What Can the Harry Potter Movies Teach Us About Recruiting?

The recent release of the next-to-last movie in the Harry Potter saga (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I) led me to pondering the classic HR/management question of hiring for “characteristics” vs. hiring for skill/experience.

Three previously inexperienced young stars have carried the Harry Potter movie franchise for a decade

While this might seem an odd linkage, here is my question: If you were responsible for casting (“hiring”) three children on whose shoulders would rest the fate of a potential multi-billion dollar franchise, what would you do — hire based on experience, or hire based on who seemed to have “it” (i.e., “characteristics,” in HR-speak)?

What Kind of Experience (or Resume) Should a 10-year old Have?

How can you determine if actor (candidate) you’re casting (hiring) has it in him/her to grow with the needs of the film series (organization) as it evolves over the next ten years, such as was the task of the Harry Potter producers in casting the three young leads?  And how can you be sure that they will be able to handle the “technical” requirements of the job on a daily basis (acting in the films), but will also be equipped to carry the ancillary burdens of the role (in this case, worldwide celebrity before the age of 12, and the need to grow up without taking any adolescent mis-steps while the world is watching)?

Put that way, looking only (or even primarily) for “experience” seems, in a word, silly.  For such unique roles, focusing on a candidate’s “attributes” or “characteristics” seems the most likely chance for success.  With regard to the HP movies, as it turns out, the producers did select a young actor (Daniel Radcliffe) with some stage experience, but made their choice primarily on attributes.  For the other two leads, they went with wholly inexperienced actors (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint), but who they felt fit the spirit of the characters best.  The fact that each of the young stars has excelled in the spotlight the way they have is:

  • one part testament to wise choices by the producers;
  • one part undoubtedly reflective of  support and guidance from family, producers, and advisers
  • and one part purely remarkable (some things just can’t be truly forecast).

What Does This Tell Us About Hiring Practices?

There is no doubt that in most positions, the ideal is to select the candidate with the strongest skills and experience, and whose characteristics (e.g., attention to detail; communication style; intrinsic motivation; etc.) most closely match the needs of the position.  But when you can’t have it all (e.g., 10-year old actors with extensive worldwide film experience), which do you choose — skills/experience (and hope that their characteristics don’t get in the way of performing effectively in the job and with colleagues), or hire for the characteristics the position requires for success, and teach/train them on the technical skills of the job?

Harry Potter leads, shortly after they were first cast a decade ago

I don’t imagine that there is an answer that applies in all cases … but for my money, I’ll go with “characteristics” over experience nine times out of ten.  Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, co-authors of “First, Break All the Rules” — an extraordinarily well-researched management tome — come down strongly on the side of hiring for “talent” (I substitute the word “characteristics,” but the definitions are largely the same).  When we consider who the “stars” of our organizations are (the most likely Oscar-caliber performers, to stay with our cinematic analogy), there is no doubt that this  is sometimes those with the greatest technical skills or prior experience.  More often than not, though, my experience has been that it is those with the most outstanding attributes (said differently, those whose characteristics are best aligned with the needs of the position and the culture and values of the organization) that are the greatest contributors to the organization’s day-to-day success. 

Implications

I realize, of course, that all of the above is — for even moderately experienced HR professionals — quite commonplace and unexceptional thinking.  At the same time, though, I do believe that we can always use a reminder, to prod us back to the basics and help avoid losing “the forest for the trees.” We can sometimes get so caught up in “leading edge” techniques, advanced applicant tracking technology, and the like, that we lose sight of what we’re trying to do in the first place — i.e., hiring talent that will help the organization move forward.

This does beg the question, “So, how do we identify the “characteristics” (attributes, etc.) that really make a difference in our organizations and that really align with our culture and values?” An interesting question for another day …

For now, though, I’d be very interested in knowing where you come down on the “skills/experience vs. characteristics” question.  Your thoughts?

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