Advice for Employers and Recruiters

Aptitude and attitude isn’t enough: Interview with Randy Pennington about hiring for altitude

Libby Rothberg AvatarLibby Rothberg
May 1, 2018


Randy Pennington, owner of Pennington Performance Group, has been talking recently about the need to hire for “altitude,” in addition to aptitude and attitude. We interviewed him to find out more. Pennington is an expert in helping organizations build cultures focused on positive results in a world of uncertainty, relationships, and accountability. He will be a speaker at SHRM 2018, presenting a mega session titled “The Six Competencies You Need to Remain Relevant in a World of Disruption and Change.” Here we share takeaways from our conversation about recruiting and developing employees, including entry-level, to increase your organization’s altitude.

Difference between altitude and adaptability

Strategic talent acquisition leaders know the importance of adaptability. Whether they are successful in hiring for it may be different. Pennington describes the difference between altitude and adaptability. The term altitude, he says, came to be when a client told him about two employees. “They had great attitudes and were wonderful team players. Great at their jobs. However, the company began to grow and they simply couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t reach that altitude.”

High adaptability is key for altitude. If an adaptable employee is presented with a challenge, they’d quickly adapt and solve the problem. It’s important but it’s not the same as altitude, says Pennington. The idea of altitude is to have a high ceiling and the desire to get there. Competence is another key quality for a high altitude candidate. A competent candidate is someone who has the ability to do their current job and also their next job.

Recruiters used to just look for aptitude, and attitude was considered an extra requirement. Now, attitude is considered a basic requirement. And Pennington is a firm believer in hiring for attitude, giving Southwest Airlines as an example. They basically pioneered the notion of better attitude. That said, you don’t get to fly the airplane just because you can tell a funny joke. You have to have the right competency for that.

Pennington thinks that in time, recruiters will start seeing altitude on the same level as aptitude and attitude.

Five competencies of altitude, and how its related to diversity

Pennington lists five competencies that go towards creating a high altitude. They are curiosity, creativity, collaboration, coachability, and courage.

Courage is one that people are often confused by, says Pennington. It means that you are not afraid to speak up. Organizations struggle finding people who are willing to speak up. Also, leaders have to be willing to accept views that are different from their own.

The competencies associated with altitude are curiosity, creativity, collaboration, coachability, and courage.

We noticed that the five competencies are either gender neutral or lean toward traditional feminine qualities. Pennington agreed that recruiting for altitude can be part of an organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy. The world has changed from the command and control (more traditionally masculine) leadership style that used to be common, to more a inclusive and cooperative leadership style that works better to motivate today’s employees.

Look at the military, says Pennington, especially in combat functions, where we expect a higher level of command and control. The unit that’s fighting on the ground, however, has to make decisions in the moment while under extreme pressure. They can’t always wait for and rely on an absent decision maker while on the ground.

Invest in entry-level hires to develop “taller” employees

When recruiters look at the talent pool today, they always talk about skill gaps. So employers need to think about whether or not there is even enough talent out there that actually has altitude, and if not, how to develop it.

Part of altitude is genetic and part of it is the environment. It’s the old nature versus nurture argument, says Pennington. Someone might not be able to go from being completely uncreative to being Picasso, he says, but anyone can certainly become more creative. Employers can help candidates learn the skills and the behaviors to be more collaborative, or create an environment to help them be more courageous. In the end, however, some people will just be better at this than others.

If someone can’t meet the basic requirements of the current job, chances are they don’t have the altitude to move into a job three or four levels up.

Certainly at senior levels it is important to identify candidates with altitude, but Pennington says this is also relevant with entry-level hires.

Even entry level employees can be students of the business. In other words, they can understand how the business works, how they can help improve it, how the economics works, how to do their job, how their customers work, and how to extend your brand.

Pennington had a conversation recently with a student. He said to the student, “Tell me what your career goals are.” The student explained that right now he has a job, and will be there until he finishes his MBA. The student added that he’ll probably stay a year after that and then go another company for a couple years and then go to another company and be there for two years. The end goal is to come back to where he is currently, but in his boss’s position.

Pennington explains, “If you have someone who’s really great as an entry level employee and they have altitude it’s okay to develop that, knowing their tenure may be short with your organization, because they might come back.” That long term view is a challenge, but necessary. It’s the necessary high level strategic thinking about where the business is going. You have to keep one foot in the present and one in the future. Pennington adds, “You can’t just see the horizon, you need to go over the horizon and around the corner.”

How recruiters can balance aptitude, attitude, and altitude 


In entry-level recruiting, candidates often have very little experience and recruiters use proxies such as GPA or the college itself to determine qualifications. However, Pennington says, “some of the most innovative people in history were pretty lousy students.” The entry-level applicant pool today is bright and employees want to be creative. They are extremely curious. Pennington always reminds his clients that when they “hire a young professional today coming out of the university, be aware that within the first three days, they’ve already figured out five things you can do to make your business better.”

Millennials and Gen Z question everything and find shortcuts. Most employers got to where they are playing by the rules and to have new young minds offering a ways to change things can be jarring, says Pennington. While college students and grads may not have a lot to show on their resume, they have other things that they’ve done in their life. Think about Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa’s development team certainly needed the skills to develop the artificial intelligence, but that team also needed people to think through and develop Alexa’s personality.

There isn’t a code to do that sort of work. Pennington says you will find English majors, Literature majors, and Philosophy majors working on a highly technical team like Amazon’s.

Employers too often obsess over finding the perfect candidate who possesses everything. You have to look where your talent is, and translate what may not be visible. Have any candidates shown how they can work together to accomplish a big goal? Have they shown that they’re coachable? It takes work, says Pennington, but nothing about hiring for altitude is impossible.

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