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.

How to Hire for Team Skills

The question below on assessing team skills is the most important interview question of all time. You'll agree once you try it.

So far in this “How to Hire for …” series we’ve covered:

How to Hire for Motivation

How to Hire for Cultural Fit

Some background is in order as you validate these techniques for yourself. Harvard Professor Todd Rose, the author of the new bestseller, The End of Average, contacted me last year heaping praise on the Performance-based Hiring process underlying this interviewing methodology. He contended it mapped directly to the new science of maximizing individual performance. (As an FYI, Todd is also now the senior education director for the Muppets so when your kids start asking you these questions you’ll know where they came from.) I told him I developed the methodology over 20 years of trial-and-error interviewing thousands of candidates and tracking their performance over a few years.

The big, seemingly obvious, finding was that job descriptions listing skills, experience, competencies and behavioral traits were not great predictors of future success. While measuring these things could reduce interviewing errors due to bias, there were too many other factors that could cause a person to underperform. However, by defining the job as a series of performance objectives and defining the context of the job it was possible to accurately predict on-the-job success. In this case context refers to the company culture, the pace and intensity of the company, the importance of the job, the resources available, the hiring manager’s style and, most importantly, ensuring the actual work maps closely to the candidate’s ability and intrinsic motivation.

The “How to Hire” series provides the interviewing techniques needed to assess candidates using this type of performance-based job description as the criteria for success.

The Most Important Interview Question of All Time

Can you please describe your most significant team accomplishment of your entire career?

While asking the right questions is important, one point most interviewers miss is evaluating the congruity of all of the person’s answers – ensuring all of the information ties together in some logical way. The team accomplishment question meets this need. That’s why I consider it the most important question of all time. If the teams are meaningful and growing in scope, scale and impact, it confirms everything else about the person’s track record.

Let’s try it out by role playing the question. Imagine, I’m interviewing you and I ask you to describe the most significant team accomplishment of your entire career. This could be managing a team or a project or being on an important team. What team accomplishment would you pick and how would you describe it?

After providing a quick overview how would you answer the following clarifying questions?

  • Who was on the team and what roles did they play?
  • When did it occur and what was your assigned role? Did this change at all during the project?
  • How did you get on the team?
  • What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
  • Describe the plan or project and how the team was managed. Were you part of this?
  • What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
  • Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  • What did you like most about the team? Least?
  • What would you change if you could about the team makeup?
  • Who were the executives on the team and did you influence them in any way?
  • What was the biggest team problem or conflict you faced and how did you handle it?

By itself, this type of question and fact-finding would reveal a lot about the team skills of the person being interviewed. What did they reveal about you?

Now imagine I ask about two other major team accomplishments at different time frames but ask the same questions. The purpose is to see if the candidate’s team roles are growing in importance. This is shown in the graphic highlighting the person’s work teams.

The trend of a person’s team accomplishments provides tremendous insight about the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale and importance of the teams indicates the candidate is respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, cultural fit, the ability to deal with customers, vendors and executives and if the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.

Focusing on team skills this way is vital, especially since so many interviewers overvalue a candidate’s individual strengths when deciding whether to hire someone or not. This type of team assessment is a strong confirming indicator of everything else you’ve learned about the candidate, that’s why I like it so much. After you try it, I suspect you will, too.

How to Easily Assess Technical and Team Skills During Interviews

At a recent recruiting and interviewing course for hiring managers, one of the managers contended that most recruiters aren’t very good at assessing technical skills. Another said they’re not very good at assessing team skills, either.

This is a serious problem.

To minimize the chance of a hiring manager revolt as it becomes easier for them to shift to a do-it-yourself recruiting model, I suggest that recruiters need to become better interviewers than their hiring manager clients. This includes leading panel interviews and debriefing sessions with the hiring team. A critical part of this is being able to assess technical and team skills. Towards this goal, I learned a few tricks along the way I’d like to share with you.

The best techies get assigned stretch jobs soon after starting

I discovered very early in my recruiting career that the best technical people quickly got assigned bigger projects once they proved themselves to their managers and peers. The same is true for the best accountants, the best sales reps, the best marketing people, and the best people in any field. An example will help clarify this technique.

I remember interviewing an engineering manager long ago who told me he was assigned to lead a complex project to minimize the footprint of an electronics circuit for a piece of in-flight test equipment. He had only been on the job a few months – and this was his first full-time job right out of university – but it was apparent to those he worked with he could handle the task.

This would be work that would be typical of a mid-level staff engineer with 3-5 years of experience so it was clear to me the person was a top technical person. I validated this by asking about the results of the project and what other projects he had been assigned to subsequently. Most were stretch jobs or ones that were important to the overall project’s success. When my very technical hiring manager client interviewed the person he agreed he was a top-notch techie whose ability was far beyond his years of experience.

From an interviewing standpoint the conclusion is obvious: The best techies get assigned to jobs over their heads to accelerate their learning and also get assigned to handle critical tasks since their managers trust their ability to successfully handle them.

You don’t need technical skills to come to this conclusion. You just need insightful interviewing skills. Start by asking, “What was the biggest project you were assigned soon after starting on the last job?” Then ask enough follow-up questions to understand why the person was assigned the project, the results of the effort and what happened next.

Those with the strongest team skills get assigned to the strongest teams

A few years ago I was interviewing a person for a controller’s role at an entertainment company. The candidate had only about eight years total experience but she was already a director of accounting, managing a staff of 65 people. She told me that within her first six months at a Big 4 accounting firm she was assigned to advise a major client on how to handle complex international consolidations issues for tax purposes.

I asked who was on the team and what her role was. I then dug into the results that were achieved and what happened due to this work. She told me the CFO of the client firm – a multi-billion group at a Fortune 100 company – personally asked if the accounting firm would make her available to lead an international project team of IT people and mid-level accounting managers for an even larger effort involving the systems integration of her work.

Two years later she left public accounting and was hired by the same firm and rapidly progressed to her current position.

You can figure out this same rate of team progression by having candidates draw 360° work charts for all of their past positions. A work chart describes the people the candidate works for and with and who works for the candidate. Get the titles of the people involved and their functions. You’ll discover the best people get quickly assigned to important projects with visibility to senior managers and executives including those in other functions. If successful, they get assigned to even bigger and more important teams.

The best sales people get assigned the toughest accounts. The best software developers get assigned to build applications that have never been built before. The strongest managers get assigned the toughest management problems. And the best executives get assigned to run companies that need the best executives.

When you’re interviewing candidates find out why they got assigned to these projects, the results they achieved and what happened next. Then use this information to defend you assessment from hiring managers who are using superficial or flawed interviewing techniques. That’s how non-techies can become better interviewers than their clients and become valued advisors throughout the hiring process.

Forget the Personality Tests, Here's How to Assess Team Skills

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.