Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Aptitude or Attitude?

Promote the one with aptitude or the one with great attitude?

For a lot of accounting firms, the end of the busy season signals the start of the time of reckoning, I mean the evaluation and the promotions. In the past, I’ve always dreaded this time because there’s just so many evaluations to go through and so many people to consider for promotion. Although we weren’t the ones who decided who will be promoted in the end, we basically contribute by giving our evaluation.

And basically, the evaluations cover two things. If the candidate showed competence and if he or she also showed great attitude, which brings me to my next post, the role of competence or aptitude and attitude in one’s promotion.

If you’re a manager or a partner in an accounting firm, would you promote somebody who is very intelligent and competent but has a lousy attitude or would you choose somebody who has a great attitude but is not as intelligent or as competent as the first?

Yeah, okay, your answer may very well be, I’ll choose the one who has both aptitude and great attitude.

Lucky you if you can find a staff (subordinate) who has both. Unfortunately, based on my experience, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Take the case of one of my ex – juniors. He is very intelligent, graduated top of his class, knows the accounting and auditing standards in and out and seemed to be competent. But, during our evaluation, much to my partner’s surprise, his seniors wanted to let him go. Why? Because he’s attitude left much to be desired. Apparently (and this is only one of the reasons I could remember), he didn’t want to be assigned to “menial” tasks and when he does get them, he is basically slow in doing them, even though it was already the height of the busy season!

In short, he is competent but had a negative attitude.

Okay, you might say why he was assigned to “menial” tasks when he was so obviously intelligent. Let me tell you then, although this does not apply to all managers and partners, in my group, we let all the staff go through the experience of doing the “menial” tasks. We didn’t care if one graduated top of the class, one still has to go through such experiences. How will you tell your junior to vouch something if, in the first place, you didn’t pass through it and you don’t even know how to do it?

But I digress.

Let’s take another example. A fast – rising junior, became senior after one year, manager in another year and senior manager in two years! No doubt about it, he is very intelligent. But his attitude is another matter. To put it bluntly, he’s an @sshole (still is from what I heard). He’s not well liked nor respected by his peers and… well, I won’t go into why he gets promoted almost every year. Suffice it to say that his partner prefers intelligence over attitude.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen people who were only average in terms of competence and intelligence but is still going up the firm because they have great attitudes, good rapport, strong commitment and willingness to work hard (for the firm). I’m talking about honest – to – goodness great attitude here, not those who just pretend to have one just to get into the good graces of the partners and speed up their promotions (and yes, I’ve seen these too).

I recently read about the results of a study (I’m trying to search for it) quoted by John Maxwell in his “Maximize Your Day” book. In this study, top management of several large companies in the U. S. were asked their reasons for firing or letting go of an employee. The results? 30% said incompetence. So lack of aptitude is the highest among the choices. But wait, there are several more. 17% said inability to get along with other workers, 12% said dishonesty or lying, 10% said negative attitude, 7% said lack of motivation and another 7% said refusal to follow instructions.

And what does that mean? 30% of those interviewed did not like employees who are incompetent or have no aptitude for the job. But the other 60%? It’s all about the attitude for them. So in this case, attitude wins the game.

If you don’t believe me, check out this article about the results of another study on popular criteria used in assessing ones work performance.

What about me? Give me an employee who has a good attitude over somebody who is competent but has a lousy attitude. I can definitely train the first to become competent but I cannot train the second to change an attitude that he or she has even before he or she has entered the firm. Not saying it's impossible but I'll spare myself the headache all the same.

So which would you choose? Or if you’re on the other side of the coin, which would you like to be?


  1. Attitude all the way.

  2. Excellent post bud. Its attitude all the way. Like you said, you cannot train someone to have a good attitude, its a trait we all have.

  3. I must agree that negative and unfriendly people are generally hard to deal with. But if we look a bit deeper as to why these people are demotivated, we can sometimes attribute this to the fact that firms do not promote based on merit. Some individuals work very hard to prove themselves, but because of their lack of seniority and their current level, they often get overlooked. I'm not saying that this is right, but I just want to bring this to everyone's attention that this reason exists.

  4. The last poster makes a very good point. One thing i really dont like of the big firms is how now they have these "rules" when it comes to promotions. For example you HAVE to be manager for 4 years minimum, it doesnt matter if your the best damn manager there is. While i understand that such structure is in place because you cant have many partners, it is very demotivating, and it is one of the top reasons people leave firms. Having said that i am sure someone will argue with me about how i am wrong in my point of view, so i guess its a matter of perspective.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. To the last two posters, I know about demotivation, have gone through it and have seen others go through it. If these are not hard times, I would just say if you're demotivated then resign and find another one. But in these hard times, I think the only way is to talk to the partner about this and / or try to find out if there's something you can look forward to in the future. Because hey, there's no use staying in the firm if you don't have 'it' to become a partner. Hard times or not, there will come a point when you just have to leave the firm.

  6. I have been reading your blog recently and just want to say I really like this post. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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