The Power of Soft Skills

Today, “hard skills” are all the rage. However, hiring for the so-called soft skills can be just as critical for ensuring success.

By Sheryl Nance-Nash

When it comes to hiring, you know that you’re looking for a particular set of skills and qualities, whether degrees from Ivy League institutions, certifications, impressive job titles, or P&L responsibilities, or where past employers sit on the Fortune 1000 list.

No doubt such details paint a picture, but the world of work is about more than hard skills. Increasingly, soft skills are just as important and can even enhance a company’s bottom line. According to research collected by West Monroe Partners, a business and technology consulting firm, over two-thirds of HR leaders say they have withheld a job offer to an otherwise qualified technology candidate solely because of that candidate’s lack of soft skills. More than 75 percent of HR leaders say they’ve become more focused on finding technology employees with strong soft skills.

Today, with such an emphasis on data and technology-driven solutions, there is still a place for so-called soft skills—perhaps more than ever. “Communication, persuasion, negotiation, and public speaking are soft skills that directly affect the bottom line. If a company is doing a pitch or proposal, good communication will close the deal,” says Marli Crowe, founder and CEO of Crowe Career Services.

Furthermore, says Ryan Moore, director of the executive search practice at Peak Sales Recruiting, “emotional intelligence is something that not only adds value to an employee who deals directly with a business client but also ensures you have someone who can harmoniously navigate internal interactions between departments, managers, colleagues, etc.”
Truth is, if you rely too heavily on what a résumé reveals, you could end up hiring the wrong person. Success also depends on whether a person is a good fit. Trouble is, fit is about the soft stuff, being a team player, emotional intelligence—attributes that can be challenging to discover in an interview or through a résumé and cover letter.

But there are some ways to get a significant sense if the candidate is the complete package. Here’s how to test for soft skills during the interview process.

Assess your needs
While what each company seeks is unique, there are some trends. “According to CNBC, the most in-demand soft skills for 2019 are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management,” says Crowe.

Other soft skills companies value are listening skills, public speaking, and negotiation.

What key soft skills are required for the job, company, and culture? Under what circumstances are the soft skills absolutely necessary? You don’t want to begin the hiring process without knowing the answers to these two questions, says Biren Bandara, founder of Leader School and author of So You Got Promoted: The Survival Guide for the New Leader.

Lay out the criteria
Make it clear from the outset that soft skills matter. “The job posting should indicate that the cover letter or résumé include examples of how the desired soft skills were used previously,” says Bandara. This alone could weed out some people who fail to do this.

Ciara Hautau, lead digital marketing strategist for Fueled, a technology consultancy, explains part of her company’s hiring process. “Before a candidate comes in for an in-person interview, we send a specialist test [tailored to their job function]. Yes, the test helps us understand the candidate’s hard skills, but there’s also an element of soft skills.”

For example, she says, one of the questions asks the candidate to draw up a sample email to a client and a manager, testing both writing ability (which can be considered a mix of hard and soft skills) and communication style.

To further test interdepartmental communication, she asks questions like, “If you were given x task and had x coworkers in the room, how would you organize the meeting?” or “Give me an example of a time when you had to lead a meeting and tell me about how you did it effectively.”

Dig during the interview process
Hiring pros have strategies for assessing soft skills. One of the easiest is to ask everyone in the company who was in contact with the candidate what they thought. “For us, this means drivers, security, reception, secretaries—everyone the candidate had to interact with on the way up to our office has input into the hiring process. If the candidate was snippy with the security guard issuing the visitor’s badge, that was a sign of poor social skills,” says Jodi Smith, an HR professional with Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Then, when checking references, we ask, ‘Would you hire this person back to work with you again?’”

Most of the staff for works remotely. “It’s very important that we carefully assess the soft skills of each candidate who has been short-listed for a role. This is because there will be a lot of communicating back and forth and collaboration among team members within our company,” says Sheila Rae, who handles recruiting.

Rae relies on situational questions during the interview. To assess for time-management skills, she asks questions like “How do you manage multiple tasks?” To assess leadership skills: “Was there ever a time you had to step up to make sure a project was completed? What did you do? What was the outcome?” To assess for culture fit: “What are the three most important things to you in your career?”

One of the most important soft skills is a strong work ethic. A candidate with a strong work ethic has drive and determination to get things done. “Hiring employees with a poor work ethic will hurt your company’s overall ability to perform.” says Sacha Ferrandi, founder of Source Capital Funding.

No doubt this skill can be tricky to detect when conducting an interview. Go for specific questions that can help you better understand if the interviewee has this skill. For starters, Ferrandi says, “ask what the candidate did in a previous job that demonstrated hard work, or ask when the candidate went above and beyond to get a job done.”

However, evaluating a candidate’s soft skill set is difficult to do with just an interview. “Asking questions is usually not enough to evaluate soft skills,” says Crystal Huang, CEO of ProSky, a provider of automated HR solutions “The best way is through tests. A good way to conduct a simple and easy test is to run candidates through a series of scenarios. Give them problems and envision situations for them that require soft skills.”

Instead of posing fictitious scenarios, try asking them about real situations that occurred within your company. Have them walk you through how they would handle the situation. “Be sure to ask them to identify which soft skills are needed while they are walking you through it,” says Huang.

At ProSky, candidates go through skills-based tests individually or in groups to solve a specific problem and accomplish something that will benefit the company. You and your employees then manage and evaluate the results, explains Huang, so that your company can hire based on their performance. “Projects and challenges not only are great ways to evaluate candidates in real time but also give them insight into the company culture and the types of projects they might be working on.”

Heather Becker, a senior consultant with 4 Point Consulting, asks a time-tested question: “Tell me about a time you made an error in your work. What happened, and how did you handle it?” She says, “If the candidate is management level, I also ask about a time a subordinate made a mistake. What happened, and how did you handle it?”

The answers give insight into past behavior, an excellent indicator of future behavior. Did the candidate own up to the mistake or pass the buck and make excuses? Did the candidate learn from the mistake? What kind of steps were put into place to ensure the error would not be made again in the future?

For a management-level role, the answers can reveal what kind of manager candidates are and what people skills they have. How did they react: freak out or remain calm and collected? Did they turn the situation into a learning experience for the subordinate? Did they provide the individual the opportunity to come up with future measures to avoid the mistake, or did they take control and micromanage?
How you suss out soft skills depends on your company and your culture. But what’s universal, no matter what type of business you’re in, is that the soft stuff is critical to a company’s success. Says Gina Curtis, an executive recruiting manager for JMJ Phillip Executive Search, “Soft skills add to a company’s bottom line.”

In fact, a recent study from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan found that soft skills training, like communication and problem-solving, boosts productivity and retention 12 percent and delivers a 256 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention.

“Employees’ soft skills help drive results with clients and create new ideas,” Curtis continues. “Even an employee’s internal drive and motivation are important for the company to succeed. To be a successful corporation, you need people who can communicate well, collaborate, and are creative and motivated.” DW

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a frequent contributor to DW.

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