Character vs. Credentials

There was a great article a few years ago in Conference Board Review magazine – the article presents an argument that character is more important than credentials (which can be described as the “preferred name brands” that we all know and recognize – the string of pearls that stretches from family pedigree to well-known universities to prestigious graduate schools to brand-name employers).  But surely, credentials matter, yes?  Otherwise, what’s all the fuss about?

Warren Buffett, for one, would rather bet on character than credentials. Mr. Buffett often spoke to MBA students and was fond of telling them that the things that go untaught in business schools are the things he values most: writing, speaking and communications.  The article also cites an intriguing question that he used to ask MBA students: “if you could own 10% of the future earnings of any one of your classmates, whose stock would you buy?” Buffett believed that you wouldn’t pick the smartest person, or the one with the highest grades, as anyone in the class would be smart enough to be a good investment (i.e., not enough variance).  Instead, he told them, you’d likely pick the one with the personal qualities you most admire: the peer who is the most generous, honest, and genuine; in other words, the one you’re all most attracted to – that’s the person that others will want to work with.

Buffett continued the performance-investment connection with a second question: “if you were going to short someone’s future, how would you make that choice?” Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be the one with the worst grades or poorest test results… you’d likely pick the person whose attributes were most unattractive – the one with the oversized ego, lack of integrity, disregard for ethics or others’ feelings, the non-team player.  In other words, Buffett believed we should bet the house on character.  Not credentials… character.  Those basic interpersonal values and skills that most of us cherish above book smarts.  It’s interesting to see how Buffett put his belief in people into a financial metephor… and I think he’s spot on.

Think about those two questions the next time a resume crosses your desk with all the right brand names – are you subconsciously letting those credentials sway you before the interviewing even begins? What about that candidate who didn’t go to the big schools, but seems to have the right stuff?  Take a deep look at character as you hire and place people on your team… you might just find that diamond in the rough that will outwork and outlast his or her peers – you know, the ones that had all the right credentials on paper.