How important are qualifications when it comes to finding top talent?

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A primary school in Pimlico, which is set to open in September, has hit the headlines after hiring an ‘under-qualified’ head teacher. Annaliese Briggs, 27 years old, has experience of the curriculum and had the opportunity to teach during her previous role working for a think tank. However, she’s yet to complete her PGCE, and there has been much criticism of the decision to appoint her in such a senior role within the school.

So, when it comes to recruiting, how important are qualifications? According to a study of the graduate labour market, which was carried out by the University of Warwick and the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), individuals with first-class degrees were almost twice as likely to be in employment than those with lower classifications. This suggests employers are valuing grades over other skills and experiences, perhaps because qualifications provide an apparently objective and 'quantifiable' metric.

But there's a real danger in assuming that the best applicants are those with the top results. A qualification in a particular field reveals very little about a candidate's real suitability for a role in your organisation, and we probably all know someone who is extremely intelligent but not necessarily the best at their job. In the business of finding top talent, a wider view is needed.

When it comes to recruiting at graduate level, it's sometimes hobbies and interests that are carried out outside of studying that can really distinguish a great candidate from a good one. Extra-curricular activities develop important employability skills - such as teamwork, effective communication and people skills - which can be invaluable for your organisation. If you're to hire the best person for your team, you can't afford to ignore them.

And when recruiting an employee for a leadership position in particular, it's arguably even more important not to focus purely on qualifications. With the continuous evolution of the workplace, leaders need to be able to adapt and transform their organisations with ever-increasing speed. And to do this, on top of their usual leadership skills, senior figures are expected to demonstrate emotional intelligence, drive and learning agility - the ability to learn from experiences and apply that learning to new and different situations.

Resilience also has an important role to play in long-term leadership success. Top roles can be highly stressful, but if a leader is resilient, they are able to thrive in these conditions. And one such characteristic of a resilient individual is adaptability. Leaders need to be able to alter their behaviour in response to changing circumstances and find different ways of achieving their objectives if obstacles get in the way. It's important not only to respond quickly to those around them, but also to changes in the marketplace by taking account of external factors.

It's fundamental that you look for these qualities when hiring a senior figure to gain competitive advantage. So rather than relying solely on qualifications, using the right assessment techniques is key. Psychometric sifting tools, for instance Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs), or assessments of behavioural preferences, can be invaluable when evaluating applications to establish whether a candidate has the judgement and motivation to make them suitable for a given role.

When the best talent have been filtered and reach interview stage, this then obviously provides you with the opportunity to really dig deeper into a candidate's abilities. Here, of course, competency-based questions are extremely useful, revealing how a candidate's past experience and behaviour fits in with the role requirements. If resources and time allow, assessment centres could also provide a valuable addition to such processes.

Only time will tell whether the decision to hire Annaliese as head teacher will be beneficial for the Pimlico school or not. We don't know how she was assessed, but we do know that organisations should never hire based only on qualifications. Even the most highly educated candidate may not be the right hire. And HR professionals have a responsibility for ensuring that employers aren't only swayed by grades, and that the right assessment techniques are used to measure the full range of skills and qualities required to be effective in a given role.

Philippa Riley, principal consultant, product development, Assessment and Development Consultants

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