Hiring for Potential – How to Spot Soft Skills and Hire a Candidate You Can Mold Into a High Performer


According to the Harvard Business Review, potential is the most important predictor of success when hiring. Unfortunately, many organizations pass over high-potential candidates because they focus too much on previous work experience.

Join Laura Lloyd, Regional VP of Sales, and Drea Douglass, Director of Talent Management Consulting, as they reveal what to look for in a candidate—beyond the resume—to identify “raw talent” and future high performance.

In 19 hyper-focused minutes, we’ll cover:
  • Why focusing on candidates who look “great on paper” can be a flawed hiring strategy
  • How to identify the soft skills a candidate should have to align with the job requirements and company culture
  • Why hiring a high performer from the competition often backfires
  • Interview questions you can ask to uncover a candidate’s soft skills and identify if they’re compatible for the job

Read the Full Transcript of the Briefinar Below: 

Drea Douglass:    If you’re here for the Briefinar, you’re in the right place. We’ll get started in just a minute. Hello and welcome to Briefinars for sales leaders. We promise to be brief, bright, and bring it all to you in 19 minutes. Remember that we’ll be sending out a recording of the presentation so you’ll have access to it. Today, we’re going to cover hiring for potential, and more specifically, how you can learn to spot soft skills and hire a candidate you can mold into a high performer. I’m joined today by Laura Lloyd, regional VP of sales. Laura, I know that you’re passionate about this topic and we’re glad to have you here today to share your insight. 
Laura Lloyd:    Thanks Drea. I’m really glad to be here today. Soft skills are today’s power skills, and they are the key to hiring. These are the things that are under the hood, so to speak. 
Drea Douglass:    Okay, let’s jump right in. When it comes down to it, we all want to hire people who perform at high levels on our team, who will take the organization and the direction that it’s trying to go, and who are a good fit for the culture. Those folks who gel with your people. 
Laura Lloyd:    Yep. Most companies are taking what they feel are the obvious steps from posting a job in reviewing candidates. They create a job description, they post it on the Internet, they sort through the resumes that come through, and they look for relevant work experience and technical skills. If they see what they’re looking for, they’ll bring somebody in for the interview ,and if the candidate seems that they have that good personality and present themselves, usually, that’s it. They’re hired. There’s nothing that’s inherently wrong with this approach. It’s just that it usually skips over a very important piece of that puzzle, which is evaluating those soft skills. 
Laura Lloyd:    Okay. Sorry. So when somebody looks great on paper and the interview well, but it doesn’t end up working out in the long run, we have to ask ourselves why didn’t it work out? And most of us have had this happen before, so we can relate. This is a great visual. It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They look perfect and polished in the interview, but six weeks and you’re like, “Where did that person go that I hired??
Drea Douglass:    Absolutely. Honestly in the first interview, this may be not even be conscious. They may not even realize that they are “pretending to be someone they’re not.” We all try to put our best foot forward in the interview process, but you want to make sure, not only for the company’s sake but for the individual themselves, that they’re not getting themselves into a position that they’re not really a good fit for it, and long term, they’re not really going to be happy or in a position to succeed. If you’ve got somebody who’s a more laid back type, but in the interview, they turn on the energy because they’re nervous, and the job does require that high sense of urgency there, they’re showing you in the interview, they’re a go getter, but then they get into the role and they realize, “Oh my gosh, this is fast paced all the time.” 
Laura Lloyd:    They won’t be able to sustain that. 
Drea Douglass:    They can’t keep up, they don’t want to have to keep up long term. So you want to really make sure that they truly are a fast-paced high energy person. 
Laura Lloyd:    Yeah. So before we go any further, let’s cover exactly what we mean when we say soft skills. So soft skills, they’re also known as competencies, or personal skills, their attitudes, their character traits, interpersonal skills that shape a person’s relationship with themselves and with others. We’re talking social and emotional intelligence. 
Drea Douglass:    Okay Laura, tell us why should we care about soft skills? 
Laura Lloyd:    Well, according to the Harvard Business Review, potential is the most important predictor of success when hiring. Any potential is largely determined by somebody’s soft skills. What we found in over 40 years of helping organizations hire, train, and retain high performing teams is that it’s absolutely essential for interviewers to understand what soft skills are, and ask the questions and uncover the soft skills that a candidate has during that interview process. 
Drea Douglass:    Okay, so now we know soft skills are. Let’s walk our audience through how they differ from hard skills or technical skills. 
Laura Lloyd:    Sure. So some examples of hard skills. Do they have experience using that CRM system? Do they have sales process knowledge? Are they proficient in PowerPoint? Some of the examples of the soft skills, on the other hand, are self-management. Do they have the ability to prioritize and complete tasks in order to deliver those desired outcomes within those specific timeframes, or what his results orientation. Do they have the ability to identify actions that are necessary to complete the tasks and obtain those results that you’re looking for, and are they resilient? Do they have the ability to quickly recover from adversity? 
Drea Douglass:    Yeah. I really like, Laura, I’m sorry. I’m just going to stop you there because even though we didn’t post the definitions here for each of those soft skills, I think it’s really important that companies are aware that that’s a crucial aspect of this. It’s not just saying, “Okay, self-management is important. Make sure you’re self-managing. You need to make sure you clarify what you mean by that, and be very specific, but not too long winded. One sentence. Clearly articulating what you mean by self-management is crucial in helping the person who’s going to be in this role truly understand what’s going to be expected of them. 
Laura Lloyd:    Exactly. So when we’re looking at what each measures, the hard skills, they have more to do with what a person knows. While soft skills, they’re more of an indicator of who a person is, and in general, hard skills or technical skills, they can be learned and perfected over time while those soft skills really are more difficult to acquire, and they won’t change. It’s how they are. That’s how they’re wired naturally. 
Drea Douglass:    Absolutely. Well, and I wouldn’t necessarily go as far to say they won’t change, but it’s much more difficult for somebody to change those things about them. It takes a certain level of commitment to personal growth honestly, and a lot of people, first of all, they don’t realize that they lack these skills. They walk around with what we call cognitive blind spots. They don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t realize it until someone brings it to their attention. So that’s a first step. 
Laura Lloyd:    To have that awareness. 
Drea Douglass:    Absolutely. And the second step, of course, then too is to accept the fact that you may actually not be a perfect person, or not take it too hard. Some people, they can go opposite directions. Some people think, “Oh, I think this is great about me.” That’s your opinion. I’m not going to change that. Or they have the opposite attitude where like, “Oh yeah, you’re right. I’m a terrible person. I’m never going to be good enough.” And that can hinder their growth too. So they really need to accept it objectively and say, “Okay, well what if this is true about me? How does that play out in my day-to-day life and how can I improve in this area?” If you think about it, soft skills are largely linked to a person’s emotional intelligence. That is their self-awareness, that’s one half, self-awareness, of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as awareness of others, which is the other half and what they need, what others need from us. 
Drea Douglass:    Imagine the new hire that has all the hard skills listed on their resume. Technically, they know what a system is all its features, but how well do use that knowledge? That’s where soft skills come in. You can think of those soft skills as the polish of a person .
Laura Lloyd:    And that’s really a great point. It illustrates why you can’t afford to ignore those soft skills in the hiring process. The hard skills are teachable. You can train a person with the hard skills required for a job. You can train them to use your CRM, you can train them and to follow that sales process, for example, but soft skills are definitely more permanent, and are just part of who a person, how they are naturally. For example, when a candidate who’s capable of providing consistently high quality work and meeting all those deadlines, and they’re up against a candidate who possesses relevant job experience, but lacks those key attributes, the candidate with the soft skills has a greater chance of succeeding in that job. 
Drea Douglass:    So what soft skills does your position need, dear audience? Necessary soft skills vary across jobs and companies. For example, when Google hires, they look for things like agile learning, leadership, intellectual humility, and an inquisitive nature. It’s important to determine exactly what the specific position in your company needs in order to be successful. This information can be used to develop a benchmark, or ideal job profile. 
Laura Lloyd:    I’ve seen so many of our clients benefit from using the benchmark. Here at the Brooks Group, we do offer a benchmarking tool. It creates an ideal job profile, and that process is facilitated by our hiring expert like Drea, and provides a comprehensive report that can be compared to the assessment results to find the best match candidate for the job. But if you were to do the process on your own, we would recommend these steps: identify the role and the formal job title, gather subject matter experts. So who would that be? That would be people who are currently in the role, maybe somebody that manages the role, a HR representative, embers of the leadership team. 
Drea Douglass:    Absolutely. And you don’t want to get too big with your group here. You want to keep it to a maximum of 10, I’d say, ideally around seven people because then you just get a lack of productivity.
Laura Lloyd:    Can’t really finalize what you’re trying to get to. Another thing, determine the accountabilities the job needs for success now, and more importantly, into the future. When you think of key accountabilities, you want them to think in terms of what a person in this role is going to be graded on, and how do you know based on trackable measurable data if this person is successful or not. For example, in an outside sales role, one of the most important accountabilities you may find is to be, if you’re looking at tracking, would be opportunities created when I think of sales, or following a sales process. Then based on those accountabilities, determine up to 10 soft skills or traits that a candidate will need to be successful in the role. For example, some traits associated with the rep who is creating opportunities are things like the results orientation or problem solving, persistence, planning, and organization, things like that. 
Drea Douglass:    So once you have your soft skills identified, you’ll need a strategy for uncovering them in your candidates. Interview questions are a great way to assess soft skills. If you use effective behavioral interview questions, you’ll have a much easier time uncovering soft skills and noticing candidates’ red flags. A validated assessment tool, if you’re using one, can help you back up your gut feelings with science. Sometimes, when you’re sitting across the desk from a candidate, you may feel that something about them is not quite right. It’s a little off. While you don’t want to base your entire decision on that gut feeling, you don’t want to ignore it either or write it off as a fluke. This is where that validated assessment tool can help you more clearly identify what the source of your concerns are. So is that gut feeling a temporary result of a fundamental difference in how you prefer to communicate versus how they prefer to communicate, or is it that they lack interpersonal skills, and are at a higher likelihood of struggling to communicate in general with internal and external clients? 
Drea Douglass:    That’s kind of a basic example that I hear actually quite a bit. Ultimately, we want to help you determine if what seems like a small thing is really something bigger in the long-term. 
Laura Lloyd:    That’s right, Drea, and it’s always better to know this much earlier on in the process before you hire someone and start investing in them rather than six weeks down the road into the job, and all of a sudden, it surfaces. 
Drea Douglass:    Absolutely. It’s six weeks is typically what I hear too. It’s like, “Okay, this isn’t cute anymore. This is just who this person is. And I’m not sure how we..”
Laura Lloyd:    How this has worn on. 
Drea Douglass:    How do we “fix this person?” Well, that’s just who they are. So it’s like asking, “How do I fix myself?” You have to think of that like that, so trying to change a leopard spots. You should go into your interview with prepared questions to uncover a candidate’s soft skills. Use the out-n-in exercise to create these questions. So what is the out-n-in exercise? Let me explain this to you a little bit. So first, you want to ask yourself, what answer do you want to get out of the candidate? What’s the soft skill you want to target? So say for example, you need to understand this candidate’s ability to plan and organize. So planning an organization is the soft skill associated with creating opportunities. So the accountability, also if we go all the way back, is creating opportunities. We decided planning an organization is an important soft skill to help them achieve that. Okay, so that’s what you want to get out. How good are they at planning and organizing? So then you ask yourself, what question do I need to put in in order to get that information out? 
Drea Douglass:    So then you can structure a couple of questions, and we have a couple of those for you here in just a second we’ll walk you through, but that’s really what it is.
Laura Lloyd:    Well, remember, these questions need to be open ended. You allow those candidates to talk about their individual experiences in their own way. They’re also, encourage follow-up questions so interviewers can clarify points and better understand candidates’ responses. Now we’re going to go into some of those questions. 
Drea Douglass:    So here we have self management, for example. The ability to prioritize and complete tasks in order to deliver desired outcomes within allotted time frames. You’ll notice here that these show, they ask for examples, so past experiences often help point to future success. You don’t want to base your entire decision again off of that, because people learn from their mistakes. So we all are always getting better and improving. 
Laura Lloyd:    I hope they do.
Drea Douglass:    Exactly. 
Laura Lloyd:    All right, so going into sample questions for results orientation, the ability to identify actions necessary to complete tasks and obtain results. I’m going to go over this first question, but keep in mind, you’ll be getting a copy of this, so you’ll get all these questions you can use down the road. Give me an example of one thing in your life that you’ve worked on for what you consider to be a very long time with no distractions or break. And what did you dislike most about that? How successful were you in completing it? We drill down a little bit more. How long a time did you work for it? 
Drea Douglass:    You’ll notice here too that those, a lot of those are open ended, remember, so just to reiterate that point, how important that is. Don’t ask “did you” or “do you” questions, then you’re going to get a yes or no. Well, you’re just not going to get a complete answer. You’re not going to allow that person the opportunity to articulate their experience. 
Laura Lloyd:    Right. Okay.
Drea Douglass:    All right, so here we have one for planning and organization which we talked about earlier, and again, open ended, asks for examples, “Tell me about.” You definitely want to ask that type of question. So we just shared three soft skills and questions you can use to uncover them in an interview, but we have a download with suggested interview questions for nine common soft skills your open position may benefit from, so keep your eye open for that as a download in your inbox. One question you might be asking, are soft skills more important than hard skills? Not necessarily. We recommend balancing them. Hard skills and previous experience are a good starting point, and can help you decide who you bring in for an interview. The problem is that focusing too much on previous experience and hard skills doesn’t give you the insight needed to determine if a person is a good fit for the job requirements and your company culture. You may also be ignoring the value of a candidate’s potential, which can’t easily be uncovered by learning about their qualifications and previous work experience. 
Laura Lloyd:    Yeah, you really need to take a balanced approach and evaluate a candidate’s previous experience, their hard skills and their soft skills. Okay, so let’s take for example, one of the most common scenarios we see play out. A company hires one of their competitor’s top performing sales rep, and the new newly hired rep clearly has the skills and background to be successful and plenty of industry knowledge as an added bonus, but so often is the situation that the rep doesn’t perform well in that position, and I can give you an example. Former employer, we hired another rep from a competing company. And what happened was that although they had the qualifications, that rep did not fit because they marched to the beat of their own drum while the culture was much more team oriented. So if you’re using hiring best practices, including interviewing to uncover soft skills and assessing the candidate, there’s a good chance you could avoid this situation. 
Drea Douglass:    Yeah, absolutely. Cultural fit’s so important, as well as hiring for if so, like we say, hire for fit and train for skills. Not to say that skills aren’t important. We don’t want to underestimate the value of those. Like we say, we recommend balancing the level of importance here. Some roles, you just absolutely need those hard skills and are willing to compromise on the soft skills a little bit, but those technical skills oftentimes can be learned. However, a person’s motivators and behavior style are typically less malleable. If you hire solely based on resume credentials and previous experience, you not only risk a cultural misalignment, you also miss out on high potential candidates with the kind of raw talent that can be developed over time. 
Laura Lloyd:    So we had mentioned Brooks Talent Index job benchmark briefly, and those listeners who already use the Brooks Talent Index assessment are probably very familiar with them. The beauty of the benchmark is that it allows you to determine exactly what a position requires for long-term success, including those soft skills, and then compare your job candidates to that blueprint, and one of the features that comes with every job benchmark you create is that custom interview guide. You can see before an interview where a candidate might not line up completely with the job requirements, and within the guide, you’ll be given custom questions that allow you to really drill down into those areas. It’s like having an expert hiring consultant walk you through your interview process, but in a much more convenient and cost effective way, because it’s all right there for you in that guide. If you want more information about how you can get access to the interview guide, you can reach out to me at lloyd@thebrooksgroup.com
Drea Douglass:    Also, keep a lookout in your email to find out if you’re the lucky winner of a free sales hiring consultation with me, Drea Douglass, director of talent management consulting at the Brooks Group. 
Laura Lloyd:    Yeah. Unfortunately, we don’t really have time to cover questions because we promised to be brief, bright and gone. But feel free to email us with any questions. We really want to thank you for your time today, and hope you have some good takeaways. Have a great day.

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