The people who got ahead the fastest had the strongest “soft” skills.

A few weeks ago I described how to use the Hiring Formula for Success shown in the graphic as the foundation for interviewing anyone for any job.


The formula can be used as a guide during the performance-based interview by digging into a candidate’s major accomplishments getting examples of each of the factors in the formula. Making the comparison on the fit factors in the bottom of the formula involves assessing how well the candidate’s abilities and motivating interests map to real job needs, how the candidate and hiring manager’s style will mesh and how well the candidate fits with the culture. We suggest using a talent scorecard to capture each of these factors to more accurately predict pre-hire quality of hire.

However, after using this approach for more than 20 years for hundreds of hires (more than 75% were promoted within a year or two) I noticed something remarkable. The people who got ahead the fastest had the strongest “soft” skills. These are captured in all of the fit factors, in the team skills and organizational factors and in the critical motivation to do the required work trait. In fact, these soft skills are so important they should not be called soft. Instead they should be called “The Essential Traits of Success.”

Just look at this list. Collectively, these traits define greatness.

The Essential Traits of Job Success

  • Proactive in taking ownership of a job and doing the right things without having to be told.
  • Assertiveness in pushing the status quo.
  • Courage in challenging bad ideas, bad decisions and bad processes.
  • Influencing others who are not direct reports especially peers, people in other functions and executives, to make difficult decisions.
  • Coaching and helping others especially when they’ll get no credit for it and when it takes extra time.
  • Managers who spend extra time to build, develop and motivate their team members to get better.
  • Consistently making commitments and taking responsibility for delivering. And without making excuses when things go wrong.
  • Collaborating, negotiating and reaching agreement with cross-functional teams on challenging and competing objectives.
  • Problem-solving, creative and strategic thinking skills that address root cause and best solutions given the constraints.
  • Organizational and project management skills to ensure complex team tasks are completed successfully.
  • Taking the initiative and doing more than required with limited direction.
  • Communications skills to present ideas clearly and distinctly to the required audiences.
  • Customer service skills including being cooperative, supportive and understanding, regardless of who the customer is.
  • Cultural fit with the hiring manager’s style, the pace of the organization and the values of the company. Flexibility in dealing with changing situations and with different people.
  • Resilient in handling the all too frequent setbacks.
  • Continuous self-development recognizing that if you’re not getting better you’re falling behind.
  • Having the vision to see what needs to get done and then getting it done. When combined with all of the above it’s called leadership.
  • Listening and withholding judgement until all of the facts are heard.
  • Willing to change an opinion based on new facts.
  • Openly willing to take criticism and be coached and adjusts and improves behavior accordingly.

I’m sure this isn’t the full list of essential traits but no one in the world would ever call any of them soft. What’s surprising is that while these skills are obviously important for on-the-job success, most hiring managers aren’t too good at assessing them. That’s why I suggest they become the primary fact-finding probes in the performance-based interviewing approach I advocate. Here’s how this works in practice.

Once you’ve prepared a performance-based job description describing the top 6-8 performance objectives required for on-the-job success, have candidates describe a comparable major accomplishment for each of the major performance objectives. As you clarify the person’s role ask for examples of when the person demonstrated the essential skills on the list above. The video explains this process. Assign different interviewers different accomplishments and different traits to focus on using the same interviewing approach. The sharing of different pieces of evidence will increase assessment accuracy when the group comes together to complete the Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard.

By assessing the essential and technical skills as a part of a major accomplishment it’s easier to measure performance and fit with the actual job. Harvard Professor Todd Rose, the author of The End of Average, refers to this as context. Without this context, according to Professor Rose, the assessment will be flawed. As an added plus, by observing the trend of growth over time of both the accomplishments and the essential success traits you can observe how people grow, develop and interrelate. As you’ll discover when you start hiring people who have these essential traits in abundance, they do define greatness.