The 'digital skills shortage' and 'war for talent' have been well explored by consultancies, comprehensively covered in the media, and felt first-hand by hiring managers trying to find the perfect person to join their team. 

Quite simply, right now there are a lot of digital jobs and not enough qualified candidates.

So when the preferred specialist knowledge and experience is out of reach, how do you identify someone with the right blend of 'soft skills' who could learn the technical aspects of a role?

The growing importance of soft skills

The headline finding of Econsultancy’s 2014 report Skills of the Modern Marketer was that, increasingly, managers are looking for candidates with traditional marketing skills and particular mindsets and behaviours that will help them to succeed in digital roles.  

One interviewee for the report goes as far as to say:

The softer skills are what will define the successful digital marketer of the future.

The report’s author Neil Perkin talks about some of the findings in this post Have changes in modern marketing led to a soft skills revolution?

My top three soft skills

I’ve long kept an evolving list of the most important general attributes I look for, regardless of technical ability

My current top three are:

  1. Ability to learn, think and adapt.
  2. Ability to influence.
  3. A style that illustrates passion, optimism and energy.

1. Ability to learn, think and adapt

Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, has spoken openly about what Google seeks when it hires and this, what they term cognitive ability, is number one on the list (expertise is, by the way, last). 

The abilities to continually learn, think on the fly, and adapt quickly are especially important in the digital world, where the only constant is change and the pace of that change is just going to get faster.

Google assesses cognitive ability using structured behavioural interviews that are validated to make sure they’re predictive. Predictability is the principle behind the technique, the idea being that past behaviours indicate future ones. 

Behavioural interviewing is nothing new. Companies like Accenture have been using it since the 1970s and you’re probably using it too, even if you’re unfamiliar with the term. 

I use a typical behavioural interview question to assess adaptability:

Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a big change, and how you handled it?

In addition to focusing on behavioural interviewing, I’ve found some simple additional tactics that can work well.

First I pay close attention to the questions the interviewee asks me throughout our conversation (not just at the end in response to the routine “And do you have any questions for me?” enquiry).

I’m looking for them to be piecing together the information I’m providing and be interested and inquisitive enough to selectively ask smart questions when they see gaps. 

For second or third interviews (I never do fewer than three) I’ll set a presentation task that involves having to research a topic and recommend a course of action.

This helps to showcase many general skills, like articulation and presentation style, but I’m also interested in the approach taken – how did they research the topic, connect ideas, apply their own thinking, relate it to other relevant factors etc. The process is just as important as the outcome.

2. Ability to influence

If cognitive ability is key to arriving at the right ideas and solutions, then influence is what’s needed to translate those ideas and solutions into practice.

Effective influencing requires a combination of skills such as communication, collaboration, self-awareness, empathy, and perseverance. It could also be termed leadership.

My assessment of communication skills runs across the whole interviewing process. Is the CV well articulated? How does the candidate communicate before, during and after an interview? Do they follow up with a thank you note, feedback or further questions? 

For collaboration nothing beats running a group exercise with existing team members, especially those they’ll need to work with closely. This has a dual benefit – as well as observing their style, you’ll get a glimpse of how other team members work with them and a chance to hear their feedback afterwards.

If the job is office-based it can also be useful to have a strong candidate spend a couple of hours in situ with the wider team. An old colleague once hired a great candidate who only lasted two weeks because he was used to an informal working environment and struggled to adapt to a more corporate culture.

Company culture is essential to factor in for influencing. What’s valued and how things get done can vary hugely from organisation to organisation.

There are many established tools to assess individual working styles and how they fit together, like Myers Briggs or DISC. Saberr is an interesting new entrant into this space and claims a high degree of reliability in predicting the impact of combining the right or wrong people.  

Heineken’s The Candidate is a wonderful example of doing something different to spot the people with the qualities you want in your organisation. No matter how many times I watch it, I always smile when the guy races up to fill the empty spot at the safety net.

3. A style that illustrates passion, optimism and energy

This is all about the vibe I want to create within my team. People who care about and have enthusiasm for what they do, a tendency to look for positive solutions when the chips are down, and an energy that will lift everyone around them. 

I once heard this type of person referred to as a radiator (as opposed to a drain being someone with the opposite characteristics).

The analogy stuck with me. I want to be surrounded by radiators.

First interviews can be a bit of a false environment in that some people might play their natural energy up to make an effort, or down to appear more professional. It’s another reason why I like to see candidates over at least three sessions and in different environments. 

I’ll usually end a first interview by asking how the candidate spends their free time. I don’t care what they talk about – I’m looking for their eyes to light up, to see a spark, an enthusiasm to share something they’re passionate about with someone new. 

A less formal setting can provide more clues to someone’s personality, so if they’ve ticked a lot of boxes and you’re 90% ready to make an offer maybe invite them to a team lunch or social event.

Honing your soft skills interview approach

However you decide to interview for soft skills, make sure your tactics reflect your company culture, values, and brand, as well as the level of the open position. Heineken’s approach to finding an intern fits the likely candidate profile and brand ethos perfectly but isn’t for every company.

Reflect your own personal style too. Interviewing is a two-way process and the candidate is trying to understand as much about you, their future potential boss, as you are about them.

Finally, and critically, be sure to take local laws and customs into account when interviewing. Check with your manager or HR if you’re uncertain about a particular question or tactic.

Within these boundaries, get as inventive as you can. It’ll make for a more interesting and insightful process for you and your candidates, and increase your chances of making a great hire.

Jo Hill

Published 11 December, 2014 by Jo Hill

Jo Hill specialises in digital strategy and leadership and is a contributor to Econsultancy. Connect with Jo through LinkedInTwitter and Google Plus

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