How to Easily Assess Technical and Team Skills During Interviews

December 16, 2015

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.

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