Ask this Critical Question to Assess Technical and Team Skills


Over the course of many years I’ve learned that the best interviewing technique is to ask candidates to describe in rich detail their major accomplishments that most relate to actual job needs. But the set-up for this series of questions begins in the work history review looking for the Achiever Pattern. The Achiever Pattern indicates the person is in the top 25% of his/her peer group.

After a few years of conducting this type of interview, I discovered you don’t need to be a technical person to assess technical skills, nor look for specific competencies and behaviors to assess team skills. Instead all you need to do is look for evidence that the person’s managers considered the person to have strong technical and team skills. Here’s how this is done.

Assess Technical Skills by Examining the Projects the Person was Assigned

As you dig into the person’s work history, start by getting an understanding of the person’s overall job and the actual focus of the job itself. Then for each new job ask this question:

After you came up to speed on the requirements of the job what types of projects were you assigned?

It turns out that in almost all cases the best people are assigned projects that either stretched them, were of critical importance or were beyond the expertise of their peer group.

For example, just the other day a sales person told me she was always assigned the most difficult clients in her territory because she understood the technology underlying the product she was representing better than her more experienced peers. This turned out to be the key when preparing the competitive analysis.

I’ve always asked the 2-3 year CPAs I placed in private industry (about 25 years ago) what clients and projects they were assigned during their rookie year in public accounting. The best always got assigned to important clients and the most technical were assigned to handle the most complex accounting issues.

When I placed staff manufacturing engineers they were assigned to projects that pushed the envelope on advanced manufacturing processes rather than more mundane roles. Likewise, the best design engineers get assigned to the most difficult design projects, the best managers are given the toughest management assignments and best marketing people are assigned to the most important product launches.

While understanding what projects are assigned to someone early in any new job, the real value of this line of questioning is to determine if the pattern continues. If the person continues to be assigned to more important projects at the same company or if the person repeats the pattern at different companies you can be confident the person is a top performer in his/her area of expertise.

Assess Team Skills by Evaluating the Teams to which the Person was Assigned

Similarly, the most skilled team players get assigned to important teams early in any new job and the pattern continues throughout their careers. To figure this out have the candidate prepare a 360° work chart indicating the teams he/she was assigned to early in his/her tenure at each job and who was on the team. On the work chart indicate direct reports, the person’s manager, peers, those from other companies and company executives. Then find out the person’s role and ask these other team fact-finding questions to understand how he/she influenced the results.

With this information here’s how you can evaluate the candidate’s team skills:

  • Give people high marks if the teams are growing in size and importance and even higher marks if the teams are cross-functional.
  • Give the person high marks if the person has influenced peers or superiors in other functions to change their view on critical issues.
  • Give the person high marks if there are executives on the teams and the person has convinced the executives to change their minds on important business issues.

An example will best demonstrate this technique. Many years ago a very aggressive CFO considered a cost manager I presented as too soft, both technically and interpersonally. He changed his mind completely when I described how the person was selected to lead the implementation of a state-of-the art cost system at a major manufacturing company working with operations, logistics and systems people. As a result of this effort he was then assigned to implement the same system corporate-wide. My client hired him and the candidate demonstrated the same level of team and technical skills on his new job.

You don’t need to be an expert or psychologist to assess technical or team skills. All you need to do is recognize that the best techies and the best team players get assigned to the most important projects and teams ahead of their more experienced peers. This assessment approach is called inductive reasoning. I call it commonsense.