Companies around the world are struggling with worker shortages, partly due to the demographic shifts and partly due to the changes brought by the pandemic (for example, border closures, immigration restrictions, incentives for early retirement, and workers leaving frontline jobs due to burnout). At the same time, employees are looking for better jobs. Much tactical advice, such as how to do job interviews, are available to both. But what are the qualities employers should look for and job seekers should cultivate?
A few years ago, I heard a successful businessman’s perspective when attending a talk by Lars Seier Christensen, a co-founder of the Danish investment bank Saxo Bank. He was asked what he looks for when hiring people – one of the most crucial business decisions given that hiring the wrong person would be costly and could even ruin your company. Moreover, a company’s value creation and survival depend on its employees’ productiveness. As John Allison, another banker and the retired CEO of BB&T, has observed: the competitive advantage of the company lies in the minds of its employees.
Recognizing the importance of hiring decisions, Mr. Christensen, as the co-CEO, tried to participate in all hiring interviews (although once the bank grew to over 1,000 employees, it was no longer feasible). He sought four qualities in an employee: values roughly corresponding to those of the bank, persistence, intelligence, and practical experience. (The last he prioritized over academic credentials, although that depended on the position to be filled).
Saxo Bank’s stated values during Christensen’s tenure (until 2016) were aligned with the virtues of rational egoism (the normative ethics of Ayn Rand): rational, fact-based decision making; independent thinking, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. Having discussed these in this blog and in my book, here I focus mostly on persistence.
Why is persistence, “the fact of continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition,” a virtue? Although not one of the seven basic virtues of egoism, like them, persistence also is a means of human flourishing, including in business.
There is an element of persistence in all the basic egoist virtues.
Most jobs, even simple ones such as office cleaning, require problem solving, to discover ever better ways of performing the job. In more complex jobs, such as software engineering, problem solving is at the core of the job, such as resolving how to utilize machine learning for more accurate medical diagnoses and treatments.
While problem solving foremost requires rationality—adhering to facts—it also requires persistence, because knowledge doesn’t come to us automatically but demands effort that is subject to errors and failures. Employees who won’t persist in problem solving (and want others to give them the answers) don’t contribute much value in exchange for their salaries.
Independent, first-handed thinking is also a virtue in solving problems. Holding on to one’s reality-based conclusions in the face of opposition by others requires persistence. The Wright brothers, (or any other innovators), would not have succeeded in their invention of the airplane without persistent confidence in their own observations in the face of public skepticism.
Similarly, adhering to integrity, honesty, justice, and pride requires persistence. To help achieve values, these virtues cannot be practiced only now and then, when one feels like it. They don’t mean just occasional acting on principle, but consistently refusing to fake facts, evaluating and treating people objectively, and doing one’s best. To produce material values—better products and services—requires that employees persistently practice the egoist virtues.
That is why successful businesspeople like Lars Christensen look for evidence, not only of the basic rational egoist virtues in the people they hire, but also of persistence. Academic credentials (at least in some disciplines and at some universities), can indicate persistence. But practical work experience is a stronger indicator of a contribution to the production of material values, the essence of profit-maximizing business.
If you are on the other side of the hiring decision—looking for a job—possessing, or cultivating, the qualities Mr. Christensen seeks in employees, will help.
If you are a student, this means trying to gain practical experience, even outside of your field, through summer jobs or co-op programs, or enrolling in courses where you gain hands-on experience in applying what you learned at school. If you are a recent graduate and lack practical experience and cannot find a job, you could volunteer or intern at a not-for profit organization to gain experience.
And most of all, besides the seven basic virtues of rational egoism, you should persevere to solve the problem of finding a job or hiring the right person. With such guidelines and persistence, the values you seek—a good hire or a good job—will be yours.
Originally posted 14 July 2018