How to Assess If a Candidate Will Be a Team Player, Sherlock Holmes Style

May 8, 2018

Sherlock Holmes is a master of deduction: Using evidence to determine the crime and the criminal.

Surprisingly, this same objective evidence-based approach can be used to interview a candidate for just about any skill, trait or competency. In an earlier post, I demonstrated how Sherlock as the hiring manager interviewed a person for technical competency by examining the projects the person was assigned to handle. According to Holmes, the best techies get assigned to stretch projects and asked to handle the most critical technical issues before and more often than their peers. In many ways this allows non-techies to more accurately interview techies by not getting seduced by the person’s brilliance but on how well the person would handle comparable technical projects.  

So with the Holmes’ evidence-based interviewing process under your belt, you’re now ready to use the same approach to assess a candidate’s team skills. Of critical importance is that you must follow this approach whether you like the person or not. Here’s why:

  1. If the person is attractive and affable you’ll likely assume the person has strong team skills.
  2. If the person seems cold, distant and somewhat unfriendly you’ll assume this is true and look for facts to justify your instant negative impression.  

It’s important not to succumb to this emotional bias, positive or negative. If you do, you’ll be wrong 50% of time, either moving forward with the wrong person or excluding the right person.

So instead of reacting to the person’s first impression, put your blinders on and just ask the candidate to describe a recent major team project. After a minute or so, start asking these clarifying fact-finding questions (Send us your address for a pocket version of our Performance-based Hiring Interviewing Hot Tips):

  1. Describe the purpose of the team, your exact role, and who was on the team.
  2. How did you get assigned to the team?
  3. How long did the team exist, were the results achieved and what type of work did you get assigned to as part of the team? Did you volunteer for any of these tasks?
  4. Who on the team did you work with most? How did this happen?
  5. Did you coordinate the activities of others in the team? If so, who were they? Describe some of the challenges involved with these people and how you addressed them.
  6. Did you get any recognition for this work? If so, please describe it. Did you get assigned to other projects as a result of this effort and did others on the team ask you to be on other teams as a result of your work?

Now do the same thing for at least one other major team accomplishment. Then, connect the dots and look at the changes that occurred. As part of the assessment process, begin by understanding the makeup of the teams the person worked with, how the mix of these people changed over time and how and why the person’s role changed.

Here are some of the positive things to consider as you evaluate the person’s team skills using this information:

  1. The cross-functional makeup of the teams. You know a technical person has good collaboration skills if he/she has a track record of being assigned to increasingly more important cross-functional teams.
  2. The seniority level of the people on the team. Talented people are often given  exposure to more senior executives within their companies.
  3. The role the person played and if it increased. Regardless of the starting point, the strongest team players get assigned to more important roles increasing over time in scope, span and responsibility.
  4. How the person got assigned to the team. You’ll uncover the person’s core individual and team strengths by finding why the person was assigned to the team.
  5. Consistency and growth. It’s a great sign when the candidate’s different managers assign the person on a consistent basis to expanding roles with more important teams.
  6. Recognition received for team skills. It’s a great sign when other participants and team leaders ask the person to be part of subsequent important teams they’re on.

While these are all important clues of strong team skills, you need to raise the caution flag if the person’s role doesn’t change much over 3-5 years, if the assigned team projects aren’t too important and if the composition of the people involved is fairly static.

Judging the person on how affable and enthusiastic he/she is during the interview is not how you assess team skills. You assess it by understanding the importance and make-up of the teams the person either volunteers for or is assigned to handle. And as you start eliminating those with a veneer of superficiality and instead hire those with a track record of participating in high performing teams, you can thank Mr. Holmes for your deductive insight.

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