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I used to work in a very skills-poor sector, which meant if anyone half-skilled applied, it was tempting to say yes. A colossal mistake to make when hiring.

The problem is amplified by the need to eliminate bias, conscious and unconscious, from our recruiting and recruitment companies’ stringent matching on skills alone.   For example, when I spoke to recruitment specialist Lee McQueen, he agreed that cultural matches and values, for example, are also important.  With his recruitment platform  Phoenix51,  Lee partnered with business psychologist Chris Wimshurst to ensure the psychological side of the platform had expert input too.   Despite his championing of skills matching, Lee also agrees that there is always a human element when it comes to hiring.

Hiring is an area where SMEs’ needs and practices differ vastly from corporates.   The emphasis on skills fits far better with the bigger companies.   With a fast-growth SME, soft skills and attitudes are absolutely crucial, often far more so than skills that can be taught.

Instead, here are some skills an SME needs to look for:

10 skills to look for when hiring

  1. Communication skills – you will know if written ones are needed for a job.   The whom they need to communicate will depend from job to job – for example, a customer service role needs excellent communication skills.  But everyone needs to communicate easily within the team.    And also, remember that communication includes body language.   Someone who won’t look you in the eye or has a very intimidating, aggressive air will not do much for team comms.   Finally, one communication skill that is so important yet many forget is the ability to listen.  Without listening, there is no hope of communicating.
  2. A team player – “there is no I in team” is always true.   A brilliant hire with a massive ego who puts themselves, their needs, and their achievements in front of the team’s will not drive a business forward.  A team player wants other people to do well.
  3. Leadership potential: When hiring people predominantly on skills, I would overlook if there were enough on the team with true leadership potential.  It is also easy to assume that the most skilled will be the ones you promote.  The reality is that job skills are very different from leadership skills.   However, suppose you have a rapidly expanding company.  In that case, you will need senior people who have the ability and the desire to develop into leaders of teams and divisions as the company grows.
  4. Adaptability:   small companies need people who will throw themselves into the task that needs doing with gusto and be ready to develop and adapt with the speed the business requires.  This means people who flourish outside their comfort zone, and surprisingly few people are.  When hiring, look for people who love change.
  5. Positivity:   an Eeyore, however much you loved the original character, can bring a team down.   The negative team member who is always miserable, constantly bemoaning how bad things are, can quickly spread their misery to the entire team.    They won’t be promoting your company well to others outside your walls either.
  6. Creativity:   Brainstorming is a crucial trait of successful companies meaning more problems are solved quicker.  More and more are studying ways to encourage their cultures to be more creative.  But the most obvious one is within hiring.  Add more creative thinkers, and your team will be more creative, have more flexibility, and be able to think outside the box.  This was an especially essential skill in the pandemic when so many companies had to re-think and pivot fast to survive.
  7. Critical thinking is also needed.   To balance the creative thinkers, that process of logical and objective problem solving helps with solving so many issues and strengthens the team’s ability to problem solve and resolve conflicts.
  8. Dependability:   there is more to reliability than people who turn up, even people who turn up on time, though both help.  I employed someone once who had the ability to charm everyone around them to overlook their unreliability.  Managers and fellow team members would drop with exhaustion rather than complain about this person.  Someone unreliable in attendance or attitude can be immensely destructive – A sublime internal terrorist.
  9. Accountability overlaps with both shared values (see next) and with teamwork.  But it is so crucial when you are looking for people who will be flexible and thrive when developing that they are comfortable putting their hands up, being honest about their wins and mistakes, what they have achieved and what they have failed to achieve, and why.
  10. Shared values should underpin everything a company does and everything you look for when hiring. Values are about the type of company you want to work in, how you want to behave, and how you want to be treated.     While a group of clones would produce nothing productive, a group of people who do not share the same fundamental values will never be cohesive.  Shared values are, perhaps, the most essential of all the traits to look for when hiring. 

Team fit matters when hiring

Many people involved in hiring are fans of the Myers-Briggs variety or other types of psychological testing.  I have used them myself but don’t find them infallible and more than any other strand in the hiring process.   Applicants are adept at bending the truth and do not necessarily have accurate self-awareness.

Asking people about soft skills the same way you would hard ones doesn’t work.   Who would answer with a “No, I am not dependable” or “I hate teamwork” in their interview?  Most people are aware of typical.

Nevertheless, those soft skills need to be found.  They make your company more innovative and more productive and help you build that all-important cohesive culture.  So, how do you expose those skills when hiring while avoiding the yes / no questions, which are too easy for candidates to give a “right” answer to?

Entrepreneurs tend to develop their own versions of this.   They sometimes camouflage the question, for example, asking candidates which of the core values they would find most challenging to identify with or which they think most crucial to company success.

Involving the team in the hiring process is always productive in exposing soft skills or the lack of them.  Teams can usually spot someone they think will be a natural fit, who will be a team player, and who will have similar values.  While not infallible, they won’t want someone who doesn’t pull their weight nor someone who doesn’t fit.

Other soft skills are harder to spot when hiring.   The ability to grow and change is particularly hard, yet within a fast-growing SME, those without that aptitude will break and end up failing, hating you and the company.

I have yet to come across questions for this that I like better than those used by Matt Bullock, an Australian serial entrepreneur currently rapidly building Spinify, the #1 gamification board for sales.   Matt uses two questions when hiring –

  • Do you want to go fast?
  • Do you want to change?

To push your company forward and thrive while you and the company push forward, you need people who can cope with both.  Matt is right – many people don’t.

This helps when hiring!