Smarty Pants Don't Always Fit

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.

Tania Fowler

Tania grew up in San Francisco. She went to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she received her BA degree in Geological Sciences. Tania worked with Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas in the early 80’s during the oil energy boom. She hit the ‘pause’ button on her work life to become the mother of three sons, thankfully not all at once, but one at a time. After staying home for twelve years and taking care of her precious, if not raucous brood, she received her real estate license and worked as a realtor for seven years in Sacramento, California, quickly reaching the select level of Masters Club. While selling real estate, she honed her communication, coaching, and people skills and decided that she was more interested in helping people realize their work dreams than their dream homes.

Tania has worked with hundreds of business executives and their teams, managers, and educators since 2005. She has received an Executive Coaching Certification from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business Executive Ed Program. Additionally she trained with CTI (Coaches Training Institute) and NLP of California (Neuro-linguistic Programming). Tania has coached with internationally known business coaches Robert Hargrove (Masterful Coaching) and Mark Rittenberg (Corporate Scenes). She is also a certified Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator consultant specializing in Temperament and Interaction Styles. Tania has worked with numerous organizations including: CGI, Seagate Technology, EDS, California Public Utilities Commission, UC Berkeley Haas School of Executive Ed as well as many nonprofits and individual executives.

Interplay Coaching brings years of experience focusing on unbeatable performance by working with executive leaders and their teams to create a work environment obsessed with aligning their actions, communications, and leadership with their business purposes and objectives; essentially helping to build healthier organizations. Whether working with businesses or individuals Tania’s focus remains the same: to recognize and stand in the belief that the potential of an organization or an individual is even greater than what you see before you at any given time. If you want to be better she wants to help get you there.