CXO

Interview beyond a candidate's technical skills

The best job candidate isn't always the most technical one. Here are some tips for finding a candidate with the soft skills that will help your team run better.


When IT managers interview IT pros, it’s tempting to select the candidate whose technical skills blow the others out of the water. But a truly effective employee brings more to the table than purely technical skills. Every new hire offers you the opportunity to increase the strength of your team, add flexibility, improve responsiveness, and add overall capability to your IT organization.

Don’t get me wrong. Technical skill should be your top priority. But it shouldn’t be your only priority. Softer, nontechnical skills can often make the difference in an employee’s productivity and value to the organization. Superior knowledge of a particular technology does not guarantee effective implementation and support of that technology.

With this in mind, here are some guidelines for determining what soft skills your team should have to be effective and how you go about measuring them.

The softer skills
I try to pin down several characteristics in a candidate to determine whether he or she will be a good fit for the team. If I need stronger project management capability or someone who can help me improve the client service culture in my organization, I make that a priority in my hiring profile. I find it helpful to categorize the softer skills in 12 groups:
  1. Leadership
  2. Client service
  3. Proactive or reactive
  4. Follow-up
  5. Communication
  6. Organization
  7. People skills
  8. Project management
  9. Sense of urgency
  10. Attention to detail
  11. Positive attitude
  12. Teamwork

Create your profile
Before trying to determine any of the softer skill traits in an individual, develop a profile of what you need in these areas. For example, if you already have excellent project management capabilities but need people with stronger communication, client service, and people skills, make them priorities just as you would do in defining the technical skills you want.

By defining the ideal candidate’s profile, you will be able to hire someone who more closely meets your “perfect employee” scenario. You probably won’t find everything you want in one person, but developing a profile helps to create a clear picture of what to look for. From there, you can prioritize what is most important in a new employee.

Verifying soft skills
So how do you verify soft skills? You can’t always ask a former employee, since many firms provide only verification of dates of employment. One way to get the information is to ask the candidate some carefully crafted questions. For example, ask the employee if he is more comfortable in initiating activities or reacting to situations that come up. Before you ask the question, make it known that you have a need for both types of people—those who take initiative as well as those that are comfortable dealing with the unexpected and reacting effectively and calmly. You can ask different questions that will help you determine whether the individual tends to be proactive or reactive.

Examples might include:
  • “Do you prefer to initiate actions that assess and anticipate problems or are you more comfortable in dealing with a problem when it occurs? What examples can you provide?”
  • “Our company needs both fire prevention people and ‘firefighters’. Which of the two types best describes your skills and preferences? Can you give me examples that show this?”

Be sure to ask candidates for examples of their past experience to help you evaluate their answers; many people are adept at giving answers they believe you are looking for. One of the tools that I find to be very effective in evaluating the tendencies of individuals is a product called Predictive Index (PI). Sold by Praendex, Inc., PI does not measure skill but it clearly defines a person’s tendencies and basic behavior in a few key areas such as initiative, sense of urgency, attention to detail, tendency to delegate and inspect, etc.

Once the criteria is plotted in PI, you’ll get a chart similar to the table in Figure A.

Figure A


PI’s interpretation of this chart is that the candidate:
  • Is a self starter.
  • Has a high sense of urgency.
  • Delegates and inspects closely.
  • Is detail oriented and more controlling.

Whether you have access to tools like PI or not, you can use the soft skills list I provided earlier to create profiles for virtually any employee position in your organization. Use the table (see Figure B) as a starting guide to help you build your “nontechnical skills” profile for each of your employee types.

Figure B
In this chart, a candidate's soft skills are designated as High (H), Medium (M), and Low (L).


For each of the IT positions listed in the far left column, I defined the typical soft skills needed to be effective in the job. Every soft skill is weighted with High (H), Medium (M), and Low (L) for each position. There are no absolutes here. This is just an attempt to put a “stake in the ground” to provide a simple guide for defining the soft skills you want in a new hire.

When you need to develop a profile for a new position, you may start with the guide shown here and modify as needed to create a specific profile for your exact needs. For example, if you need stronger leadership skills in your programming group, modify the Leadership and Communication skills to a “High.” You work through a similar process when defining the technical skills you want in a new hire.

When interviewing, don’t forget to look for the soft skills that will help the individual be successful in your company or that add needed capabilities to your organization. Building an effective team is as much about developing a team with character and likable personal traits as being the best technical organization.

Mike Sisco is CEO of MDE Enterprises, an IT training and consulting company in Atlanta. For more insight into Mike’s IT management perspective, take a look at his IT Manager Development Series.

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