Soft skills, and how to hire for ’em

Soft skills

One of the biggest flaws in the hiring process — and believe you me, there are quite a few — is the soft skills issue.

What does that mean?

Well, most companies tend to hire for competence — which is logical on face, but competence is overrated. It’s especially overrated right because with the rise of “the tech stack” and “disruption,” business models change (the buzzword is “pivot”) a lot. So you end up hiring someone with 17 specific skills that you wanted, but two years later, those skills are completely useless because the base model is pivoted. “Oh God, now we need more data scientists! But all we have are these account managers!”

Second problem of all this: when you hire managers off competence, oftentimes you have a “brilliant jerk” issue. It’s a guy or woman who’s very competent in a specific skill set, right? But they have no soft skills. They barely listen. No idea how to criticize or take feedback. Not an iota of respect. This is actually somewhat normative in employee-manager relationships now, which is why engagement statistics are slipping.

Leadership is mostly about soft skills these days, I’d argue. (And if you’d have 1-2 bad bosses, you know this drill too.)

But how can we hire for soft skills? That’s the challenge.

One way to hire for soft skills!

First, let’s quickly frame the challenge: because most hiring processes are low-context with a lot of generic interviews, it’s hard to assess if someone is, say, “a good communicator.” If you ask them, they’ll lie or game the answer because they want to take your revenue in the form of salary. But it’s very hard to track “good communication” on spreadsheets. Since “tracking on spreadsheets” is the only way most people in white-collar work know how to do anything, we’re doomed.

Or not!

First Round Review held a conference for CTOs recently and put together some of their best advice. Big-name, high-earning companies in there, so read it. It’s good stuff. This stands out:

Institute role plays in your interview process. For every engineering manager role, have the candidate sit with a member of the engineering team and play out a scenario 1:1. It can be about a technical process, an argument about prioritization or giving feedback with both criticism and praise. It’s an effective way to test softer skills and replicate what you’ll get in a ‘real’ situation. Of course, using your engineers’ time like this may seem expensive, but it’s more costly to bring on an engineering leader who doesn’t jive with your team. Plus, after doing it for a few years, you’ll find it becomes a rite of passage and engineers like participating in them.


Why this matters

You’re about to dedicated $90,000+ to this person a year. Chances are your executives want that money back in their bonuses. You can’t whiff on this hire. But if the process is also generic “get to know you/gut feel” interviews, you never see candidates in real-time, real-world situations. That’s where you’d learn about soft skills.


It’s not hard to design situations like the one above. You could even find 20 managers in your company, ask them the most challenging managerial thing they do in a week, record the results, see where the overlap is, and then design a hiring exercise around those elements. Now before you hire someone, you’ve seen how they perform at something which challenges managers already at your company.

Bottom line: if we think everything now is “data-driven,” then we need a more formalized process for testing soft skills and collecting data therein.

… and the other perk

If you test for soft skills, you’ll get better managers in the door. Better managers will almost invariably mean less turnover. This will save you money. Remember: people quit bosses, not usually companies. And recruiting services/firms/etc. often fleece you. Better managers also means teams stay together longer, increasing the power of friends at work, and — provided you can avoid groupthink — likely making the team itself more effective.

How else have you seen people try to assess soft skills in the hiring process?

Ted Bauer


  1. I disagree with part of your premise. Companies and recruiters tell themselves they hire for competence but in reality I believe it almost always comes down to an emotional decision. At a panel discussion I attended a law professor stated that he would “hire for personality over qualifications” and I thought, “Well, at least he admits it.” My over all take on the hiring process in the year 2017 is that it is just total chaos. There is no general method to madness. However, when I walk into an interview my primary concern is I have x number of minutes to get these people to like me. That’s the game, and anyone who thinks different is probably self deluded.

    • That is most assuredly the game, and you’re pretty smart to realize it.

    • I agree 100% Nick, I think that’s part of the problem. That said, like you, I also tend to like people who are at the very least honest about hiring for personality and not qualifications. Makes it easier to know what you’re getting yourself in to.

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