Soft skills: 10 ways to hire for them

Resumes don’t tell you enough about a job candidate’s soft skills, such as communication or consensus-building. Use these 10 techniques to evaluate during the interview
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emotional intelligence

How important are soft skills to IT departments right now? More than three-quarters (78 percent) of HR leaders say they have become more focused on finding technology employees with strong soft skills, according to a survey conducted by technology consultancy West Monroe Partners. And more than two-thirds (67 percent) say that they have withheld a job offer to an otherwise qualified technology candidate solely because of that candidate’s lack of soft skills.

“Today’s high-level business initiatives are equal parts business and technology, that not only require a common language but also effective leadership from employees who haven’t always been asked to focus on their soft skills,” said Greg Layok, senior director and leader of West Monroe’s technology practice.

[ There’s nothing soft or optional about soft skills, writes Dan Roberts. Read also: Goodbye soft skills, hello core skills: Why IT must rebrand this critical competency. ] 

Today’s top soft skills

Communications leads the list of must-have soft skills for IT.

Communication skills – in particular, strong cross-functional communications capabilities – are a must in today’s increasingly agile operating environment, says Seth Harris, partner with executive search firm ON Partners. “IT professionals need to demonstrate communications agility – to be strong listeners and stay engaged.”

The ability to translate technology for the business and also reverse-engineer business demands into IT solutions is also key. “IT leaders must be able to translate broader corporate vision into an understandable roadmap and tactical plan for their teams and the company as a whole,” Harris says.

According to Dr. Ryan Lahti, founder and managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations, other important skills include:

  • Relationship-building
  • Conflict management
  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy 
  • Organizational savvy 
  • Feedback and coaching
  • Collaboration
  • Delegation
  • Motivating others

It doesn’t hurt to be a good marketer to boot. IT professionals increasingly need to take on the role of digital evangelist. “It’s crucial to know how to articulate the journey passionately and convincingly,” says Harris.

How to evaluate a candidate’s soft skills: 10 techniques

Assessing a candidate’s aptitudes in many of these areas takes some finesse. The ability to sell a valuable new technology solution or empathize with business partners may not be apparent at first glance on a resume. The typical interview questions may not yield any insight into an applicant’s self-awareness or ability to resolve conflict.

“Resumes can provide biographical information regarding positions candidates have held at different organizations, along with experience gained over the course of a career, but resumes are not the best way to evaluate soft skills,” Lahti says. “Optimal ways to assess needed soft skills involve obtaining indications or evidence the skills are being demonstrated in the present or have been shown in the recent past.”

Here are a few tricks for teasing out a potential new hire’s soft skills:

1. Ask how often the candidate presents to an executive team or leadership committee or speaks to customers about strategy 

Also, how often do they participate in industry events as a keynote speaker or roundtable participant? These questions can give an indication of how effective an evangelist will be for technology-enabled solutions the IT professional, Harris says. “It can be difficult to assess these soft skills, so the importance of asking for specific examples is crucial.”

[ Is your interview process reasonable? Read also 5 IT hiring mistakes leaders are in denial about. ]

2. Look for rapport

“Being able to have a natural conversation with people is a crucial skill in any profession, but it’s becoming more of a focus for tech professionals,” says Brandon Parezo, technology services team lead at LaSalle Network. “Companies will often look at whether or not a candidate was able to make a connection or build a relationship with them during the interview process.”

3. Go negative

Ask them about a situation in which someone did not agree with their point of view, advises Lahti. Ask follow-up questions to flesh out a picture of the candidate’s ability to handle difficult situations.

Here are some to consider: “How did this situation come about?” “Who was involved?” “What was going through your mind at the time?” “What did you do or say?” “What was your reason for doing or saying this?” “What happened next?” “What was the outcome?”

Cliff Milles, lead technical recruiter with Sungard AS, similarly recommends: “Ask situational-type questions regarding challenging circumstances, such as how the person responded to a difficult situation that didn’t go their way.”

4. Ask about their key stakeholders

 “Asking candidates who their key stakeholders are and how they communicate and stay integrated with their peers’ mission is very important,” says Harris.

5. Consider structured interview techniques

Conversational interviews can give you a sense of an applicant’s personality. However, certain structured interview techniques, performed by trained interviewers and designed to determine what a candidate might do in a situation relevant to the role, can provide a better idea of their typical behaviors and decision-making processes.

Some that Lahti recommends considering are critical incident, behavioral event, and topgrading techniques. “In addition to interviews, reliable and validated assessment instruments provide another good source of information regarding candidates’ soft skills,” Lahti says. “These tools cover a variety of categories – personality attributes, leadership risk factors – and most can be completed online.”

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.