“Character” like “culture” is a word thrown around with astonishing frequency in the corporate world. Using fluffy HR parlance, we emphasize these ill-defined virtues without unpacking them, and then often pat ourselves on the back for our progressive approach to running our businesses.
So, industry jargon aside, what does character actually look like in practice, and how can you spot it?
First, this simple fact: One hundred percent of employees are people. People are what your business is built on — not products, not PnLs, but people. The more business leaders acknowledge this, the better they are going to do.
Experience is great. It makes you who you are and gives you the tools you need to do your job. But let us be real: Jobs can be trained. Character, on the other hand, cannot be trained or taught. Any day of the week, I would choose one thousand staffers with no experience and outstanding character over those with glittering experience. Here is how you do it.
Listen to the Tough Stories
When I hire, I want to understand people. I do not ask them why they want the job. I ask them about the worst thing that ever happened to them and how they dealt with it. This is where it can get interesting. Because it matters little how people do when things are going smoothly. Instead, how they deal with stress when things are falling apart offers a true peek at their character.
If someone answers this question with a story about submitting a report in time to meet a tough deadline, it is revealing. A lot of people “give good interviews.” They are on their best behavior and tell you what they think you want to hear. We are on the lookout for some evidence of grit. A willingness to be honest, real and vulnerable can tell you a lot about what is under the hood.
Cannabis, for instance, is a tough business. So, when the going gets tough, character is what can determine if people fold or double down. Character is what gets you through whatever happens and helps you turn it into something good, something golden. No mud, no lotus, right?
Watch How They Treat the Receptionist
The more experience someone has, the more experience they have in interviews. That does not mean they will be good at the job. So, one of the tricks I have implemented is watching how your potential hire treats other people when the executives are not around.
At Unity Rd.’s parent company Item 9 Labs Corp., we have a “first impressions coordinator.” This is often the person who answers the phone — your assistants, receptionists or other front-line staff. This interaction is where the interview begins. Your potential hire sits in the waiting room for about ten minutes, and if they are dismissive, flippant or disrespectful, the interview is over. Send them home. Why? Because how you treat people from the very beginning is the surest sign of character.
Consider also involving your team in the vetting process — collectively, we see more and choose wiser.
Hire Wholesome People
During the interview, I love to ask what someone did over the weekend for two reasons: I care, but also, I want to know what their life is like. Today, boundaries between work and personal lives are blurry, especially with the level of remote work and growing decentralization.
I want to know what someone’s life is like both in and out of work because work and home are no longer distinct ecosystems — how people live dictates how their work is going to flow.
Historically, corporate culture has struggled with work-life balance. We have acted as if having a life outside of work is a liability. Turns out, it is the opposite. People who have rich, full lives bring dynamism and experience — plus they usually have something they are working for. When you ask people about their weekends, you are looking for wholesome people with full lives, strong connections and true passions.
Character First, Everything Second
In summary: If you can build your business on the bedrock of character, you will go far.
Character and culture are the fuel and engine of enterprise. When you hire for character rather than experience, your business is full of people who want to be there and who are guided by values and a sense of purpose. There is no need to look over anyone’s shoulder because you can count on your team’s integrity. You have hired people who want to make the company and the world a better place. From top to bottom, the emphasis is on heart over paycheck or bottom line.
How do you build a business with intention and a strong culture? One person at a time. Make these principles more than just words; they can drive you forward and get you wherever you are going.