Soft Skills are Too Important to be Called Soft

Soft skills don’t matter. They’re too soft and unimportant when it comes to hiring people for important roles.


  1. No one can tell me that successfully negotiating a critical series of product requirements with a team comprised of accounting, marketing, manufacturing and engineering that meets all of their competing needs is a soft skill.
  2. No one can tell me that consistently meeting time and budget goals is a soft skill.
  3. No one can tell me that presenting a monthly business review to a team of managers and company executives is a soft skill. Especially when the results missed plan and the person doing the presenting did a masterful job of knowing the details behind each variance and had already implemented an action plan to get back on track within 30 days.
  4. No one can tell me that developing a personal development plan for each person on a manager’s team and then implementing it throughout the year is a soft skill.
  5. No one can tell me that proactively coaching and helping peers become better without any responsibility to do so is a soft skill.
  6. No one can tell me that volunteering to handle a difficult project that will require lots of overtime and where there’s a high probability of failure, is a soft skill.
  7. No one can tell me that being fully responsibile for meeting goals and successfully completing them month in and month out without making excuses is a soft skill.
  8. No one can tell me that influencing a person’s manager or some senior executive to change his/her mind on some important course of action is a soft skill.
  9. No one can tell me that having the confidence and guts to stand up for some idea or complain about some shoddy process or wrongful action is a soft skill.
  10. No one can tell me that being flexible, changing direction and staying motivated under a new set of business conditions is a soft skill.

For these reasons and the dozens more you can think of yourself, I contend we should ban the term “soft skills” and stop trying to peddle their importance in some soft, diplomatic manner.

Hardball is a better game to play when it comes to measuring these “soft skills.” Soft is just too soft a term to describe skills that are often far more important than technical skills.

Renaming them might help as a start. Leadership skills might work since collectively that’s what they are. It’s certainly a far better term than soft skills. So are the terms “management and organizational skills” and “non-technical skills.” Regardless, whatever you call them, don’t call them “soft skills” when they’re collectively essential for getting results, developing people and successfully growing and managing any business of any size.

Embed All Non-technical and Leadership Skills into Performance Objectives

Not only do I have a distaste for the term soft skills, I have a bigger distaste for job descriptions that emphasize a laundry list of these soft skills combined with a longer laundry list of technical skills, experiences and academic requirements.

I suggest both problems can be eliminated by creating a performance profile listing the top 6-8 performance objectives in priority order describing the actual job requirements. These profiles combine the technical and non-technical skills as a series of objectives and tasks. For example, for a product marketing person one major objective could be, “Lead the joint development of a product requirements document with the engineering, manufacturing and financial analysis groups.” Here’s another example of combining a technical challenge with project management skills: “Within 45 days evaluate the production challenges involved in meeting the planned launch date and present findings and solutions to the management team.”

Preparing these types of performance-based job descriptions allows all of the technical and non-technical skills to be described as outcomes rather than generic requirements. During the performance-based interview process I suggest, candidates are asked to provide detail-rich examples of comparable accomplishments describing how the technical and non-technical skills were used.

While I have a great distaste for the term “soft skills” I have great admiration for the skills themselves since they’re the collective drivers of individual and team success. Without them, failure is assured. However, by recognizing their importance and describing how they’re actually used in combination with the person’s technical skills in actual on-the-job fashion, something that’s normally soft and squishy becomes clear and measurable.

And that’s how you play hardball and, more important, it’s how you win when it comes to hiring.

Use This Leadership Technique to Get Any Job

In a recent post I suggested that job seekers need to ask the interviewer about the actual performance requirements of the open job if it appears the interviewer is asking shallow or narrow questions. Once the job is understood as a series of performance objectives, the candidate then needs to provide detail-rich examples of past accomplishments that best compare to the actual job requirements. This is a great technique to ensure the job seekers are being interviewed properly. This Performance-based Hiring approach is now available as an online training course.

Listen for Some Buying Signals

If the past accomplishments are truly comparable and well presented, the interviewer is likely to send some buying signals indicating that the candidate is a reasonable prospect for the job. Some of these signals include describing specific (versus vague) next steps in the process, inviting the person back for another round of interviews, becoming more animated, spending more time in the interview than originally planned or simply stating he/she is impressed and wants to know if the candidate is interested in the job.

A word of caution: Do not ask or answer anything about compensation until you get a number of these buying signals. When compensation is discussed too soon in the process it’s being used as a filter to eliminate those who are either too high or too low. Candidates who ask the question before they’re judged as worthy are judged as not worthy. However, when compensation discussions take place after a candidate’s performance is known, it’s a negotiating item. (DO NOT IGNORE THIS ADVICE.)

However, even if the buying signals are sent and the compensation discussion goes well, it only means the candidate is a contender. To get to the offer stage much more needs to be done. And the best thing that can be done is to prove you can successfully handle the open job. There is more to this than just describing past accomplishments.

As part of the performance-based interview process I advocate, I suggest that the interviewer do two things. First, dig deep into a candidate’s past accomplishments. Second, ask the person to describe how he/she would go about solving or handling a major problem he/she is likely to face on the job. I refer to this twosome as the anchor and visualize questioning pattern. Most interviewers don’t ask these types of questions which is why candidates need to take matters into their own hands and force the interviewer to ask these questions. The technique described above and in the previous post describe how to force the anchor question. Here’s how to force the visualization question.

Force the Visualization Question

Soon after getting a buying signal – even a tepid one – it’s okay for the candidate to ask for permission to describe the process he/she would use to solve one of the big problems likely to be faced in the job. Here’s a rough script and format that can be used for this:

  1. Ask for permission. Would you mind if I gave you an idea on how I’d go about handling the (project or issue) you just mentioned?
  2. Get clarification of the problem or task. Ask a bunch of problem-solving questions to figure out the scope of the problem, the status of the existing plan and the resources available. The quality, depth and insight of these questions will be used to assess your competence so ask as many as you can.
  3. Describe your preliminary plan. Provide enough details about how you’d proceed including the obvious roadblocks you’ll likely encounter and some tradeoffs you’ll need to make.
  4. Ask for feedback. You’ll know you’re answering the question successfully if the interviewer starts asking “what…if?” type questions and/or asks for clarification on some points. By engaging in a two-way conversation about a realistic problem, the interviewer will gain the confidence that the candidate has the thinking, planning and problem-solving skills needed to successfully handle the job without needing a lot of direction.

Demonstrate Leadership

Before proving a job seeker can do the work, the job needs to be defined as a series of performance objectives rather than the traditional laundry list of skills and experiences. Half of the subsequent proof involves digging deep into the candidate’s past accomplishments to determine if the person has a track record of comparable performance. The other half involves engaging in an open discussion about a realistic job-related problem. This anchor and visualization approach is not only a recipe for hiring success, it’s also the definition of leadership. That’s why I urge job candidates to take a leadership role in ensuring they’re being assessed on factors that best predict their own success. Then they need to demonstrate it.

Preventing Job Hopping is a Recruiter's Secret Weapon

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, job hopping is on the rise and that may not be a bad thing. In fact, for the right reasons it could be good. Very good. Or it could be bad...very bad. Figuring out the difference is essential when recruiting passive candidates.

This post will walk you through how to determine the good vs. the bad and how to turn what you’ve learned into a recruiting advantage.

To start this assessment, during the work history review, I like to ask candidates why they change jobs and if the moves were successful. And, what I’ve discovered is that most people take jobs for the wrong reasons. As a result, the job rarely delivers on the promise, and they end up moving on. This dilemma is shown on the Job Seeker’s Decision Grid graphic. The result is Job Hopping Syndrome.

It turns out that most people leave jobs for one of the two reasons on the bottom half of the graphic. The Daily Grind box in the lower left of the grid represents all of the short-term extrinsic frustrations of the positions. The Going Nowhere box in the lower right represents a career that has stalled – these are the long-term intrinsic reasons.

Regardless of why people leave a job, too many people take new ones overvaluing the Getting – Day 1 reasons in the upper left. In the process they minimize the importance of the long-term career opportunity represented by the Doing – Year 1 box in the upper right. This is the primary reason U.S. job satisfaction is low and voluntary turnover is higher than necessary

What this means for recruiters

A pattern of taking jobs for the short-term benefits jumps out during the work history review. Once revealed, it offers a great way for a recruiter to intervene if the job being represented offers a true career move. Here are some ideas on how to use the grid to help persuade a candidate to job hop while making the right career decision.

  1. When asking the “why left – why accepted” questions be most concerned if the candidate has a pattern of leaving jobs for short-term reasons. People leaving jobs for long-term reasons is okay unless they stay too long. Regardless, just pointing this out using the decision grid will often get a serious-minded candidate to rethink how he/she makes career decisions. The point is to suggest that a career strategy emphasizing the long-term factors is better than emphasizing the compensation or the other short-term factors.
  2. Define a career move as a 30% non-monetary increase. I tell candidates a career move needs to offer a combined 30% increase over the person’s current job in terms of job stretch (bigger job), job growth (rate of increase), impact (bigger) and satisfaction (a mix of more exciting work). I then suggest we use the first discussion to determine if the open position offers this type of career opportunity.
  3. Conduct a performance-based interview to determine if there is a 30% opportunity gap available in the open position. This involves describing each major performance objective defining job success and asking candidates to describe in detail something he/she has accomplished that’s most comparable. If the opportunity for growth exists the factors comprising the 30% increase will stand out.
  4. During the negotiating phase I ask candidates to compare their current job opportunities on a Day 1, Year 1 and long-term perspective. I often send an email outlining the factors in each category and also ask them to rank the factors in order of importance. Since most recruiters and hiring managers generalize the mid- and long-term opportunities it’s easy to demonstrate that the long-term factors are what drive career success and that my open opportunity is the superior job.
  5. Close the deal by putting the money in the parking lot. Before the final close I ask candidates to ignore the compensation and describe why my job represents the best career opportunity. If the assessment and recruiting process has been conducted properly the candidate describes the 30% increase in his or her own words. If the candidate doesn’t or can’t do this, it’s unlikely the person will accept your offer.

The bigger point of this approach is to ensure candidates change jobs for the right reasons. Too often, in the rush to close, the long-term consequences of bad hiring decisions are ignored. Diagramming a candidate’s past decision-making using the Job Seeker’s Decision Grid will allow the person to make the correct decisions in the future. More times than not, the correct decision will be accepting your offer.

Work Matters - Handling Compensation Podcast 1.1

How to Determine a Candidate's Internal Driver of Success

In this podcast Lou Adler describes how to answer the common candidate question, "What's the compensation." Adler suggests a non-answer to understand what drives the person to excel. If your job matches this you need to pay the person whatever they need.

Work Matters - SMARTe Podcast 1.3

How to Conduct a Pre-hire Performance Review being SMARTe

In this podcast Lou Adler introduces the concept of using a pre-hire performance review to assess candidates. Lou contends that we hire strangers using different criteria than hiring acquaintances and that the subsequent performance of acquaintances is more predictable. A pre-hire performance review allows everyone to be assessed the same way - on their past performance. As you'll discover using this process your interviewing accuracy will soar in addition to the quality of the people you hire.