when they talk about their area of competency and talent, they'll be more animated, and they'll cite examples from their personal life as well as their professional life to illustrate how they developed and use their talent on a daily basis.
For example, a few years ago I was wanting to hire someone to help me design cutting edge smart phone apps. I met with a young software engineer who was just finishing his degree but who had been programming websites for businesses since he was in junior high school. Whenever he talked about his talent and what I was looking for, his whole face lit up. He got excited, and his excitement made me excited. Although he didn't have his degree yet, his talent and attitude were very visible.
I ended up hiring him and he was an amazing employee!
Of course, whenever you are hiring people, every now and then, you will make a mistake. Over the years I have learned an important rule about mistakes and failure: Fail Fast!
When we do hire someone that does not work out, often we fail slowly. In other words, they were never performing like you expected them to, and in hindsight, you gave them way too many second chances. Even though your gut (and the facts in front of you) told you the new hire isn't going to work out, instead of firing them, you invested more time and money into training, trying to make it work. Of course, it almost never works.
Instead of dragging it out, which is not good for you or the employee, it's better to fail fast. Immediately look for a replacement, and let the person know he or she should start looking for another position. After all, you want them to fail fast too so they can move on to something that will work for them in the long run.
One final thought: When presented with two job candidates--one who graduated with straight As from Harvard but who has a poor attitude, or one who did well in a smaller school but displays a great attitude and is excited about applying their talents to your business--which would you choose? I'll hire for attitude and train for results anytime.