Smarty Pants Don’t Always Fit

Critical thinking and communication skills are more valuable than fancy credentials

Back Web Only May 11, 2015 By Tania Fowler

Hiring is a confounding game. Some people have a great knack for it and an intuitive sense about people — but even they can get it wrong. The world-renowned Disney Institute hires “attitude versus aptitude,” and you would be wise to do the same.

Recently, I worked with a company who filled a position with great match for the technical skills needed for the role. But this new employee’s on-the-job performance created communication nightmares that led other long-term employees to quit. Within a year, the team was sinking and they had to get rid of the guy they just spent a lot of money finding and hiring.  So what alternatives might exist for at least trying to hire a better candidate?

Everyone seeks out smart people for their organizations, and those high achievers are usually easy enough to sort for: Where did they go to school? What credentials do they bring with them? That’s the obvious route. No matter the type of business, what I see and hear from nearly everyone who has a job is that communication issues really do get in the way of getting things done, but companies tend to seek out applicants who come with an arm’s length list of credentials that must be a near perfect match to the job position they are seeking. With that in mind, here are three ideas for interviewing and retaining people who are great for your organization:

Understand your values. Ask yourself who your most valued employees are, and write down the attributes that make them so important to your organization. Once you deconstruct who your best employees are on paper by cataloging the specific skills that make them so successful and desirable, you will have a better checklist for future hires.Look for the gaps that need filling to round out the team.Write interview questions that get to the heart of those attributes, and put interviewees to the test with innovative questions: “How do your personal values align with our company values?”  “When did you fail as a communicator and how did you contribute to that failure?”  “What did you learn from that and give an example of a successful communication scenario that came from that learning?” Outline the skills you would like to see on your team that aren’t fully developed yet, and ask some questions around how this potential new hire would help sharpen that skill set.

Scan for critical thinking. Find an interesting article or opinion piece that you had a strong reaction to. Ask the interviewees to write their thoughts on the piece to see how well they work themselves through it. What are their ideas, push-back and questions about the piece? On which points do they find flawed thinking? Do they suggest creative solutions that were not expressed in the article?

A recent wine tasting study showed that actual wine experts in a blind taste often rate less expensive wine brands more favorably than more expensive brands once they could no longer see the labels. I’ve seen traditional credentials stop people from asking important questions. Hiring staff often assume that credentialed people cannot only get the job done well but with finely honed communication skills to boot. But employers need to confirm these traits before investing in new hires. What if someone without great credentials can critically think their way through an article in a more impressive way than a candidate who boasts more accolades? That’s valuable information to consider before bringing a new member onto your team.

But you don’t just want smart people; you want smart people who can work well with others, and that brings me to my final point.

Emphasize communication skills. In my experience, communication is where things either shine or fall apart in organizations. Soft skills really matter on teams, so you should intentionally create active engagement of soft skills during interviews. A friend of mine, a technical guy with a great resume, recently was interviewed for a leadership role by a host of people. Not one person, with the exception of an HR manager, asked him any communication questions at all! No one thought to ask him about such a vital component of teamwork.

You can do better. Ask potential employees how often they engage in conversations with people close to them. How long is their longest friendship? Do they prefer small or large group interactions and why? What types of communication styles stop them from listening, and what style do they use to get people listening? When was the last time they remember being curious about something, and what did they do about it? How do they typically manage conflict? Give them communication and conflict scenarios to work through. Listen to their answers, and then offer some feedback. Repeat the exercise with new scenarios and notice if they put any of your suggestions to work in the next scenario. This will help you determine if your potential hire is coachable.

People are the same once they cross the work threshold as they are on the other side of it. Your job is to ask questions that they can’t game and whose answers tell you important information about who they are and what they value in helping to build you a stronger organization. If we become so beholden to the technical side of the checklist and don’t drill down into what kind of communicators and thinkers people really are — and if we don’t value those skill sets enough to even ask about them — then communication logjams will continue to plague our workplaces.

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