Communication Skills Distinguish Candidates
Communication Skills Distinguish Candidates
By Mary Boone
(From the Association of Executive Search Consultants' Executive
Talent magazine, www.careerjournal.com
You've got a senior candidate
in front of you with juicy credentials: an impeccable education, serious experience
in the right industry, articulate -- in short, everything is adding up to make
this a perfect match. Or is it? The Internet era has ushered in a host of new
leadership challenges for executives. These days, the old criteria for a candidate's
success -- even seasoned with a dollop of charisma -- aren't enough to ensure
Leadership these days poses some serious challenges: People have new attitudes
toward work and authority. "Free agents" and a long period of economic
prosperity have helped create a workforce that isn't so eager to follow orders
or work for control freaks anymore. Top software engineers in Silicon Valley
have agents, like rock stars or athletes. People have their own ideas, and they
expect to be heard.
New forms of organizational alliances are creating situations where executives
lead and manage people who don't report to them.
It's more difficult than ever to get people's attention in an age of overwhelming
information. Leaders have to find ways to break through the noise. These are
only a few of the ways in which the world of work has changed in recent years.
Most executives aren't equipped to lead in this new environment because an important
element is missing from their experience, education and training: a sophisticated,
interactive approach to communication.
Sounds simplistic? Don't be deceived. "I often see candidates who have
all the right technical skills," says Dennis Krieger of Seiden Krieger
Associates, an executive-recruiting firm based in New York. "They may have
McKinsey, Wharton, or Kellogg on their resumes, but they aren't as successful
as they could be because they don't have the communication skills they need
to lead and manage today. … The candidates who really deliver are the
ones who not only look good on paper, but also respect, listen to, and include
people. Ten years ago, my clients were less concerned with someone's ability
to communicate. But in a time of high turnover and instability, these things
become much more important."
To date, most training and education in communication has been rudimentary.
Apart from a few attempts to teach people to make eye contact, handle the media,
or to use anti-inflammatory language, most executives don't know how to communicate
well. In today's competitive environment, being good on your feet or a good
listener is insufficient. Executives today must take a comprehensive, multidirectional,
inclusive approach to communication to connect, inform, and engage people in
Most people in organizations confuse communication with persuasion. They talk
about getting "buy-in" or "enrollment" for an idea, project,
or initiative. This "tell-and-sell" approach to communication often
has limited impact in an era in which people have their own ideas about what
needs to happen in an organization. More important, it overlooks the value of
leveraging intellectual capital during the development phase of a project. In
a chaotic, warp-speed, competitive environment, we need ownership of ideas,
not buy-in. An articulate and savvy candidate may not necessarily deliver the
best results. In this new era, "tell and sell" is giving way to "ask
and engage." The best candidates will be the ones who know how to manage
and communicate interactively.
on Two Levels
An interactive approach to management requires superb communication on two levels:
personal and organizational. Certainly, candidates need excellent interpersonal
skills. But they also need to be able to create an environment where communication
flows freely throughout an organization. In an era where intellectual capital
is at a premium and where knowledge management is more than a buzzword, your
candidate needs to understand that lateral communication -- getting people to
share knowledge and ideas in an organization -- is as important as top-down
or bottom-up communication.
Executives who ignore lateral communication do so at their peril, for it can
have significant bottom-line results. In a recent article for Fortune magazine,
author Thomas Stewart notes that the aftereffects of the Ford Explorer and Firestone
tire fiasco occurred in part because of a "catastrophic failure to share
Mr. Stewart explains that the information needed to alert the companies to the
mismatch of tire and vehicle existed before the deadly incidents started occurring.
However, that information was scattered in both companies. Effective cross-organizational
communication could have made a tremendous difference.
Candidates must be aware of the importance of communicating and sharing information
not only within their own departments or organizations, but also across boundaries
in alliances of all types. At the same time, they'll also have to evaluate their
personal willingness to share information. It's difficult to convince everyone
in organizations and alliances to share knowledge if you're the kind of person
who plays things close to the vest.
I interviewed more than 80 people from a variety of disciplines and organizations
to determine what it takes to be a good communicator in this new era for management
and leadership. The wisdom they shared with me resulted in the identification
of 10 competencies that executives today need to master. They are the ability
people and their knowledge accessible to others.
power with people at all levels of an organization.
online and physical environments that enhance collaboration.
effective rituals and experiences that build cultures.
- Use key
interpersonal skills effectively.
information available, useful, and enticing to a variety of stakeholders.
- Use stories
to both share and capture knowledge.
hidden conflicts between actions and words.
pervasive listening throughout an organization or alliance.
people across organizational boundaries.
are these abilities important? They can make a multimillion-dollar difference
in organizational results. Let's look at an example related to the competency
of being able to resolve hidden conflicts between actions and words.
Several years ago, the Royal Bank of Canada began a program to encourage referrals
in its financial-services business. The bank recently had purchased several
financial-services firms and wanted to aggressively expand its product offerings
The company initially took the traditional communication route. Executives told
employees about the referral approach in brochures, rousing speeches, and employee
magazines. Not much happened. Then they decided to ask the employees about how
to encourage referrals. Guess what? It turned out that if I was a bank manager
and I referred my customer to a financial advisor, all I would get for my trouble
would be reduced numbers at the end of the year. You see, if I was successful,
my customer would move money out of my branch and into another part of the organization.
My compensation was based on my branch numbers at the end of the year. Oops!
As a result of the employee survey, personnel from various disciplines from
all over the company were brought together to exchange ideas and information
about closing the gaps between what the company was saying and what it was doing
about referrals. This highly interactive approach paid off. In the space of
one year, retail referrals quadrupled, resulting in an $800 million increase
in new business.
for Candidate Selection
The implications for the candidate selection process are clear: You need to
find people who are willing to:
that an existing communication approach isn't working;
- Ask the
people themselves about what's not working and why; and
resources to bringing together cross-disciplinary teams to communicate interactively
and design effective solutions to the issues that are raised.
to communicate isn't on the list of competencies because it's so important that
it permeates each one. Candidates not only need to know how to employ technology
as part of demonstrating the above competencies, but also how to choose and
apply the right technologies for the right communication situations.
Interactive technologies have been around for decades. Interactive attitudes
are more difficult to find. It's much easier to teach candidates how to apply
technologies than it is to teach them an interactive approach to the way they
communicate and manage.
Technological competence shouldn't be the primary consideration. If you have
a candidate who fully understands the importance of connecting, informing, and
engaging people, then he or she can learn the technological aspects of better
As you consider candidates, you might consider the following questions useful
in determining your candidate's IQ (Interactive Quotient):
experience have you had in managing people across organizational boundaries
in situations such as joint ventures, outsourcing relationships, new business
models, and mergers or acquisitions? What did you do to ensure good communication
across those boundaries?
global experience do you have? What adaptations did you make to your communication
approach in order to accommodate different cultures?
did you do the last time a subordinate questioned or challenged you?
technologies do you find most useful for getting input from a broad range
of stakeholders in your organization? Describe how you've used them, and the
was the most creative idea presented to you in the last three months?
- How often
do you interact with people more than two levels below you?
methods, technologies, or approaches do you use to get people to share knowledge
and information with each other in your organization?
is the last time you publicly admitted to a mistake or changed your mind about
Asking questions such as these will reveal a candidate's ability to operate
in a fluid flexible, less hierarchical environment.
What's in Front of You
"Really, when you're making a choice about a candidate, everything you
need to know is sitting right there in front of you," says Mr. Krieger.
"If someone's got an attitude or is arrogant in an interview, you know
you're going to have problems down the road. And if they use the word 'I' all
the time or if they overuse the word 'we,' you need to do some digging into
their ability to mobilize a team to get things accomplished."
Also, observe the person's ability to listen during an interview. Do they ask
you incisive questions? More important, do they care about the answers? As they
answer questions, see how well they understand the need for multidirectional
communication. Do they realize that results won't happen without it? Do they
know how to get a message out there, how to get feedback, and how to get people
talking to each other?
Between 'A' and 'B' Candidates
As Mr. Krieger points out, communication capabilities distinguish the "A"
from the "B" candidates: "When I find someone who has these types
of skills, I'm more willing to place less emphasis on things like the years
of experience they have in a particular industry." Attending to a candidate's
ability to communicate interactively at both the individual and organizational
level can be a critical clue as to whether they'll really be able to deliver
results in their new position.
-- Ms. Boone,
writing for the AESC's Executive Talent magazine, is the author of several books,
including "Managing Inter@ctively" (McGraw-Hill, 2001). As president
of Boone Associates in Norwalk, Conn., she is a frequent speaker, executive
coach and consultant on how individuals and organizations can improve their
performance through innovative approaches to communication. She can be reached
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