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Recruiting for Grit

Bolwell, Brian J. MD, FACP

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000521679.85472.a5

“Talent is not all there is to achievement.”—Angela Duckworth

One of the good things about my job is that I have the opportunity to attend a variety of leadership development exercises. Recently, I attended a session on Unconscious Bias. The theme focused on being aware of your own unconscious bias about people when evaluating talent. In general, we tend to like people who are like us. Two points I took away from this session: 1) we are more likely to fall back on our unconscious bias when we make a fast decision, or think quickly—it is important to take time and be thoughtful as we evaluate others; and 2) one solution to avoid unconscious bias is self-awareness—have the ability to unpack our own decision-making process in a mindful way, such that our decisions could easily stand up to external scrutiny.

It then occurred to me that I did not really agree with the way the session was framed—“talent evaluation.” I think evaluating people, and potential leaders, goes far beyond assessing talent. Most leadership books discuss the importance of emotional intelligence and I agree with that. The ability to see things from the perspective of others, read non-verbal cues, demonstrate empathy, and treat others with respect are the signs of emotional intelligence and should be highly valued.

During the session on Unconscious Bias we, of course, had table tasks. One was to review the résumé and HR assessment of a job candidate and decide if we would hire them. The issue was the candidate achieved success and got the job done, but frequently alienated co-workers and never lasted very long at any one job. Additionally, the candidate yelled at people (she was a “yeller”). We were supposed to rate the candidate on a scale of 0-100. Our group had a wide range of scores, ranging from 10 to 80. I scored the candidate a 30. I was called on to explain why and I discussed the interpersonal challenges that appeared to exist and the lack of emotional intelligence. Those who scored higher correctly stated that the candidate was, in fact, successful. Maybe, but at what cost? Having people, especially physicians, work as a team is essential in today's medical environment. A positive culture that embraces emotional intelligence fosters an environment that promotes teamwork. A team member that yells and disparages others will rapidly erode culture. In retrospect, perhaps I should have scored the candidate lower.

Of course, you also must recruit people who will succeed. You want people who will be excellent. In an academic physician, you want somebody who will be a great clinician and excellent researcher, or educator, or whatever the role is for which you are recruiting. In fact, we strive to hire talented people. Yet many talented people fail to reach their potential, and seemingly less-talented people often succeed. Why?

Possibly the best book I have read on this topic is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. She has performed extensive research and believes grit, as defined by a combination of passion and perseverance, more accurately predicts success than does talent. Effort counts twice as much as talent in her view. She then offers a roadmap of how to grow grit:

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1. Get better. Practice. Improve yourself every day.

I totally agree with this point. Indeed, many leadership books discuss the importance of continuous self-improvement. I believe we all can improve if we are motivated to do so. You CAN teach old dogs new tricks. In this analogy, I am the old dog, and I hope I continue to learn new tricks. Now, I freely admit that many around me would say that is a good thing because I have so much to improve on, but whatever. I am very open to constructive criticism. I regularly read articles and books about leadership. I embrace executive coaching, in which a professional coach interviews people who work with me and then report back to me on my strengths and weaknesses (a.k.a., 360 feedback). I do not always enjoy hearing about my shortcomings, but I listen and learn. Our Chief Strategy Officer has taught me a huge amount about leading a cancer center. She previously worked at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center and has coached me about building disease-based programs. I continue to learn from her. The point is, we all can continue to improve. The secret is we need to be committed to doing so and open to feedback.

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2. Develop a fascination about your work. Find something about it that aligns with your personal interests.

Developing a fascination about your work generates passion about your work. One of the best things about being a cancer physician today is that we know so much more about genomics and immunology. The intellectual nature of our field is unsurpassed. I think, therefore, it is fairly easy to find some aspect of cancer medicine to be passionate about. Science, clinical care, end of life, psycho-social support—the myriad aspects of cancer care are, in my mind, riveting.

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3. Remind yourself of a greater purpose—what we do matters to other people in addition to ourselves.

One of my essential jobs is to convince our cancer center that we are much more than a local organization. What we do can potentially influence care all over the world. We can make new discoveries that are practice-changing. We can help to define value-based cancer care. We can improve Time to Treat, which can favorably influence care everywhere. So I very much agree with Duckworth's point about having a greater purpose.

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4. Believe our own efforts can improve the future. Gritty people are positive that success has little to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again and again and again.

I also believe getting up again and again and again is vital for success. I have met very few truly brilliant scientists. Real genius is rare. Most successful, well-funded researchers simply have the commitment and drive to keep after it, even when things fail. They adapt, they write grant after grant, and they are successful by sheer will.

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5. Culture can influence grit development. Culture has the ability to shape our identity.

Recruiting is about adding excellent people to your organization. Done successfully, this will elevate the culture. People will see a team of motivated, successful, friendly, and happy people doing important work. They will admire such a culture and want to join it. A positive culture lifts all members of the group. In addition to coaching and mentorship, simply having a culture that displays role models who excel at passion and perseverance will grow and develop gritty people.

Is all this theoretic? Not at all. This is actually quite practical and even straightforward. First, try to hire gritty people. Find folks who are passionate about what they do, and who continue to persevere despite setbacks. Remember, effort trumps talent. Second, recruit for emotional intelligence. Try to find people who excel at interpersonal relationships at all levels. Third, be mindful of your culture and the culture you are attempting to develop. Avoid talent that will erode a positive culture. Hire individuals who will lift culture. Finally, be aware of your own unconscious bias and thoughts when making recruiting decisions.

And always look for old dogs who are eager to learn new tricks.

BRIAN J. BOLWELL, MD, FACP, is Chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine. Cleveland Clinic is a top 10 cancer hospital according to U.S. News & World Report.

Straight Talk: Today's Cancer Centers

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