I had the good fortune to have met John McCain — who died last month at age 81 — a number of times, beginning in the 1990s.

I once was honored to brief him on an issue at his request. He listened quietly, concentrating on my remarks, occasionally questioning me in the softest of voice.

After his six decades in public service, those who knew him best use lots of words to describe John McCain: hero, courageous, survivor, defiant, independent, complicated, and most of all, interesting as Washington, D.C., politicians go.

He entered into frays often and easily, taking on his own Republican Party and its leaders as often as he took on the Democrats. He wasn’t always right but could apologize and move on like few others. He was simply honored and thrilled to be actively in the arena.

On important issues, Sen. McCain was often one of the few leaders who had the willingness and ability to negotiate a fair compromise.

McCain’s death got me to thinking more broadly about character and how it relates to the workplace.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” has been a mantra for all sorts for politicians over the years. However, changes in the current U.S. economy — including a bustling 4 percent annual growth rate with about a 3 percent unemployment rate — have placed a premium on qualified workers. The radio program Marketplace reported in August that over 40 percent of small businesses say they have openings but are unable to fill them.

With about 130 million full-time employees in the United States — those who work 35 hours or more per week — opportunities abound for new and better jobs for those who wish to be part of the workforce.

I did some homework on what employers were most seeking from those who work for and with them.

CareerBuilder conducted a study with the Harris Poll, surveying more than 2,000 hiring managers and HR professionals on the subject of soft skills — those less tangible characteristics that relate more to personality than ability.

Three of four respondents said soft skills were just as important as hard skills; of the remaining, 16 percent said soft skills were more important in evaluating candidates.

After reviewing lists that included anywhere from 10 to 50 of the most important qualities to seek in hiring an employee, four specific qualities rose to the top.

• Strong work ethic: Setting and achieving goals.

• Dependable: Consistently following through.

• Positive attitude: Creating a good environment.

• Self-motivated: Working effectively with little direction.

“Forbes Entrepreneurs Newsletter” asked owners of mostly small companies what they look for in hiring an employee who can get the job done.

Among specific things mentioned:

• The ability to execute.

• Self confidence, positive, upbeat.

• Personality fit with the company culture — employees are the company “ambassadors.”

• A history of success in previous work life.

• Presentable to clients and the outside world.

In the end, Forbes concluded that the smaller the business, the more critical the hire.

Be flexible on background requirements, it said, but continue to take seriously the personality traits.

Try as I might, I did not once find a specific mention of the word “character” in those hundreds of employee qualities on the lists that I studied.

John McCain never talked of his own character, but his life consistently reflected moral excellence and firmness.

American author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller famously said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.

Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Thank you, John McCain, for teaching us — through your own life experiences — so much about the human quality that we may not be able to define, but we know when we see it: character.

 

Chuck Slocum, president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm, can be reached at chuck@willistongroup.com