Evaluating interpersonal aka soft skills in executive level candidates is one of the most challenging parts of being a hiring manager. Why? Because very few people are 100% themselves in interview settings.
It’s especially difficult to gauge assertiveness and extroversion in an interview setting, because everyone knows they’re being judged and evaluated, and they don’t want to come across as egotistical. A candidate’s interview behavior may not be indicative of how they act in general. This makes it challenging to find out how someone behaves on an everyday basis.
Challenging, but not impossible.
It’s crucial to gauge a potential executive’s interpersonal skills, but how can you do that if you don’t have weeks to get to know them? What if you need to hire a new team leader within a few days?
Use our top five ways to evaluate interpersonal skills in executive candidates…
1. Meet your candidate in an informal setting.
If you only have a few days to hire someone, holding your interview at a coffee shop or over a meal is the best way to fast track the hiring process by observing your potential employee in a casual environment.
How do they behave, from beginning to end? If you meet at a coffee shop, are they waiting for you by the door, or have they already ordered a coffee and chosen a seat where their back’s to you when you enter?
What’s your impression within 30 seconds of meeting them? Are they quiet and reserved, or warm and outgoing? Do they stand up immediately and give you a firm handshake while maintaining eye contact?
Notice how they engage with the barista, server, and/or host, depending where you are. Observe your candidate and how the people they interact with respond to them. Do people seem to like them, or feel a little put-off by their behavior?
You’ll quickly be able to tell if they’re outgoing and friendly, or quiet. On the executive level, the people who thrive are those who connect easily with others and show compassion and empathy.
2. Map out specific situational and behavioral questions.
Posing open-ended, situational and behavioral questions helps you get right to the core of things when you’re evaluating a candidate’s interpersonal skills.
An example of a situational question would be, “If you got into a conflict with a co-worker over originality and idea ownership, how would you handle it?”
Behavioral questions force them to pull on their past, for example, “Describe the biggest challenge you’ve had in your career so far. How did you navigate it?”
Pay close attention to how your candidate responds to these more complex questions. Do they seem nervous and tense, or at ease? Does it seem like they’ve answered questions like this before?
One system I love to see candidates use to respond to these questions is the STAR Method, which is a structured approach to responding to situational and behavioral questions.
If you’re not familiar, STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The candidate would describe the Situation – usually a challenge – and then the Task, which is what needed to happen to rectify the situation. The Action is what the candidate did to reach success or “put out the fire,” and the Result is what, in turn, happened.
An example would be, “We lost two key advertising clients, and we needed to fill their places within a month. I reached out to my private network and held multiple coffee meetings to acquire new clients. We ended up filling the two open ad spaces, and taking on an additional two clients due to my series of meetings. That resulted in a 40% increase in revenue.”
Using the STAR Method shows that a candidate has interview experience, and it allows them to objectively outline their successes without coming across as overly confident. When used effectively, the STAR Method helps candidates simply state the facts of what happened and paint a picture of their soft skills.
Before the interview, sit down and draft at least 3-5 situational and behavioral questions that relate to the position you’re hiring for.
This will greatly help you in identifying soft skills, like how a potential candidate communicates and works under pressure. When you prepare a few hot button questions you won’t have to resort to general questions that don’t tell you much about a candidate’s personality. You’ll quickly find out how dynamic the person is.
3. Get the inside story from your candidate’s references.
Remember to ask your candidate’s references about their interpersonal skills. It’s easy to just focus on the numbers and big wins when you call a reference, and those facts do matter. However, asking a past supervisor about your potential hire’s soft skills is one of the best ways to learn about their personality.
Even if it’s as simple as “How would you describe Tom’s interpersonal skills?” make sure you ask at least one question about soft skills, if not many. Find out the most challenging aspects of the candidate’s personality, and how they dealt with conflict.
Another great question for a reference is, “How would Joe’s direct reports describe him and his communication style?”
4. Put your candidate through the lunch test.
If a candidate doesn’t ask you anything about yourself for the entire interview, that’s a sign they could be self-absorbed and only in it for themselves. An interview is a two-way conversation, with the hiring manager leading. You want your candidate to show interest in you without trying to take the reins on the interview.
The conversation should be approximately 75% about the candidate and 25% about you, the hiring manager, and the company. The candidate is there to sell themselves, but they’re also there to learn if they’re a match for the company, and to do that they need to learn about you.
It’s not a one-way street – any time you bring on a new hire, it should be a winwin situation. If they don’t ask any questions about you and just seem focused on getting a paycheck, then they have no way of knowing if the company is a fit for them. A candidate can (and should) say no to a job offer that isn’t the right fit, and they need to ask questions to find that out.
With the right candidate, you’ll want to grab lunch with them after the interview, and you wouldn’t want to spend time with someone who talked about themselves for the entire interview, would you?
It’s important to surround yourself with people you genuinely like and enjoy being with in the workplace. That’s how you build high-performing teams that accomplish great things.
5. Find out what they’ve taken initiative on.
Did they ideate a big new project with their current organization, or have they mostly executed other people’s ideas? Being able to take initiative and be assertive is crucial in any leadership role. Ask them what projects they’ve executed from inception to fruition.
At this point, you also want to ensure they’re humble by noticing if they credit their team or not. Are they always speaking in first person, or do they give credit where it’s deserved? Look for someone who uses “we” more often than “I” – no one wants an egomaniac leading their team.
This is also a great time to find out how they inspired their team and leveraged their resources for their project. How did they inspire great work? And how would they describe their leadership style? I’m always surprised by how many executives struggle to answer this question.
Self-awareness is extremely important, and being able to describe themselves accurately and honestly is a key indicator of it. If we’re not aware of our own behavior, we can’t grow and evolve.
Which of these five approaches seems the most helpful to you? How do you evaluate soft skills when interviewing? Do you have another method? I’d love to hear your thoughts!