The one skill I interview for
Many years ago, when I started hiring professionals for my team, I did what my fellow hiring managers were doing. I followed a clear, step by step process. I would create the description of the job I was hiring for, delineate the technical skills necessary for the job, and then look for those skills. For example, let’s say that you need a business analyst who has three years of experience in SAP application, and a college level education in retail supply chain. You would just look through the profiles of the candidates, and find somebody who has these two skill sets. These two skills are what you need at the moment of hiring. You might find somebody with better than necessary skills, say, a master’s degree in supply chain in our example above, and hire them by comparing to other suitable candidates. At the end of the day though, it’s matching what you want in the moment with what is available from people in the job market. This approach worked for me for many years.
Then, my organization underwent a major structural change. We not only had to analyze the systems but also had to build applications with business functions other than supply chain in, e.g. clinical trial. My team had new responsibilities. That meant we had to change our technical and leadership skills. That was the first time I realized that my earlier hiring approach was not working any more.
I still remember talking to a new team member (let us call him Esteban), for the third time, about something he needed to change in his leadership behaviors. Every time Esteban was asked to change, he answered with a version of this sentence, “let me tell you why you are wrong…” He was really good at coming up with ideas on why he did not need to change, and why everyone who wanted him to change was wrong. I felt like I was going to bang my head on the table in those one-on-one meeting rooms.
I have noticed time and again that very smart, capable people who let their teams down have one thing in common: their complete lack of ability to change themselves. Not only they lack the change mindset, they also use all their creativity to convince their manager, their colleagues, and above all themselves that they have already arrived and it’s others who need to change. If they use an iota of this creativity to change and grow themselves, they can give a better and useful version of themselves to the world. Let’s get back to my hiring process.
With my earlier hiring approach, I was not hiring the recruits who could adapt to the changing needs of the customers, and execute novel projects. These team members were great at what doing the tasks we had hired them for. There was just one problem: they were not coachable. Since these team members lacked coachability, they could not adapt to the world changing around them. They were unable to even start the process of adaptation. Why? Because they could not accept and incorporate the feedback from their colleagues.
Now, when I look for new hires, I strive to explore one leadership skill in depth, more than anything else: coachability. No other behavior or skill matters more than this crucial leadership ability when you want to hire a long term recruit. We hire professionals who can help us manage and implement change. With a changing industry and company, comes a responsibility to keep up with the change and use that change to grow ourselves from within, without a push from outside. A coachable professional delivers a consistent performance by adapting to a changing world around her; the best ones do it with grace.
The next time you interview a candidate, ensure that coachability stays near the top on the skills to test. You can ask the candidate directly for an example; you can talk to the previous customers and supervisors of the candidate. The point is: you can find the presence or lack of this critical skill if you look for it.
People who are not coachable will sap the energy out of you and your team. They are good at jobs where the tasks don’t change day in and day out. For the rest of us who need to deal with change, we need to be coachable. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer put it so eloquently, “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” The learners who will inherit the earth are coachable. Coachable people are a delight to work with. You tell them what they need to change and adapt, and they take that into account. Next time they show up, they show up improved. They also demonstrate the ability to lead others, by first leading themselves, If you work with them today, you know who they are. They are a delight to work with.