Why Soft Skills Matter - The key predictors of successful hires


Michelle Reed

Michelle brings a tremendous amount of marketing leadership experience to SkillSurvey. A results-oriented, hands-on marketing and communications executive she most recently served as Chief Marketing Officer at Ellucian (formerly SunGard Higher Education), a global higher education technology and service provider for colleges and universities around the world.

With over two decades of experience working in the technology sector, Michelle has also held roles in software development, product management, communications, college recruiting, and human resources.

Webinar Transcript

Announcer: With more than two decades of experience, Michelle prides herself on having the curiosity and passion for learning that has enabled her to acquire a breadth of knowledge in a variety of marketing disciplines across software, cloud, and service technology offerings. Michelle also spent a number of years in human resource managing, college recruiting, competency-based emplacement, and employee communications. Please welcome to Elevate 2015, Michelle Reed.

Michelle: Hi, this is Michelle Reed with SkillSurvey, and during our time together today, we're going to talk a little bit about soft skills. What are they? Why are they so hard to measure? And why are they so vitally important?

We all know that in today's environment, it's really just not enough to be a functional expert. Hiring managers are really looking for something more than basic core competencies for their employees to get the job done. They're really looking for things like personal habits, qualities, attitudes, social graces, and all of those things that really make someone a good employee and really compatible with other members of the team to work with.

According to CareerBuilder, these are the top 10 soft skills today's managers want to see in their candidates. Competencies such as a positive attitude, being a team player, being team-oriented, being able to work really well under pressure, but also being self-motivated, are really important components or soft skills that we really want all of our employees to have today. Also, a new study called The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market was recently highlighted in the New York Times and found that the fastest growing jobs in today's workplace involve both a high degree of thinking and social, or what we call soft skills.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that collectively we're all doing a great job in really identifying the soft skills that are required during the hiring process. And we say that, because a study that was recently conducted by Leadership IQ tracked 20,000 new hires and found that 46% of them failed within the first 18 months of employment. That is just not a stat I think any of us really want within our organizations. And worst of it is 89% of the time, those new hires failed, because it was attitudinal reasons. They had low levels of EQ, emotional intelligence, motivation, temperament; in essence, the soft skills that they needed in order to get the job done.

Now, it's not just the technical job skills that are important, you know, or that they're not important. They really are. We've got to make sure that someone has those hard skills or the technical skills for a job. In a lot of cases, they're a little easier to assess, and we've experienced this at one point in our working career where you find someone, they really seem like they're going to be perfect.

They come in. They dress the part. They have a great conversation with you. They exude confidence during the interview process. And then you bring him into the organization and find out that, unfortunately, they really were too good to be true, and that person that, three months ago, you thought was going to be a rock star in your organization is destroying your sales department. But he seems like the ideal candidate when you brought him in. Maybe he's bullying people, and that intent didn't come out in the interview process. Or maybe his sociopathic streaks kind of slipped through your personality test.

There are just so many ways that, unfortunately, people can get into our organizations who really aren't the exact match or the match that we really need for our organizations to grow our businesses. So where did we go wrong?

Well, traditional hiring practices involve gathering a lot of insight from the candidate. So we collect and review resumes, right? Everybody looks at a resume. You've got to make sure that you understand who this person is and their capabilities. But there's also a sobering statistic about resumes, and that is that over 50% of candidates lie on resumes. Unbelievable, but true.

Also, we conduct interviews, right? So we are talking to these people. We've got many folks within our organization who are having conversations with these individuals, and we're observing their behavior, but we can't leave it at that. We can't always rely on our gut instinct during the interview process, because the alarming fact is even though we think we're doing a great job, we're asking really compelling questions, we know how to interview, we understand what we ought to be asking, the fact of the matter is 81% of people lie about themselves during a job interview. Which to me is a bit of an astounding fact, but it is from a study that was conducted recently by the University of Massachusetts.

Startling. For me, when I tell a story, or if I'm making something up, or I'm terribly uncomfortable, I turn beet red. I don't know how 81% of people are actually able to lie during interviews, but that is a fact that is unfortunate for those of us who are in this world of human resources and making sure that we're staffing our businesses appropriately for growth.

As we're looking at how we bring people into our organization, we also conduct self-assessments. But research conducted by the International Journal of Selection and Assessment really demonstrates that candidates are able to fake these assessments, that they're able to recognize what the correct, what the job related or what the preferred answers might actually be. So they're able to even look online and find answers to self-assessments. So it's something that we should all be really concerned about.

The other thing to take into consideration is the SHRM Foundations for Effective Practice Guidelines also warn that cognitive ability tests have a high adverse impact for minorities. So it's safe to say that when we're reviewing resumes, when we're conducting interviews, when we're administering self-assessments, that we're not necessarily getting the results we need in terms of identifying candidates with the desired soft skills that we need for our organizations. And the fact of the matter is the soft skills really are the hard part. And that's why we're all here today, to talk about how we might change our hiring process to draw out on the soft skills and our candidates that could really mean the difference between a successful hire and a failure.

Now, a candidate's success in a position can be predicted by his or her proficiency in four key competency areas, so professionalism, their interpersonal skills, problem solving, and adaptability, and then finally, personal value commitment. And if your candidate happens to be applying for a management or a leadership position, there are also two additional competency areas. Those are managing others and leadership.

So what I'd like to do is take a look at each competency area and the soft skills that are important for each. But the thing that's really important and that I really want to spend a little bit of time talking about is that there's going to be a difference depending on the position that you're hiring for, because the positions and the roles that we bring into our organization are just so different. We really need to be looking at job-specific soft skills, and what's going to drive success in any one job.

So first off, let's talk a little bit about professionalism. You know, not to state the obvious, but of course, we need employees who are more professional, but professionalism really goes beyond dressing appropriately, or being polite, or being well-mannered. Some of the soft skills in this competency cluster include the basics like dependability; so are they going to show up for work? The ability to follow instructions and having a strong work ethic. But as I mentioned, these soft skills needed to exhibit professionalism vary according to the position being filled.

So let's look at a couple of examples and how they may be differentiated in different roles. So here I have examples of how professionalism can be evaluated and measured differently for two very different roles. So asking very specific questions will help you understand whether a candidate has exhibited the critical job-specific skills, because the skills that demonstrate professionalism for a chemical engineer, for example, are going to be quite different than those that you might ask for a sales professional, so very specific questions under professionalism for the chemical engineer versus the sales professional.

Hopefully, these examples give you a sense of the types of things that you really need to be drilling into as you're looking at soft skills and whether the candidates that you're talking to are really going to be a match for the position that you're looking at, as well as your organization.

Now, the next competency cluster is interpersonal skills, so that's listening, relationship-building, and collaboration. So sure, personality tests can provide some insights regarding interpersonal skills, but I guess the question would be: How well do they really reveal how well a candidate might have worked in a team, you know, worked with a group? How well do doctors and nurses communicate with patients, versus how well does an engineer or an IT manager coordinate a team on a project?

So let's dig into some of the specific examples of interpersonal skills and how they might be different. So every position that you hire is going to have a certain requirement for interpersonal skills. There's very few roles where you're not actually having to work with other people. But we need to know that a registered nurse can provide caring support, and they have the skills that are needed to listen and ask questions without interrupting. They're really critical, you know, when any of us are in a time of need where we're relying on the health system, when we're relying on nurses to support us.

Making sure that the folks who are there in those roles really can provide that support and are listening, and asking questions, and giving you time to articulate some of your concerns is really important. Whereas, it's more important for a housekeeper, for example, to provide a high level of service to all guests while remaining very gracious when handling issues and sometimes even being put in an uncomfortable situation. So demonstrating the very unique differences, again, very job-specific, role-specific differences and the types of soft skills we really need to be getting to and understanding how our candidates rate in each of these areas.

So next up is problem solving and adaptability, and here's where talking about the adaptability and willingness to find solutions to problems. So we're looking for someone who's willing to tackle problems, not just ignore them or let someone else handle them. We're looking for candidates who learn from their experiences and apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations and in new opportunities that they're going to find themselves in in your organization.

So let's look at some of the differences in the problem solving and adaptability area. So help desk technicians and payroll clerks both obviously need to be able to solve problems and to be flexible, but your help desk candidate really needs to be able to handle multiple projects in a very fast-paced environment. Everyone needs technical help, me included, on any given day. Whether it's the CEO of your organization or the receptionist, everyone depends on these folks to have the skills to be able to respond to them quickly and move on to the next person who might be having a challenge.

Whereas, when you're working as a payroll clerk, we don't want that candidate to work necessarily fast handling multiple projects. The skills we want them to exhibit focus more on really making high-quality decisions and knowing when there is an issue or there is a challenge or something that they're not able to respond to themselves, knowing exactly when they should be escalating that issue to a manager.

So the next competency cluster is personal value commitment. Now, we know that in today's diverse and mobile work force, it's really important that we understand a candidate's ability to interact well with people of all different backgrounds. So personal value commitment also means adherence to standards and policies. Do they play by the rules? Touching on things like compliance, abiding by the guidelines, and the policies, and practices that your organization has put into place.

And as we look at the different types of roles and some specific examples of how these soft skills can be different for different roles in your organization, when you're looking at candidates for a controller position, that's stressful in its own right. And you need to be certain that the candidates that you're going to be talking to are going to be able to really keep your organization's financial and client information confidential, but at the same time, you also need to be certain that they're going to act in accordance with accounting standards.

So do they have those commitments to adhering to policies and practice? Whereas, if it's a graphic artist, that candidate needs to have a bit of a different skill set, so they need to have ethics and integrity, of course, but they also need to understand and be aware of and then follow industry standards to make sure that they're not leveraging images that would be inappropriate for you to be using in, perhaps, some of your sales and marketing materials.

Now, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, If you're hiring someone to manage or to lead, there are a couple more competency clusters that you'll want to be sure to pay attention to. So first off, the ability to manage others. So no matter what position we're assessing candidates for, if it involves managing others, there are certain soft skills that are really necessary for success. So the ability to build a strong team and to build a diverse team by continually recruiting and selecting the most competent and talented people is really, really important as we grow our organizations.

As you're leading a team, are your leaders able to assign tasks to their direct reports according to their capabilities? Are they really giving people the opportunities to grow, and stretch, and to learn? Are they providing guidance to the team? Do they know how to set objectives? Can they establish work schedules, and develop, and implement policies and procedures that will work for that organization? Do they have a mentoring environment for their direct reports, including some professional development, comprehensive training plans? Do they know how to develop people? That's an important part of managing a team.

And then of course, the ability to effectively measure performance and hold people accountable for meeting their goals, you know, delivering timely and honest feedback in a constructive and a non-threatening way, very, very important skills regardless of where you are managing within the organization. Now, you know, we've all had bosses who saw a problem and didn't have the ability to address it or hold people accountable, and we all know that this can lead to a team's deterioration and more quickly can cause lots of challenges for your organization. So really important that you're bringing people in who really do know how to manage others.

And finally, leadership. While some of the skills and competencies needed to be a truly successful leader are similar for every leadership position, so like setting direction, managing through change - we all deal with change all the time, of course - motivating others, but there also are some very job-specific criteria that should be considered. We've had experience with this. You know, if you fail to uncover past issues with a candidate's leadership skills, it can be incredibly expensive; just a huge, huge challenge and a big mistake for your organization to make. So assessing and understanding the soft skills and the abilities of your candidates for your most senior leadership positions might frankly be most important of all.

So a couple of examples on desired leadership skills as you're looking at the soft skills that are essential in these very senior roles. If you're looking at a CFO candidate, they need to be able to lead the development of a financial plan, and in many cases, they're going to serve as the trusted advisor to the president or CEO of your organization. And the importance of the CIO being able to create a technology vision that inspires the action of the rest of the organization. Do they feel excited and motivated about the direction that that technology strategy is going to be taking your organization? Really important to make sure that you're understanding this for these senior roles.

So we've discussed the six competency areas which are true predictors of success and the importance of them being identified for each position, so very, very specific to the job. So professionalism, interpersonal skills, problem solving and adaptability, and personal value commitment. And then for those who are in management or leadership positions, managing others and leadership. We also discussed that it's really critical, just a reminder, that understanding the different soft skills and making sure that they are job-specific really, really is critical.

So we know that soft skills are important. We also know that we have to continue to review resumes, and we have to continue to interview. Many of us will continue to conduct personality assessments to better understand who these individuals are that we're considering bringing in to our organization. But the challenge is, all of that information, really, is coming from the perspective of the individual themselves. So it's actually coming from the candidate. So that's where you're getting all of that information, and many times it's not necessarily accurate. So where do you get the information if you can't trust that all of the information that you're getting from the candidate is a 100% accurate picture of themselves?

Well, research has proven that feedback related to past work performance is the single best predictor of future job success. So past performance will give you the predictive insight that you need to understand how candidates will perform in the future. This will help you hire better people who will perform well, stay for years, and contribute to the overall business success of your organization. And frankly, the future of your organization depends upon really understanding the past performance of your job candidates.

A study that was published by Brian Connelly and Dr. Deniz Ones shows that when assessing job performance, ratings from others were substantially more predictive of success than self-ratings. So much of what we get during the interview and selection process is information from the candidates. But published studies are telling us that when assessing job performance, the ratings of others are more predictive of success than what we say about ourselves. Also, Peter Cappelli from the Wharton School says, "Nothing in the science of prediction and selection beats observing actual performance in an equivalent role." So the feedback related to past work performance is the best predictor of future job success. So how can you get your hands on this type of information about candidates?

Well, a different approach that's gaining momentum in talent acquisition today is using technology to obtain online automated reference responses. This approach is job-specific, and we just talked about how and why that's really important. And because this approach involves automated technology, there's a big difference between having hiring managers across the organization reaching out and talking to people, talking to former employees and managers as opposed to using a standardized compliant survey where every reference for every candidate for a position is responding to the same set of questions. Compliance, we all know, is of utmost importance.

And these technologies also provide a great deal of insight that can be used by both the HR teams and hiring managers alike to really help inform hiring decisions, because better hiring decisions lead to stronger teams who will ultimately contribute more to your business.

And findings from 12 different studies were summarized for a publication in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, The International Journal of Selection and Assessment, and this particular study tracked more than 34,000 new hires over a 21-month period after they were hired. And the information captured in the online system, in the online reference checking, was compared to the candidates' on-the-job performance. The results illustrate that web-based references is, in fact, consistent, is proven to predict turnover, it's compliant, and there are no statistical differences in the results based on race, gender, or age.

So it's no longer just about finding people with immaculate credentials and amazing interview skills. It's time to find the candidates that are really going to be a remarkable fit and help your organization achieve its business goals. The way to do that is to pay attention to soft skills, to think about the soft skills that are important within your organization and within the very specific job that you are considering bringing someone into your organization to fill.