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It Doesn't Matter What Grades You Got or What School You Went To

In this series, professionals share their hiring secrets. Read the stories here, then write your own (use #HowIHire somewhere in the body of your post).

“So, I graduated with a First/3.98GPA (delete as appropriate) from Surely It Matters University. Oh, and on weekends I help out with a charity that I set up with my friends.”

“Tell me more about the charity. What made you choose to do it? How is it funded? What’s your role? How have you increased its exposure?”

Ok, this might be a slight exaggeration from some of the interviews I’ve conducted, but it’s not far off. Interviewees at this point are normally taken aback as to why I’m focusing in on the charity rather than their academic results. The simple reason is I never really cared about them (results, not the interviewees).

Over my management career, I’ve probably interviewed close to a thousand people and hired over a hundred. Not that much compared to some people, but it’s given me an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Now, to add context, I was mainly recruiting for investment banking Operations staff. This doesn’t require them to hold a CFA or MBA, but does demand a high degree of financial knowledge, attention to detail, customer service, multi-tasking, initiative, lateral thinking…I could go on.

It’s not for everyone, but that doesn't mean it requires a top degree. I’d argue that some of my best employees I’ve had over the years didn’t even go to university, yet every job advert nowadays states you should have one.

If you recruit for a technical industry, such as accounting, then I accept that you’d ideally have someone who did an accountancy degree.

This is logical and makes perfect sense, but then I’d have to assume that 90% of candidates you interview will have an accountancy degree, so how do you differentiate between the candidates?

The main thing I looked for was cultural fit, and their attitude and approach to different scenarios. The technical side of an Operations role can always be taught, but passion (for anything!), self-awareness, initiative and resilience takes longer to change.

I want someone who will come into work every day wanting to perform at their best. I want someone will engage with their colleagues, speak confidently with senior management, and build relationships with their clients. I want someone who will look to shake up current processes and find more efficient ways of working.

The problem often lies in what university actually teaches you. I can’t deny its advantages; after all, I have a degree and it’s allowed me to move to different countries with my work. However, I joined a bank after my A-Levels, and then went to university later. I got a lot out of my Economics degree, but I can’t really say it helped me with my banking career. That was more down to my attitude, drive and developing crucial people skills.

That’s why when it comes to the interview, I’m more interested in what you do on weekends then whether you can explain how to calculate the settlement of a financial instrument.

If, through my questioning process, I determine you have the right attitude and approach to work (and life), then I assume you’re either going to have read up on the calculation beforehand, or will do so before starting work. I’ll also ensure you get the training you need to do your job to the best of your ability.

You need to think about the effect on your team of hiring someone who doesn’t ‘fit’ in. This word – fit- is often used, maybe overused. Diversity is important but if you, as a leader, have a strong focus on people development and driving change, then your team will benefit from someone who shows a higher degree of emotional intelligence and resilience, who can leverage off your leadership style. I’m not saying you hire clones of yourself, or others within the team (that can be even more destructive), but they do need to be individuals who will buy into your values and vision for the company.

Let's sum up:

  • For non-technical roles, don’t focus so much on educational achievements

  • Even for technical jobs, think about what will distinguish one from the other

  • Ask probing questions that get underneath their polished exterior

  • Drill into their values, beliefs and motivations. What drives them?

  • Look for achievements outside of work, in associations, sports teams, charity work, volunteering. They’ll tell you more about the person than a grade ever will.

Before I finish, a caveat – despite what I’ve said above, don’t dismiss good grades entirely. They show dedication, commitment and intelligence, and are often a pointer to someone’s ability to quickly pick up new knowledge and job skills. However, in today’s world it’s not enough to just have good grades. I want to know why you set up that charity and what you do on the weekends.

What do you look for when interviewing candidates?

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