How to Assess Transferable Skills in a Candidate Who Doesn’t Fit the Mold

transferable skills
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How do you make sure you don’t lose out on those candidates who bring additional talents, interests, and unusual experiences that can be a real boon to your organisation?

When looking to hire for an open position, your ideal candidate is someone who meets all of the job requirements, right? Maybe not. Even the best-crafted job description may not capture every person who might flourish in the position and some applicants with nontraditional backgrounds or non-standard career trajectories may offer something that you may not want to miss.

So how do you make sure you don’t lose out on those candidates who bring additional talents, interests, and unusual experiences that can be a real boon to your organisation? As a hiring manager, you have to read resumes and cover letters closely, listen carefully to each candidate’s professional story, and consider what’s truly most important to the job, not just what’s listed on the job description.

Take David’s story. I heard about David (not his real name) from my coauthor, Joe Gurkoff, who told me that David was trained as an engineer but eventually wanted to shift his career into high tech sales. He had no sales training or experience whatsoever, so, despite his technical skills, he faced a tough task in convincing a hiring manager that he could bring in revenue to a company by convincing customers to buy its products.

Fortunately, David had honed his acting skills for years in regional theater productions after work hours. An introvert by nature, he had pushed himself initially just to get up on that stage and deliver his lines without bolting before the intermission. With practice, though, he learned that he could enjoy those moments of facing the audience and convincing them that he truly was the person he was scripted to play.

As David thought about the career path he wanted to pursue, he saw how his acting skills could help him sell products to a new audience: a tech company’s potential customers. He could act as a “situational extrovert” in order to have a confident exchange with potential buyers and successfully make his sale. David knew this was possible and wanted to make sure that a hiring manager would understand it, too.  So he sold the sales manager of the company that most interested him on the idea of giving him an audition for the job. At the audition, David didn’t just tell his potential boss how his acting skills would make him a successful member of the sales team; he acted out a tough sales scenario. The hiring manager was impressed and gave David the job.

David had gone out on a limb and it worked. But the hiring manager was also taking a leap of faith and for both of them, the outcome was positive. And David was successful selling those tech products precisely because he was able to combine the knowledge of an engineer with the stage presence of an actor.

How can you assure that you don’t miss a David or another worthy candidate whose career story is not the typical one? Here’s how to assess talent when it comes from an unexpected direction:

Thoroughly read the information you have about the candidate, whether it’s the summary of the executive search team or a cover letter and resume. Don’t get hung up on a position or job title that’s listed or not listed; look for the skills and strengths that the person has exhibited. A savvy applicant will summarise and highlight the things that truly make them effective rather than relying on job titles to tell the story.

Use behavioural interviewing techniques. Ask the candidate to describe a situation in which she effectively used the kinds of skills and strengths that your organisation needs. David lacked a formal background in sales, but he could describe and even demonstrate effectively the skills he’d learned onstage that were relevant to the job.

Look and listen for self-awareness. How well does he know himself, his strengths, and his limitations? Self-awareness is important for every candidate. When anyone takes a new job and a challenging situation arises, they have to know their existing skills well enough to put them into gear right away. They also have to understand the capabilities that they don’t have, in order to reach out for the help they need to solve a problem as swiftly and effectively as possible. It’s particularly important that the non-standard applicant gain your confidence by demonstrating what he can do to contribute to your team, but he shouldn’t go overboard. As the hiring manager, you want to know that he’s making a reasonable pitch for his unusual combination of skills and experience, and isn’t promising you an impossible array of capabilities. The applicant who can identify what he already does well and where he can improve is a better hire.

Use references to help you better understand the candidate. Her boss, colleague, fellow community volunteer, or classmate can identify the tenacity, integrity, sense of curiosity, willingness to learn, people skills, or adaptability that may be as important as her educational background, technical skills, or former titles. Read written references carefully to look for specific examples of how the applicant has developed and used her strengths. If and when you talk with the people who are recommending the candidate, be sure to fully describe the position you’re offering and ask how they could visualize the candidate’s skills and experience could be useful in this role. Demonstrate that you’re open to considering her, but need to have specific reasons to feel assured that she can weather this transition.

Focus on willingness to learn. This may be the most important characteristic to look for. The candidate who meets all the requirements of your job description but is set in his ways and unwilling to learn and adapt will have less to contribute to your group than the person who admits what he doesn’t know but has a track record of acquiring new skills. Ask him to tell you about a difficult new skill he had to acquire and how he approached that process. Was he enthusiastic about it? Was he tenacious about staying with it and learning everything on that topic that he possibly could? Ask him what it is about the position makes him excited about learning, and what it is he knows he’ll have to learn. This question is the flip side of “Tell me what you know how to do”, and it can provide assurance that this applicant will truly hit the ground running but also keep moving forward.

When considering non-traditional candidates, you may have to make a leap of faith. Sometimes that leap is a small one and sometimes it’s a larger one. Your effort to “connect the dots” between this person’s unique experience and your organisation’s critical aims may be a great investment in your group’s success. The payoff can be huge.

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