We hired this guy at my old company, out of Serbia. At that point in my career, I wasn’t hiring anyone directly myself, as we had an HR team, and I was only working with people after they had been onboarded.
I happened to be visiting our office in Belgrade and this individual, let’s call him Yivko, to mask his identity, was always at the office, so for a few days we spent a lot of time together. We’d go out to lunch, I would do all the talking, telling him about our work culture, giving him a lot of tips for success and telling a lot of jokes. He would laugh right at all of the punchlines, with perfect timing. But even so, I sensed something was off. So finally, I leaned over to him and said “You don’t understand a damn thing I’m saying do you?!”. And apparently, understanding enough of the question he kind of slumped his shoulders and said “No, Brian”.
So later in the day I called our HR team and asked, exaggerating a bit “How the Hell did we hire this guy? He doesn’t understand a word of English!?”. Apparently, he had scored well on all entry level tests but done very poorly in English, but somehow that was overlooked.
Me: Where did you get this guy?
He was a refrigerator repairman
Me: Does he have any technical skills? Any testing experience?
No, not really
What do you want us to do with him? Do you want us to fire him?
Me: No, we can’t fire him. It’s not his fault that we made a hiring mistake. We’ll have to try and make it work. How is he doing, in general?
Well, his results are pretty poor
Me: Ok, he doesn’t speak English. He has no skills or experience. His work results are bad. Any other good news about this guy?
Well, he is a hard worker and he seems pretty motivated.
Me: How hard? How motivated?
Well, he seems to be one of the hardest working and most motivated guys we’ve ever hired …
Later in the week, I was in the office late with Yivko and he seemed a bit upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he conveyed to me that he was worried I was going to fire him.
Me: Why would I fire you?
Yivko: Because I can’t speak English (well)
Me: Are you working hard?
Me: Ok, nobody is going to fire you
As I saw with my own eyes, this guy was coming into the office early in the AM, and waking me up as I was sleeping on the couch! And leaving late at night. And he had a 30 minute bus ride back and forth. I knew he was putting in the effort.
As I was reviewing his work, I also knew it was poor, but I noticed one thing that stood out. When I made a correction, gave him a tip and/or offered advice, he immediately internalized it and never repeated the mistake again. This seems simple and obvious, but I spent much of my day repeating the same things to the same people. With Yivko, that was never the case. Yes, he was making mistakes but they were new ones. This is a critical soft-skill that so many people lack. It really stood out and impressed me, not the least of which because it made my life easier working with him.
After I returned to the US, I continued to have conversations with Yivko
Yivko: Brian, my results are bad
Me: Are you still working hard?
Me: Then don’t worry about it. Over-time your results will improve.
We had several various of this conversation, for the first year of his tenure at the company, and then, he seemed to hit the inflection point with his work. Results started to improve, just as I had predicted based on the effort he was applying, his high level of motivation and his good attitude.
Finally, when he was really hitting high-notes consistently, we discussed the possibility of him getting promoted, and I agreed to that.
His promotion, to Level I, was later than some of his peers, as it had taken him longer, but, in reality, based on what he had learned and the sustainable pace he was developing, I predicted he would be in very good shape for his next promotion, down the road, to Level II. And that is exactly what happened.
Where is Yivko now
Where is Yivko now and how is he doing?
He is still at the company, doing very well.
He has been promoted 2x and his results consistently rank as at or near the best on our team of approx 12 support analysts.
The content he has written, in English, has ranked extremely high, and in many cases higher than native-English authors. He’s written articles that have gotten 100’s of thousands of visits, with more than a million in total, and tons of positive comments like these …
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Thanks man, you saved my ass!
His articles were so good, we translated many of them into Spanish earning him the Nom de plume, El Yivko
His nickname in his team is “The Animal” because of his high-energy approach to his work and tasks.
The secrets to success
Ok, so how do we break this down. Why did Yivko succeed, lacking any advantages, where others, seemingly much more qualified and experienced, failed?
- English? No (Although this is something that needs to be perfected over-time)
- Hard skills? No (this can be learned)
- Experience? No (this can be gained)
- Education? No (what needs to be learned can be taught on the job)
- Technical proficiency? No (this can be accrued via on-the-job training)
- Motivation? Yes
- Effort? Yes
- Lack of entitlement? Yes
- Attitude? Yes
I’ve hired people who spoke 4 languages fluently and maxed out on our tests who failed miserably, unable or unwilling to do the work. I’ve seen people with PhD’s come in with a sense of entitlement that they are owed everything without having to invest any effort, who invariably didn’t work out. I hired a tester with 10 years of experience who quit the moment I asked him to write a test plan for an app.
Yivko ran circles around all of these guys, simply because he was motivated. What he needed to learn, he learned. What skills he needed to acquire, he acquired. But there is no such thing as learning to be motivated or being able to acquire soft skills like a good attitude, helpfulness, dedication and commitment on the job. These soft-skills are things you need to learn before you get the job. (1)
Sure, you like Yivko. He probably works 20 hour days for very little money?
In the beginning, yes, Yivko would work 10+ hour days, but we paid overtime for this extra work at 1.5x so we weren’t necessarily saving money (although often he wouldn’t put in for OT he worked). As he got better, his hours drifted down to a normal work day. He has gotten promoted twice and, for Serbia, makes a quite excellent living with the potential to continue to do even better.
We can teach you hard skills i.e. testing, XML, SQL, writing, English, typing. But teaching soft skills like work ethic is much harder.
If you are motivated, you will learn all of the hard skills you need over time. If you aren’t, even if you have them, you won’t be willing to apply them to create success
I will take someone who is motivated, is willing to learn and work hard, has a good attitude and good soft skills regardless of their skills, education and experience, any day.
It does take a special organization that will allow people time to learn vs expecting them to hit the ground running on Day 1. We provided time and depth to acquire the necessarily skills, mentoring along the way, and a supportive team with a vested interest in everyone’s success
(1) These are things I hope to teach via my employment incubator in Southern Serbia