B-Skills: An Interview with Author & Organization President Beth Smith on Hiring for Attributes

What we know to be true is that employers look for skills when what they really need to look for are attributes… Are you going to do the right thing in the moment without anyone having to tell you to do the right thing? All of the studies show that people with higher emotional intelligence do better than those who don’t.
Beth Smith, President of A-List Interviews and Author of Why Can’t I Hire Good People

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When Beth Smith talks to business owners and executives about hiring, she starts by asking them: “Did your bad hire make national news?”

Fifteen years and a career change ago, Beth was a restaurant owner in Boulder, Colorado. She owned and operated a Mexican eatery with 30 to 40 employees in the bustling college town. But then, two of her employees committed a felony—which made national headlines—and the Boulder Police Department told her she could lose her license.

“A BPD officer said to me, ‘You have to learn how to hire better,’ so I immediately threw out everything I knew about interviewing and hiring and started from scratch,” she recalls.

Since then, Smith has interviewed nearly 20,000 people. She set out to learn how to conduct more effective interviews and in her research, she created a framework and science for interviewing and hiring the right people. She discovered that most managers do not know what questions to ask and what answers to listen for, making the interview process excessively ineffective.

Today, Smith consults with business owners and executives across all industries on how to hire. She is a public speaker at industry events and conferences, and she wrote a book called Why Can’t I Hire Good People. Smith now boasts a 91 percent retention rate from the employees she hires after a year.

There is a saying in hiring: “Hire slow and fire fast.” But Smith maintains that she has never seen a company do that. Instead, they usually hire fast and fire slow. “The whole hiring process from top to bottom is wrong,” she says. “Employers are desperate, so they hire a body.”

The Experience Trap

Smith contends that the main reason why we are so bad at hiring is that we focus too much on skill and experience and not enough on personal attributes and attitude; this is called “the experience trap.” It is easier to look at a resume and hire for years of experience than to critically interview someone and listen to see if they genuinely want the job.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin cites a study by INSEAD Business School in France and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, which is where the term “experience trap” first originated. The study’s key finding revealed that, on average, managers with experience did not produce high-caliber results and, worse yet, they occasionally get worse with experience.

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started,” writes Colvin. He continues:

Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. […] Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.

This information is crucial to MBA students and graduates not only as they interview for their own positions but also as they build out teams. MBA graduates are smart, driven, and entrepreneurial, but they have no idea how to hire employees.

“Not a single MBA program teaches an MBA student how to conduct an interview,” explains Smith. “So the question is two-fold: how do they get hired? And how do they hire once they’re running businesses?

The Perceived Talent Gap

For years, employers have lamented the talent gap—the gap between an employer’s needs and a candidate’s skills. Nearly every industry from construction to cybersecurity, retail, and professional services reports a shortage of skilled professionals today. While some of it is true—the global think tank World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that more than half of all employees will require significant reskilling by 2022 due to the digital transformation of work—some of it can be mitigated by better hiring.

“Employers are stuck on the idea that they have to have someone with ten years experience in this one area, and if they don’t like them, they immediately say that there are not enough people,” Smith says about the talent gap. “Maybe there is someone with seven years experience, but they’re super excited about the job.”

Smith argues that the focus is too much on hard skills (also known as experience) instead of soft skills. Because the nature of work is evolving so quickly, hard skills and experience could be obsolete in a few years. The World Economic Forum predicts that two-thirds of elementary children will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet. Employers need to hire for soft skills, such as adaptability, quick learning, communication, and conflict resolution.

Smith often asks her clients to describe their ideal candidate. More often than not, employers use soft skills descriptors, like hard-working, organized, passionate, and communicative. Smith recommends that employers get clear about what they want and create an ideal description before putting up the job posting. She also suggests that companies build their own talent pool through apprenticeship or internship programs.

“I will go into a room full of C-level executives in all different companies and they’re all looking for the same person,” she says. “The talent gap, I think, doesn’t exist. It’s a selection problem, not a talent problem. We don’t recognize talent when we see it.”

Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

One of the skills missing in MBA graduates is how to conduct an effective interview. Smith hopes to change that. She has built a framework for interviewing and hiring employees regardless of their industry or experience level.

“What we know to be true is that employers look for skills when what they really need to look for are attributes,” explains Smith. “Attributes can’t be taught—attributes are a choice. Are you going to act with integrity when nobody is looking? Are you going to do the right thing in the moment without anyone having to tell you to do the right thing? All of the studies show that people with higher emotional intelligence do better than those who don’t.”

For this reason, the number one soft skill that Smith will not hire without is conflict resolution. If someone cannot manage conflict, the boss has to manage it, which creates more office politics and work for all parties involved.

“The boss is not managing a company; the boss is managing a daycare,” she says. “Without conflict resolution, people are not going to be successful no matter who they are.”

Smith gives the example of a rockstar employee who cannot get along with anyone. The whole company then builds itself around this one producer, which can completely alter the culture and the trajectory of a business. That’s why Smith’s first interview is always dedicated to measuring conflict resolution.

While it might sound challenging to hire for soft skills, Smith’s hiring framework provides tactical and actionable advice on how to do so. The first significant change to the interview process, Smith says, is to listen.

“Broadly speaking, it comes from the story the candidate tells you. The first thing I teach employers is to listen—that means don’t talk,” she advises. “Allow for a three- to five-second pause. In that dead space, that’s when candidates reveal their true selves. It’s not about the questions; it’s about listening.”

Listen, Don’t Talk

In 1957, Dr. Ralph Nichols was the first to study and write about listening. He wrote in the September 1957 issue of Harvard Business Review: “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people, in general, do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.”

He spent years testing people’s ability to listen—to understand and remember what they hear—at the University of Minnesota. After interviewing several thousand students and hundreds of businessmen and women, he and his team concluded that, on average, immediately after people have listened to someone else talk, they remember only about half of what they have heard. Forty years later, Dr. Nichols performed a similar study and found that we spend nearly half of our day listening to others, but retain just one-quarter of what we hear.

Today, that number has possibly slashed in half yet again for several reasons. We’ve invented ways of recording—writing, audio, and video—and the world is now so noisy that it’s hard to listen. We’ve become impatient as we seek out soundbites and skip or fast-forward through parts of conversations. We’re also uncomfortable in silence.

“In European countries, they’re much more comfortable with silence,” says Smith. “In America, we don’t let a second pass; we speak much faster than other European countries. So I have to teach my clients how to slow down. I tell them, ‘Put your phone away. Turn it off. Focus on the candidate in front of you. Ask a question. Keep your mouth closed. Write down the answer. And wait.'”

When employers truly listen in interviews—listen to understand, not to talk—they can unearth more details about candidates through the way that they tell their story. The way that a candidate describes his or her situation offers many insights into that candidate’s personality, work ethic, and soft skills.

“It’s human nature to put yourself in the best light possible, which means someone has to be bad,” explains Smith. “Unless they have a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, they’re going to tell you about how bad their bad boss is,” which Smith admits happens more often than one would expect, especially with C-level executives.

How to Gauge An Interviewee’s Skills in Conflict Resolution

When Smith interviews for soft skills—conflict resolution, in particular—she is looking for a story about lessons learned in tough situations. She says that it’s perfectly okay to say, “I had a bad boss and here’s what I learned,” compared to “My boss was a jerk.” The difference is that the former answer shows emotional intelligence, objectivity, and situational awareness.

Smith always asks candidates about the boss that inspires them, the boss they do not like, how they helped a coworker, and how they had a conflict with a coworker. For that last question, she gives the example of a salesperson whose colleague took over a client in their territory. An appropriate response shows the candidate resolving the conflict without including management.

“You could talk to the colleague and say, ‘Hey you took my client, maybe it would be okay that I get that one, or maybe we split the commission,'” Smith says. “You’re putting out options. You figure it out, and you don’t include the boss. […] Then you can report to the boss and say, ‘Hey we had this conflict, here’s how we resolved it.’ And everyone moves on.”

The Three-Part Interview

Through her extensive experience, Smith recommends a three-part interview process. The first interview is always dedicated to measuring conflict resolution. It is the same interview across all positions regardless of industry and experience level. The second interview measures whether the candidate can do the job he or she is expected to do. However, this goes beyond necessary hard skills.

“Engineers need a degree, but they also need to know how to keep their clients happy,” explains Smith, so she asks job-specific questions related to the problems employees typically have. “I ask them ‘You realize on Tuesday that you’re not going to meet your Friday deadline. What do you do?’ I want to hear that they talk to the client.”

Smith acknowledges that there is no single right answer to this question, but she is listening for emotional intelligence, where candidates have recognized their resources in their jobs and know how to get help. Beyond engineering skills, engineers also need communication skills.

The third interview focuses on passion. When someone is passionate about their work, they’re driven to solve problems. This goes back to the INSEAD study that revealed that experience is not the primary indicator of job performance. In his book, Colvin writes that great performance comes from deliberate practice, but deliberate practice is challenging and can only be done with the help of passion and drive.

Smith asks questions to see if candidates actually love the work that is being offered to them. She listens for that drive because the candidates that are passionate are the employees who solve problems, innovate, and lead businesses.

Ultimately, the best employees combine both skill and attitude, but Smith believes that attitude and passion trump talent. You can always train for skill. It is much harder to train for motivation. Passion, conflict resolution, attitude—these are the elements business leaders need to look out for when recruiting, not a list of job titles.

“We have all these MBA graduates, and they are obviously smart people. A lot of them are entrepreneurial and looking for ways to make business more efficient…but they don’t know how to hire teams of people. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to change,” says Smith. “If you’re going to be in charge of a business, you have to know how to hire people, and you have to be efficient in it.”

Laura Childs
Laura Childs
Writer

Laura Childs is a versatile writer and media specialist living in London. She's a California native and has written about arts, culture, and tech in San Francisco. A self-proclaimed data nerd, she loves telling people's stories supported by research. When not writing, Laura teaches and practices yoga. You can find more of her work and get in touch at www.lbccreative.com.

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