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Defining job requirements and assessing skills

While it may be easy to identify a gap in your team or a problem you don’t know how to solve, it’s more challenging for leaders to identify exactly what skills they should be looking for in a potential candidate. Without defining these at the start of the search, you will waste time, energy and effort interviewing prospective employees and hoping for a positive outcome.

I have written previously about how each position requires a mix of skills—some the candidate must have on day one and others can be developed through coaching over their tenure.

Day one skills

This should be a short, tight list of the skills they will employ on the day they join the team. It will take a few iterations to get to the core of what you need, but really push yourself to reduce it as much as possible. Revisit the list multiple times before finalizing it.

Examples of these day one skills:

  • Core technical skills that no one else in the company has today (such as writing perfect code in Node.js)
  • Skills that are complementary to the existing team and needed to speed up achievement of company goals (for example, P&L ownership for a similar scale product)
  • Domain knowledge that is central to effectively doing their role (for example, a finance director must understand GAAP standards and financial regulation in the country you are operating in)

You should be able to clearly articulate exactly what you are looking for in each of these skills before you begin interviewing. For example, if you are looking for “business acumen,” you need to define what that specifically means for you as the hiring manager. One employee might interpret “business acumen” to mean the ability to understand your business quickly and make recommendations, while someone else might see it as the ability to identify gaps and risks in your business and point them out. 

Without a clear definition, the interviewers may well come to different conclusions about the quality of the candidate, leading to wasted effort and resources.

Coachable skills

These are nice-to-have skills, but they can ultimately be developed over time. You may select these because you have individuals in your organization with particular strength and depth in these skills or because they aren’t needed immediately for the role to be successful.

If you were hiring your first customer success manager to help engage your initial accounts, the candidate would not need to have strong managerial skills. If you have ambitions to grow your account base and will need a larger customer success team in the future, you can help the candidate grow into that role.

To riff on this example, if you are looking for those management skills on day one, you’ll likely hire someone who is ill-suited to the day-to-day hands-on work with customers. They will be more comfortable directing others to do the day-to-day work and will likely get frustrated in the role.

There is always the temptation to stretch further and try to get more bang for your buck when hiring, but more often than not, this leads to disappointment on both sides.

Defining your skills and creating a rubric

I recommend defining the characteristics of each skill you have identified and writing a definition for “poor,” “good” and “great” for each one. Work with the key stakeholders who will be partnering with this hire to ensure they are aligned, and reach out to external experts if you need help defining the rubric.

Your team can then sit down and fairly review each candidate’s answers against this clear rubric, which will aid in decision making.

Skill Poor Good Great
Business acumen Struggled to understand how we generate revenue, and was unable to make clear recommendations for how their team would contribute to organizational success Has a solid understanding of the business, and clearly articulated how their function could help us achieve our goals. Identified one or two areas of opportunity within their function and a path to implementing a solution Proactively researched the company and industry, and came forward with multiple suggestions and ideas for how to improve at both the organizational and team level. Able to connect their function directly to impacting core business metrics, and what that means for revenue
Project management Unable to provide clear example of running a project with more than three key stakeholders and a budget over $200K. No experience in using any project management frameworks or tools to deliver work Has delivered at least two projects from end to end with more than three external stakeholders and budget of more than $200K. Has strength in one project management principle (Prince2, PMI, CCPM, or Lean) and talked competently about overcoming obstacles Has depth of experience in leading multiple projects and programs to successful completion. Has experience with budgets and project complexity significantly higher than our current challenges. Has a tool box of frameworks they can pick from depending on the needs of the business and project. Will significantly level up the organization in project management

Assessing skills

Before we jump into how to assess skills, I want to give a few guiding principles.

  • Look for the reasons to hire—not reasons to justify not hiring—someone.
  • Ask clear questions, and if you’re not getting what you want, assume you didn’t ask the right question and re-articulate it in a more specific way.
  • Every candidate should come out of an interview feeling like they did a great job.
  • Assume all feedback on a candidate will appear on the front page of the New York Times.

Now that you have done the hard work of really defining what you are looking for in the perfect candidate, you need to prepare to assess them fairly and accurately.

Structuring your interview process is important to ensure you give candidates opportunities to demonstrate their experiences in a way that fits your definitions for each skill.

Let’s take the project management definitions from above. Here are two questions you could ask.

  1. Could you tell me about your project management experience?
  2. Could you tell me about the most complex project you have managed from end to end?

Question one leaves a lot open to interpretation, and the candidate is less likely to provide you with the specific examples you need to be able to assess them against your rubric. This can lead to a “false negative” assessment, whereby you reject people with the right skills because you didn’t ask the right questions.

With question two, the candidate will give you an example that allows you to understand how many stakeholders they had, how much budget, and what frameworks they used and why, and gain a deeper understanding of how they work in real-life situations.

Always be ready to ask follow-up questions and qualify the candidate’s answers fully. You should be able to relate their answer to a colleague who wasn’t in the interview and give them a full breakdown of the context, the actions the candidate took and the results they drove. If you can’t, you need to spend more time understanding the candidate’s answers.

Key take-aways

  • Break out job requirements into “day one” and “coachable” skills.
  • Define what each skill means to you and your team.
  • Ask specific, targeted questions that will give you the info you need to assess the candidate against your rubric.
  • Ask follow-up questions to qualify answers, and give candidates every chance to be successful.

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