The Hiring Balance

March 16, 2015

People often ask me, “What is the biggest barrier to your company’s success?” The answer is always the same: finding and hiring great people. I’m not alone. This problem is top-of-mind for nearly every company I know. Finding a list of names isn’t difficult — there are tools out there to make searching and networking quite easy. The difficult part is figuring out if someone has the right blend of skills to be successful and make an impact.

Over the past three years, we’ve been very successful at finding great people that fit and grow our company culture. Some of the hiring wins were intentional and by design. Other wins, I’ll admit, were happy accidents. The common thread throughout every great hire (and every hiring blunder) was simple: the balance between hard and soft skills.

The Hard Skills

Most companies focus hiring on hard skills. If you’re a developer: can you write great code? Can you solve complex architecture problems? Can you self-manage your tasks? Can you ship code on time, without a lot of bugs? If you’re a designer: Can you use Photoshop? Do you have a great feel for user-experience design? Are you well-versed in color theory, typography, and whitespace? I could ask these questions in an interview and get a basic idea of how adept someone is at the hard skills for the job.

Asking questions is easy, yet hard-skills interviews are tough. How can you tell in a limited amount of time how someone will perform when given the tasks of the job? The tech industry has done a poor job of assessing hard skills in recent years. There are horror stories from established tech companies weaved with tales of confusing white-board drills, puzzles, and lame exercises that seem more geared toward fueling the interviewer’s ego than identifying a great candidate. Even if someone passes these tricks and teasers with flying colors that doesn’t mean they will be a great fit for a company, or will even be any good at their job.

The challenge of hard-skills interviewing can be solved by not relying entirely on those skills. In other words, hard skills are important, but they aren’t everything.

The Soft Skills

There are many soft skills that make up great people and great teammates: Leadership. Critical thinking. Empathy. Humility. The ability to handle stressful situations with clarity. If this was a grade school report card, we’re also trying to check the all-important box that reads “plays well with others.” Soft skills are crucial to assess during the interview process, and they are often overlooked in favor of great hard skills.

Great emotional intelligence — which I’ll loosely define as identifying and using emotions to communicate effectively with those around you — is the biggest difference maker between good and great hires. Emotional intelligence is watching someone’s facial expressions when you’re talking with them. Are they interested? Are they leaning forward or frequently looking away? Are they engaging with two-way conversation or have they been talking for the past 10 minutes uninterrupted? If someone can’t pick up on the nuances of a normal conversation, then they have room to grow in their soft skills. Poor emotional intelligence leads to awkward situations, mistrust, and productivity misfires.

We’ve all worked with someone that went on long tangents in meetings and dominated every conversation. Eventually it doesn’t even matter what this person is saying. They may be on the right side of a debate, and they often are, but the room has tuned them out. This person doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to realize that they are monologuing and everyone has turned them off. When we focus on hiring people with great soft skills, we keep people like this out of our company.

Soft skills are important, but just like hard skills they aren’t a silver bullet. Depending on someone’s specific role, they will always need to have some amount of hard skills. If they are a programmer, no amount of emotional intelligence is going to write that line of code. The perfect employee and teammate is someone that matches hard skills with soft skills.

The Perfect Balance

Most companies hire for a majority of hard skills and some passable soft skills. They bring in someone with great technical skills, but find out later that no one wants to work with that person because they have such a huge ego or they are miserable to be around. This type of hire is cancerous to a company culture. I don’t care how great someone is at design, if they are a jerk and treat people without respect they have no place on my team.

I believe in a 50/50 split between hard and soft skills. This means that we emphasize the ability to relate with others, the ability to think critically, and the ability to work with other humans with just the same (if not higher) priority than someone’s ability to use Photoshop, or write amazing code. Many companies hire with a huge emphasis on hard skills. The opposite is also true. If someone is emotionally aware, a joy to work with, and always brings clever ideas to the table yet they show few hard skills then the chance of a hiring success is also slim. The ideal situation is a pure balance.

Universities and colleges have known this for decades. It’s the reason your parents pushed you to join clubs and put outside activities on your college applications in addition to your GPA. University admissions officers know that just because someone earns good grades that doesn’t make them a well-rounded person to bring into their school. Yet, so many companies do exactly the opposite when looking to hire: they find the best, smartest, and most talented people and bring them on board without thought around soft skills and cultural fit. I want that kid that earned good grades and was able to live their life outside of a classroom, learning how to relate to and work with others.

With a clear focus on the balance between hard and soft skills, we can hire a company of people that are well-adjusted, smart, great at their jobs, and great at working together.