The 5 Most Important Soft Skills to Look for in a New Hire

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Knowing how to code isn’t the only skill you’d better bone up on if you want to get–and keep–a job in today’s workplace.

Make sure you can check your ego, take direction gracefully and show curiosity, which aren’t readily apparent on a resume or during an initial interview. These so-called soft skills can often dictate someone’s ability to work with other people in a dynamic setting–and they can make or break the success of a new hire.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent survey of by The Wall Street Journal, which polled 900 executives and found that almost all (92 percent) said they valued soft skills equally or more than technical skills. And an overwhelming majority (89 percent) of execs said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with these traits, no matter the level or age group.

To be sure, the importance of these intangible skills might vary based on the level of the hire, says Dr. Steve Kaplan, professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His research (which, it’s worth noting, is geared toward executive hires) found traits that lead to execution–like aggressiveness, follow-through and speed–are better indicators of C-suite success. Interpersonal skills, which can be harder to detect, might be more crucial to lower level hires.

That’s why a lot of firms use professional recruiters who employ a mix of personality assessments and behavioral interviewing to help them find worthy candidates. Should you want to assess applicants on your own, Kurt Rakos, a partner at Minnesota-based search firm SkyWater, has some advice. Here are the five important soft skills he recommends looking for in a potential new employee.

1. Broadcasts flexibility and enthusiasm

Ask a candidate to describe a time when someone had to learn a new skill or process on the job. This is a good way to understand both his or her method of learning and attitude toward a new experience.

“If I’m placing someone in a fast-paced, innovative environment, I need to see and hear enthusiasm as a candidate describes how they fly up the learning curve,” says Rakos.

2. Takes initiative and direction

A question about how they tackled a challenge and found a solution helps assess personal accountability. Candidates should mention how they prioritized tasks and what specific steps they took to accomplish something.

“I also need to see a level of self-confidence when I hear the candidate describe how they chose a solution,” says Rakos. “Someone who gets bogged down in analysis paralysis is not the right fit but neither is a candidate whose actions sound fearless to the point of recklessness.”

And asking them what’s important in an ideal boss should elicit descriptions of a manager who provides general, visionary direction and then unleashes their employees to get the job done.

“I especially like hearing candidates place greater value on bosses who are mentors but not micromanagers,” says Rakos.

3. Keeps ego in check

Ask candidates to describe both their greatest success in the workplace and a time when they made a mistake. That helps determine if they are more invested in their ego or in getting the job done and building a strong team. Also ask what their role was versus that of the manager or teammates.

What you want are answers that share the credit with the team as a whole. It’s even better if they mention specific people on the team, which shows they are aware enough to articulate the skills and abilities of others–and someone who is comfortable sharing credit.

“If I hear a lot of ‘I’ statements and precious few ‘we’ statements, I see trouble ahead,” Rakos says.

4. Demonstrates curiosity and a desire to learn

A vaguely worded question works here. Ask about the best job they’ve ever had and what they learned.

“While it’s true that I am listening for specific skills, knowledge and processes that may be needed for the job I’m filling, I’m also specifically listening for how the candidate values the process of learning itself,” says Rakos. As with every question, notice body language, tone of voice and facial expressions as much as words. Rakos says he wants to see someone’s eyes light up when they describe the joy of working alongside smart, curious people.

And asking what questions the candidate has for you, is a final way to learn a lot about them.

Candidates who ask probing questions about the organization’s culture, the hiring manager’s leadership style, and how success is measured and mentored, help themselves greatly.

5. Understands strengths and limitations

Ask them describe their work style. Also, ask how a former manager or co-worker would describe their work style. You’re looking for consistent answers that describe consistency, collaboration, listening skills and respect for the ideas of others.

“I also want to detect the courage and ability to identify and prioritize which ideas are better,” Rakos says.