Courage: the Skill Hiring Managers Ignore to their Peril

Evolution of Human Capital Management

This is the sixth and final article in a series of six focused on the Evolution of Human Capital Management.

We work hard and long at recruiting top talent for each position we are tasked to fill.  Yet we know recruiting success is fleeting and often grossly disappointing.  For example, a recent article on Chief Executive Officer tenure pointed out that fewer than 50% of new executives last even nine months.  The time and money invested in talent acquisition can be staggering.  Why then are we not successful in finding the best and the brightest who will stay

After pondering why new employees leave, I started listing the steps required to find these ideal new hires.  I thought perhaps we’ve been missing something.   I could have filled pages of steps to successful recruitment.  Just a few include:  write realistic job descriptions; describe company culture authentically; draft a success profile (details on who has done well at the job); enumerate key qualifications; evaluate compensation; and compare market strengths.  One article even suggested employing an 18-step process to find and attract the right candidate.  Today’s market is certainly one where candidates have options and move quickly.  It struck me if we waltzed through all 18 steps, we would lose the top candidates before ever actually making an offer.  Time is of the essence; we need to be prepared to move quickly.


One talent acquisition manager I know has an uncanny ability to talk with a candidate for 10-15 minutes and peg whether they will “sell” internally, be successful at the tasks associated with the role and if they will “stick” meaning stay.  I once asked her what single quality she sought above all others (assuming the pool is equal in talent and all meet minimum requirements).  Her answer: “They have to have backbone.  I need to hear their courage.” 

Pressing her further, she explained that even at the earliest of candidate reviews, she looks to see if someone knows them self and has the courage to represent their career authentically. I looked at more than two dozen job descriptions (all director and above) from a variety of employers.  Tough-minded, hard charging, or competitive were adjectives frequently referenced –none referenced courage. Even at the C-suite, courage was noticeably absent. 

The classic definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one or strength in the face of pain or grief.  Translated into hiring criteria this is exemplified by an individual who is willing to stand up for their ideals, ideas and their colleagues when challenged.    When we consider courage in the workplace, we are most likely thinking of a time when one opposes authority, endorses an out of the box position or supports a colleague in the face of criticism.  Why is this such an important quality?

In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance she highlights her research findings which show those with grit (a “…combination of both perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”) are more successful.  They bring internal drivers that set them apart from those with lesser degrees of this quality.  She asserts they know what is important, how it impacts their role and mission and why they should prevail.  They believe they are right and are willing to stand up for their stance on issues.

Grit/courage is definitely a trait needed in C-suite professionals. Yet that is not what readers should take away from this article.  Bottom line: human capital leaders need a large streak of courage in their dual role as both supporters of the business and employees.  We should not be pushovers to business “demands” nor “favor” employees’ needs over those of the organization. With each position taken, we navigate a narrow path of compliance, legal obligation, sensitivity to the bottom line along with concern for those we employ.  We need to draw the line in the sand that taking a course of action could be wrong.  Can this be career limiting?  Perhaps.  Yet for me, when courage is coupled with grace, and solicits a response that includes threats or dire consequences, these are signals that the environment is inhospitable to HR input.

As human resource professionals, we must be willing to demonstrate our brand of courage each day.  Every human resource leader should be evaluated as a condition of employment for their personal brand of courage.  Be prepared:  you will need to demonstrate courage. This should be an expectation of role.   You won’t always prevail, however, you will at the very least be on record on your view. 

I leave you with an excerpt from a Teddy Roosevelt speech, recently highlighted by author Dr. Brene Brown (Rising Strong) and also referenced by President Obama at Senator John McCain’s memorial service. 

The Man in the Arena: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; who face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”   -- Teddy Roosevelt

Courage does not equal winning – at the very least get into the arena and try.  Your organization needs you to do so and so do your employees.

This is the sixth and final article in a series of six focused on the Evolution of Human Capital Management.  Other entries are below:

Part 1.  Transformational Readiness Model: Improving the Likeliness of Change Success

Part 2.  Corporate Latency and the Evolution of Human Capital Management

Part 3.  Transparency: When is information “enough”?

Part 4.  Dealing with the Crisis of Reputation

Part 5.  Our Role, Our Emerging Responsibilities