Assessing Soft Skills

The Lack of Soft Skills Puts a Lid on Career Growth

In a recent LinkedIn post describing the importance of “soft skills,” one person commented that people get hired for the depth of their hard skills but are fired for their lack of “soft skills.”

In a recent LinkedIn post describing the importance of “soft skills,” one person commented that people get hired for the depth of their hard skills but are fired for their lack of “soft skills.”

Having personally been involved in more than 2,000 different hiring situations over the past forty years, this “Hire Then Fire” approach too often represents reality and sadly reveals a huge flaw in the interviewing process used by most hiring managers. What’s lost is the idea that once people meet a basic threshold of technical competency and ability to learn, it’s the quality of their non-technical skills like leadership, management, teamwork and work ethic that determines how fast they’ll progress.

That’s why in the earlier post I contended that these non-technical skills are too important to be called soft:

Some Critical Non-Technical Skills Too Important to be Called Soft

  • Cross-functional understanding and collaboration
  • Commitment to success
  • Building, developing and managing teams
  • Leading, organizing and managing matrix projects
  • Persuading senior-level people to change direction
  • Not making excuses
  • Meeting budget and time goals
  • Going the extra mile, mile after mile
  • Volunteering to handle tough, time-consuming projects
  • Strong work ethic
  • Dealing with challenges, changes and setbacks
  • And everything else related to working with people and getting things done

More important than what they are called, though, is the idea that these skills need to be incorporated into the interviewing process in parallel with an assessment of the person’s hard skills, rather than as an afterthought.

In this short online training course based on The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired I demonstrate that it’s possible to assess hard and soft skills in tandem but you need to start with a performance-based job description rather than the traditional laundry list of skills and “must-haves.” Developing these types of job descriptions starts by asking this question for each critical technical skill and competency:

What will the person actually be doing using (the skill, trait or competency) that would indicate superior on-the-job performance? 

Having used this approach on hundreds of search projects, it turns out that any job can be summarized by 5-6 different KPOs (key performance objectives) or OKRs (objectives and key results) that embed the required hard and “soft skills” into the objectives. For example, rather than saying a person must have a specific degree, specific experience and be team- and results-oriented, it’s better to say something like, “Complete the XZY project within 120 days under tight budget and schedule constraints with limited staff support.”

The Hiring Formula for Success shown in the graphic summarizes how this idea was translated into the interviewing and assessment process. The formula presents this relationship: “The ability to do the work in relation to fit drives motivation and ultimately successful performance.” In the formula ability combines both the hard and soft skills with the fit factors being more external. These include the hiring manager’s leadership style, the pace and culture of the organization and the person’s intrinsic motivation to do the work required.

Ask the Most Significant Accomplishment Question for Each Performance Objective.

You’ll be able to gather all of the information needed to make a proper assessment of the soft and hard skills and the fit factors by digging into the person’s major accomplishments most related to the KPOs/OKRs of the open role. The line showing the trend of growth over time in the graphic is an important factor used to make the assessment. Generally speaking, in the early phases of a person’s career the technical skills are most important, but within a year or so the person’s non-technical, team and organization skills become the tipping point for the person’s continued success. Balance between the two is part of the assessment and much of this can be determined when preparing the performance-based job description.

Another important aspect of the assessment is to conduct a formal live debriefing session after the individual interviews are completed. While members of the interviewing team will ask similar questions, their focus will be narrowed to just a few of the factors in the Hiring Formula for Success. Some of these are highlighted in the graphic. Our Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard is a great way to organize the discussion and rank candidates based on the evidence gathered.

The Hiring Formula for Success in combination with a performance-based job description and performance-based interview offers a means to fully understand how the non-technical and fit factors impact a person’s ability and motivation to achieve results. As important is the recognition that it’s what people have accomplished with their skills that’s important, not just the amount or list of skills themselves, and this is where the soft skills and fit factors turn out to be the difference makers.