TEAM BUILDING

The Underappreciated Skill You Should Look for in Potential Employees

Sure, skills and cultural fit are important, but so is this little-probed ability, according to the CEO of Syncsort.
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No one gets a job without convincing the hiring manager that they have the skills to do the job.

These days, interviewers are increasingly focusing on soft skills, too. One recent study showed that more than three-quarters of those hiring rated personality as more important than technical know-how, which can more easily be taught. A handful of companies are even administering EQ tests to job candidates.

All of which suggests that bosses are on the lookout for more effective ways to hire that reduce the high rate at which new employees fail.

But perhaps there's a central skill that most are still overlooking. That's what a fascinating recent interview with Lonne Jaffe, the CEO of Syncsort, suggested.

Wanted: The Scheherazade of software

Jaffe's chat with Adam Bryant, for his Corner Office column in The New York Times, covered diverse ground, but when it came to hiring, Jaffe had a particularly interesting insight. Though Syncsort is a software company where, presumably, technical chops are essential for employee success, Jaffe focuses on another quality as well when hiring. What is it? The ability to tell a great story.

Why should software engineers be able to spin a tale? It seems counterintuitive, but Jaffe explains his method: "I'll talk about the company's strategy and my background and the nature and challenges of the role they're interviewing for. Then I'll ask the candidate to go through their prior successes and challenges and major responsibilities and tell that story, partially because I want to see how good they are at storytelling. There are very few roles in a technology company--even fairly technical, hands-on roles--where storytelling is not an important skill," he told the Times.

The link between stories and productivity

Jaffe's focus on storytelling doesn't reveal just how well the potential hire will be able to communicate with team members; the stories they tell are also indicators of another key skill, according to Jaffe.

"Earlier in my career, I tended to focus a little bit too much on technical aptitude and not enough on the ability to prioritize decisions about how to spend their time. So, what you can sometimes get in those situations is somebody who is really good at executing in some ways, but really bad at prioritizing time. Even with some guidance or handholding, they will make consistently poor decisions about prioritization. Figuring out how to spend your time is almost more important in some ways than how well you execute," Jaffe explains.

The stories an interviewee tells about their work are a great way at getting at how good he or she is at prioritizing without constant supervision, Jaffe has found. "When they tell stories about prior roles and projects, I'll ask about the decision-making process. Did somebody tell them to work on something, or did they realize that it was clearly valuable? How did they deal with smaller decisions they had to make while tackling the larger questions?" he says.

Could you hire more successfully by taking a closer look at storytelling?

Last updated: Aug 5, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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