People don't underperform because they lack technical skills. People underperform because they lack soft skills.


A few years ago, a senior engineering executive at a high-tech Silicon Valley company asked me to teach a two-hour course on assessing "soft skills". His company had mastered the art of judging candidates' technical skills. It conducted day-long interviews focused on programming languages, server skills, and data analysis. Then, in the final 45 minutes, the hiring manager would turn his attention to the soft skills. If felt like an afterthought, perhaps because it was.

For that reason, I responded to the executive by asking a very pointed question: "Do you consider the following to be soft skills?"

  • Consistently completing high-quality work on time
  • Collaborating with cross-functional groups on major projects that require technical compromises to hit deadlines
  • Making presentations to customers, executives, and other internal teams
  • Persuading others to consider different technical points of view
  • Appreciating the end-user's perspective from a UX and design standpoint
  • Coaching and being coached on technical and non-technical matters
  • Taking direction from project managers in a matrix environment
  • Working successfully for a variety of managers, each with their own unique style
  • Remaining flexible enough to handle rapidly changing design requirements, yet still hitting deadlines
  • Making tough decisions with limited information and often dealing with ambiguity
  • Challenging conventional wisdom and authority
  • Helping team members who are struggling
  • Taking over without being told a project that's in trouble
  • Managing multiple projects to a timeline
  • Meeting budget restraints
  • Prioritizing with little direction

His immediate response was a stunned silence; the expanse and impact of a candidate's soft skills had perhaps not occurred to him before. I think he realized quite quickly that 45 minutes tacked on the end of an all-day interview was not enough.

But he was eager to push forward, so I continued to probe:

Do people underperform at your company because they lack these soft skills or do they disappoint because their technical skills aren't up to snuff?
"Soft skills are almost always to blame -- that's why we need to get better at measuring them."

Do your best managers have the strongest technical skills in the company? Or do they excel on the soft side?
"Soft skills set our best managers apart."

Is it possible you have excluded some candidates with extraordinary soft skills because they didn't meet your company's benchmark for technical brilliance? These are the people who would have become your best managers.
My client refused to answer this question, but the look in his eye was a definite "Oops!"

Given all of this, why do you spend 5-6 hours measuring technical skills and only 45 minutes measuring soft skills, when the latter is clearly important?
"Because this is the way it's done here, and we're not about to change. But we know it's important; that's why we want you to develop a 2-hour course to help us accurately measure soft skills."

Before my work began, I made a few demands:

1. Let's stop calling them soft skills. The squishiness of this minimizes their importance. Instead, let's call them non-technical skills.

2. Let's embed some of these non-technical skills assessments into the technical assessment process.

3. Make it a point to measure non-technical skills in earlier interviews, rather than leave this critical assessment to the very end. This way, potentially great managers wouldn’t be inadvertently excluded.

4. Finally, why not spend at least two hours assessing these critical non-technical skills instead of just 45 minutes?

Finally, I said I didn't think everything could be covered in a two-hour course; I'd need at least twice that amount of time. He said he couldn't budge on this one. A week later I reluctantly agreed to conduct the course in two hours and he reluctantly agreed to increase the time spent measuring non-technical skills to an hour and 15 minutes. At the end of the day, I considered this a complete failure of my soft skills; my client considered it a huge win.