As part of the work I do, I mentor young professionals. For nearly two years, I had the honor of mentoring a college student named Theo*. In June of 2021 he’ll graduate from a small, local university with a degree in communication, despite below average grades. He is kind, hard working, and level-headed. On paper, Theo looks like an average entry-level candidate. However, his greatest strengths and most critical skills for job success reside beneath the surface—they don’t show up on his resume.

Theo grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His divorced parents struggled with mental illness, addiction, and family homelessness. He learned to adapt to changing environments and developed an acute ability to connect with people on an emotional level. When he arrived to high school as a freshman, he could barely read a single sentence. With very little support, he taught himself to read. During this time, he also raised his younger brother and supported the family with as much work as he could manage. Determination and a sense of duty propelled him to graduate high school and build a more stable future. Mentorship from a teacher helped Theo land a scholarship to the small university he is about to graduate from. Theo is the first in his family to attend college and soon, the first to hold a college degree.

Unfortunately, as he seeks out job opportunities upon graduating, none of these essential skills—resilience, emotional intelligence, and leadership—will be revealed due to outdated hiring practices.

By any account, Theo is a remarkable young man. Imagine him in a sales role, on a customer support team, or as an account manager. The soft skills he developed through overcoming significant adversity make him an exceptional candidate for any of those roles. Introducing life experience into the screening and interviewing process will completely transform hiring success rates.

Soft skills—character strengths, leadership traits, and people skills—are critical to succeeding at collaboration, innovation, and leadership. According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends, 92% of talent professionals agree that soft skills are as important as technical skills, if not more so.

And yet, despite the strategic importance of hiring and the critical role that soft skills play, nationwide hiring success rates are abysmal, costing companies tens of billions of dollars every year. 40% of new hires fail to succeed within their first 18 months due to a mismatch of soft skills.

Until now, there has been no simple, effective, and repeatable method for surfacing these essential skills in the hiring process. Thankfully, that is changing. Top global management consulting firm McKinsey recently published “Five Fifty: Soft skills for a hard world” that specifically calls out the importance of using life experience to understand soft skills. That’s on top of decades of research from the positive and developmental psychology fields that points to life experience being the most effective means to understand a person’s soft skills. This reinforces what we humans have known, through our own intuition, to be true for millennia: soft skills emerge from how we respond to our struggles.

When job seekers are invited to share the context of who they are as a person in the hiring process, employers are better able to identify and assess their soft skills. Employers are also better able to filter out people who look good on paper but are not as qualified from a soft skills perspective. Without asking about relevant life experience to understand these essential skills, employers are forced to make major decisions with inadequate, and often inaccurate, data points.

Inviting life experience to be shared in the hiring process introduces a number of opportunities and powerful changes. Employers can take advantage of the following:

  • Improve objectivity with more data to drive decision making. Define the top three soft skills for every role and listen for the presence of these skills as the candidate shares. This will formalize the “intangible” qualifications that are often more susceptible to implicit bias (e.g. gut feel or “the beer test” relating to perceived likability). In addition, candidates who arrive prepared to speak to their soft skills are more effective at communicating the most critical information regardless of the interviewer(s)’ skill level or training.
  • Better discern between qualified and unqualified candidates. Encouraging candidates to share more context around their soft skills enables them to further differentiate themselves. With this important additional information, the match between their specific, unique mix of skills to the role is much more clear. Implicit biases based on resumes, degrees, or ability to interview reveal themselves, as do candidates with the best soft skills fit.
  • Transform the candidate experience and increase the flow of information. Candidates who are able to share more about who they are as a person in the interview report that they feel more seen and valued as a human being. This is where the authentic interview emerges. In the authentic interview, more information flows more freely, giving all parties a sense of connection and satisfaction for their respective objectives. This is especially powerful for underrepresented people and goes a long way for the employer brand (more on this in a future article).

Consider the following examples of Microsoft and MOD Pizza.

Under the leadership of Satya Nadella, Microsoft has performed one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history. Employee infighting and fear of failure, depreciating products, and fierce corporate competition had Microsoft in a precarious position in 2014. Drawing on his own personal transformation through raising his disabled son, Nadella implemented hiring practices that focused on a growth mindset. In just five years, he managed to triple Microsoft’s share price (which has continued to grow), and he attributes this in part to hiring for a growth mindset. During his tenure, Microsoft introduced a strategic hiring program that recognizes the potential of candidates with autism. These individuals have often developed unmatched expertise in very specific areas of interest and have an uncanny ability to focus.

“Our fundamental belief is that our culture transformation and our company transformation and where we are today and where we are headed is absolutely grounded in a deep understanding of a growth mindset.”

— Joe Whittinghill, Corporate Vice President of Talent at Microsoft (source)

In the early days of building MOD Pizza’s foundation in Seattle, one of their locations took a chance on hiring an individual with a felony record. That person ended up becoming one of their best employees. Wondering if there was more to it, MOD began to experiment. In 2011, they tracked the performance of these hires over time. They proved to themselves the power of hiring based on life experience. They found that these employees were more committed, more driven, and more responsible than the average employee in food service. Plus, these take-a-chance hires were significant cultural contributors that positively impacted their workplaces. MOD went on to incorporate impact hiring as a key aspect of their growth strategy and differentiation, landing them as one of the fastest growing food service companies in the U.S.

So that became MOD’s calling — to grow on the strength of the people that other companies overlooked. “After that first three-year period, the mission became very intentional,” says Ally [Svenson]. “We started to describe our business as enlightened capitalism.”

(source)

Getting to know people is incredibly difficult. Determining whether or not to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a new hire in roughly 60 minutes is fraught with risk, to say the least. The beauty of incorporating life experience into the process is that it is a simple yet potent catalyst for understanding people and their skills (or lack thereof). There is truly no better way to take the measure of someone than to hear how they’ve handled their hardest days, made up for their biggest mistakes, and how they’ve responded to their greatest opportunities.

WholeStory enables companies to easily implement and scale this approach inside their organizations, but there’s no need to wait to get started. Employers can begin with a single, pointed question introduced into every interview:

“Will you share one experience you’ve had—whether personal or professional in nature—that you had to struggle through that changed you for the better, and how that experience has shaped you as a professional? (Please feel free to share a non-work experience.)”

*Theo’s story is a true account of his life, known by the author. His name was changed to protect his privacy.

About Erin Anacker

Erin is Cofounder & Head of Product at WholeStory. A deep curiosity about people and the way we connect drives her entrepreneurial spirit. She combines this with her background in digital experience strategy in pursuit of a more human-centered world.

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