Should You Hire for Hard Skills or Soft Skills?
The 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report found that a staggering 92% of talent and hiring managers believe that soft skills matter as much as or more than hard skills.
A further 89% agree that “bad hires” fail because they lack the soft skills to succeed professionally.
As you work towards building an exit strategy, one of the first steps you should take is ensuring that your business can run without you. That requires a team of highly-functional, resilient employees who understand what it takes to get things done without you micromanaging their every move.
Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills
Also called “technical skills,” hard skills encompass role-specific abilities. They are quantifiable and typically come with proof of competencies, such as a training certificate or college degree.
Examples of hard skills include:
- Ability to operate a specific kind of machine or tool
- Typing speed
- Graphic design
- Knowledge of Google’s online suite, such as Docs and Sheets
- Bookkeeping and accounting
- Operating a multi-extension interoffice phone network
Almost anyone can learn a particular hard skill. However, it might come easier to some than others based on innate abilities, prior experience in a related craft, and personal interest in the field.
Unlike hard skills, soft skills are not specific to any job, but help employees navigate complex social interactions, respond to challenges, and manage their lives.
Examples of soft skills include:
- Willingness to learn
- Being flexible and adaptable
- Reading social cues
- Maintaining an optimistic attitude
A person’s soft skills are typically linked to their personality, culture, and upbringing, but you can learn them with time and practice.
Case Study: Choosing the Right Candidate
You are hiring for a new sales position and have narrowed your candidate pool to two potential employees.
Candidate A has over a decade of sales experience, during which they’ve honed a performance-driven competitive edge. Their numbers are impressive, and they have a proven track record of consistently increasing profitability.
When speaking with their old manager, you find out that they left their previous position because the rest of the sales team had filed multiple complaints about the candidate.
It escalated as far as some threatening to leave if they had to continue working with Candidate A.
Their reference notes that, while they were aware of Candidate A’s tendency towards aggressive communication and poor conflict resolution skills regarding coworkers, their brilliance in sales more than made up for it until other valuable hires considered leaving their position.
During their most recent performance review, Candidate A was #1 in sales, customer acquisition, and customer satisfaction but had a laundry list of both official and unofficial complaints lodged against them, some of which included:
- Refusing to participate in a non-mandatory conflict resolution training program, despite being strongly encouraged to do so by the team lead
- Talking over and interrupting less experienced team members during meetings
- Making comments about a coworker’s “weakness” and “lack of commitment” after they returned from a week-long mental health break
- Ignoring new hires or giving sarcastic, unhelpful responses when they ask questions
Candidate B has never worked in sales, has no college degree, and has only been on the job market for three years.
This potential hire went into the workforce right out of high school, juggling two jobs in food service and retail to pay for their online education program.
When you call to speak with the managers about Candidate B’s performance in the workplace, both cite dependability, a positive attitude, and empathy.
The food service manager relays an anecdote about a situation where Candidate B found themselves working a shift alone as the only server and unable to get in touch with the front-of-house lead. They demonstrated excellent decision-making skills and resilience, communicated the situation with customers and back-of-house staff, and covered the lunch rush to the standard expected of the entire wait staff.
The manager also notes that they were most impressed when they spoke with Candidate B the next day, as they fully expected the employee to give them a well-deserved earful about how unfair it was to expect one person to complete the work of three.
Instead, Candidate B shared how exciting and fast-paced the shift was, lamented how understanding the customers were, and praised the back-of-house staff for their patience.
Which Would You Hire?
Candidate A might seem tempting for business leaders who are focused on numbers, as they offer quantifiable results and stand to significantly boost hiring cost ROI, at least in the short term.
I would argue, though, that Candidate B offers more to a future-minded leadership team.
Candidate B demonstrates a robust set of soft skills, including the ability to communicate, manage their time, find the positive in challenging situations, and give credit to others’ contributions to their success.
No matter what role they are in, these professional abilities will help them succeed on their team with very little input or coaching, which means you’ll spend less time guiding them through conflicts or disciplining bad behavior.
Further, Candidate B offers the additional commodity of flexibility.
Let’s say that after training in sales, their numbers are consistently poor despite their best efforts.
Instead of letting them go, you can easily transfer them to a different department better suited to their hard skills. You’ll have the confidence of knowing that their impressive repertoire of soft skills will help them adapt quickly to a new team and new responsibilities.
Wrapping Up: Hiring for Soft Skills Helps Grow Business Value
When you allow a candidate’s hard skills to overshadow a lack of professionalism, you set yourself up for a high employee turnover rate, making recruiting talent even more difficult. People don’t want to work for a business that allows coworkers to make their job miserable.
Even if exiting your business is decades away, creating a professional, competent team is crucial to increasing business value and nurturing healthy workplace culture, both of which are essential to a successful transition.
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