The primary reason why I decided to dedicate some time on the topic was that only in the last week, four companies have contacted me with exactly the same question: hey Peter, we have problems hiring strong tech talent, can you help us and tell us what’s wrong.
When I talked with them, I found that when they say “strong”, they mean more behavioural skills, rather than technical. They were listing things like “being proactive”, “getting things done attitude”, “can-do spirit”, etc.
But what was really interesting is that despite that they were mentioning primarily behavioural skills, their interview process was checking almost entirely for technical skills and expertise.
The first very obvious outcome for them was that they should differentiate between technical and behavioural skills during their interview process.
Differentiate between technical and behavioural skills during your interview process.
And if you think they are equally important for your company, then split your interview process equally between them. But if you think that behavioural skills are more important than technical, than it will be strange if your interview process is designed in exactly the opposite way.
After making that clear distinction, then the obvious next question is: how they can check for these behavioural skills. The first part of the answer is very simple: just define them!
Define the relevant behavioural skills required for your organization.
If you go to individual managers in the same company, very often you hear different requirements about the behaviours they expect from their employees. Make sure to align what are the common behaviours that you expect from the people in your company. Here are some examples: handles ambiguity, problem solver, innovative, adaptable, team player, committed, getting things done, can-do spirit, accountability, ownership, etc.
I would advise to choose a few of them – if you have a list of 10+, that will be quite difficult to achieve.
After you settle on the required behaviours, the next question comes – how can you check for them?
The obvious challenge is that in contrast to the technical skills, you can’t just ask the people “are you a conflict person”, or “are you a getting-things-done person”. The answers will be obvious, and in most of the cases they won’t speak much about the actual behaviour of the candidate.
Because of this, you should check behaviours primary via examples from the experience of the candidate, or through specific situations which you describe and ask the person how she would handle the situation. Let’s see several practical examples.
Checking for behaviours through the candidate’s experience.
Example 1: commitment, ownership, accountability
You can start checking for these behaviours since the very start of the interview, when you ask for general description of the current job of the candidate, her roles and responsibilities.
It’s a good idea to ask also for details which are a bit outside of the immediate scope of responsibilities. For example, if you have a candidate for a senior engineer or a manager, ask how the engineering and product organizations collaborate in order to define and prioritise the backlog. Or ask about the product itself – what are its key advantages, who are its primary customers, what problems the product solves for them.
Asking such questions will reveal to a large extent the level of commitment of the candidate. Quite often I’ve seen candidates for senior engineering roles, who for example were not aware of obvious things like how their code reaches production, because “there is a separate DevOps department and I’m not very aware how they work”. Or senior engineer who says that “I’m not very aware how product backlog is prioritised, because it’s the job of my manager to talk with the product manager and deal with that”. If you find such answers, forget about behaviours like ownership for example. People who are really committed to their work will know their immediate stakeholders, and if they are at more senior positions, they’ll know how the company operates quite well.
Checking for behaviours through situational questions.
Example 2: Conflict management
Again, instead of asking for formal conflict management techniques (avoiding, compromising, accommodating, etc.), you can present a scenario, for example:
You are a manager of a team. You have two very senior engineers in the team. Both of them prepare a proposal for a new architecture of the system. Both options are equally good, but still very different from one another. The two senior engineers start arguing for their option. As they have a lot of influence in the team, they start attracting the more junior engineers to their camps. This situation starts to threaten the performance and the good state of the whole team, but this seems like a win-lose situation – if you chose one of the options, the other senior engineer will accept this as a failure, as losing his status and credibility in the team and as a signal that you respect more the other engineer. What you will do as a manager in that situation? How you’ll handle it?
Such simple scenario can give you tons of information about the conflict management style of the candidate. This time you’ve checked that through situational questions.
Example 3: handling complex situations
If you want to check for ability of the candidate to handle complex situations, you can present the following example and ask for course of action:
You are a director of engineering. In one of the teams in your organization, you have a senior engineer who aspires to become the manager of the team. You have a free position for that role in the team and you need a manager, but you don’t think that the engineer is ready for that yet. You make your best to explain that to the engineer and help her grow professionally to achieve that level, but she still strongly argues that she is absolutely ready now and doesn’t want to wait anymore in order to be promoted. Because the fact that she is not ready is obvious, you open a position for external hiring. But now you have the following problem: that engineer is the most senior one in that team, and it will be bad if you don’t involve her in the interview process – she will have to work with that manager, and you must ensure they can collaborate well. If you hire a manager for her and the team without even letting her know, chances are very high that she will leave. But on the flip side, if you include her, chances are high that she will sabotage the interview process by providing negative feedback for the candidate and “no hire” opinion. How you’ll handle that situation?
Similarly, you can check for any behavioural skills which you consider important for your company – either through experience, or through situational questions. The answer of the candidates about their way to deal with the situations will speak a lot about them, their management styles and behaviours.
I hope these examples will help you frame the behavioural interviews for your company.