Machines are getting smarter.

Every year.

People aren’t.

Don’t be concerned.

Get ready.

There’s a fascinating article in the August 1, 2015 issue of Fortune entitled Humans are Underrated about how people are being rapidly replaced by smart machines. The less-than-hopeful beginning ends by suggesting there is a large body of human activity that can’t be done by machines, no matter how smart.

The answer is not surprising. I “discovered” it on a search project around 30 years ago for a manager of supply chain systems. This was an IT job with the person responsible for leading the implementation of a new inventory management and warehousing system. They wanted someone with great technical skills, enormous energy, outstanding interpersonal skills and years and years of experience.

This was at the beginning of the ERP era. The person who got the job was a fellow named Curtis. He was twenty-something. I don’t recall if Curtis was his first or last name. He wasn’t extroverted. He was thoughtful and low key. Regardless, Curtis was a remarkable person and perfect for the job. How I came to this conclusion was pretty simple, although I had to fight to have the manager even see him at first. He was “too young, too inexperienced and green behind the ears.”

When I started out as a recruiter I always asked people to describe their biggest accomplishments and I often spent 10-15 minutes on the biggest ones. As one of the fact-finding questions I asked Curtis how he figured out user needs since this was a key part of the job. While Curtis was a great techie, where he really shined was getting totally immersed in the user experience. He told me how he sat with procurement people for days to understand exactly how they forecasted material needs, ordered and reordered parts, negotiated prices and how they chose and communicated with their vendors. He told me how he sat with the sales team to determine how they forecasted sales and even met with customers to understand their needs and what it would take to minimize supply/demand imbalances. Then he told me how he drove a forklift truck to figure out how material was received in the warehouse, put on the shelves and how orders were picked and packed. This was the proof I used to get my client to see Curtis and ultimately why he was hired over more experienced competitors.

Not surprising, Curtis did the same thing for my client and was extremely successful, implementing what was, at the time, a state-of-the-art supply chain system. I lost track of Curtis a few years later but knew he took a job at a major consulting firm in a senior capacity.

The lesson learned then was that high tech is not nearly as powerful without high touch. As the Fortune article points out, machines no matter how process and “if … then” smart, cannot replace human understanding of other people.

While I’ve refined how I assess team skills since meeting Curtis so many years ago, the core concept is fundamentally unchanged. It goes something like this:

  • Have candidates describe their major team accomplishments for each job they’ve held in the past 3-10 years.
  • Find out how and why the person was assigned to the teams including any the person volunteered to join.
  • As part of this, have the candidates draw a 360° work chart. This describes the people who are on the teams the candidate worked with, including direct reports, peers, subordinates, company leaders and executives, vendors and customers.
  • Get examples of how the person influenced others on the toughest decisions faced, especially those in other functions and the higher-ups, and how he/she got group agreement.
  • Find out who and how the person proactively coached, advised or helped to get better including those who the candidate did not directly manage.
  • For those in management positions, have the person draw the team organization chart with titles and rank the team members on some type of quality basis. Find out how the candidate developed these people and why he/she kept the under-performers.

Forget the personality tests. This is all you need to assess team skills. If the team size has grown over time in size and influence and is multi-functional and includes some senior executives, you’ve got a hot candidate. The person is even hotter if others have assigned this person into stretch team jobs and the person performed successfully. If this same pattern appears at multiple companies and the person is a rock-solid techie, you absolutely need to hire the person for some job.

And when you do, you can thank Curtis.