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monday morning manager

Most companies are hyped these days about the need to hire for "fit." But usually they are going about it the wrong way because they don't understand the concept, warns Toronto-based executive recruiter Janet Webb. "You can't assess something if you don't know what it is," she said in an interview.

Fit is not about finding somebody nice who would not create any waves in the workplace. Fit is not about hiring somebody who is "a good guy" or went to "a top university." Instead of such unfocused language about soft skills, you need to look at the fundamental traits a person would bring to the job, whether a chief executive officer or an entry-level aspirant.

Over the years, Ms. Webb has devised a language for her clients to use, which she shares more broadly in her new book Hiring for Keeps. It lists fundamental traits in five categories of soft skills: Productivity, self-management, relationship-building, presentation, and open mindset.

For example, open mindset – something you might not think to consider and would have difficulty describing – involves acceptance, adaptability, curiosity, flexibility, interest in learning from others, openness to change, openness to feedback, and tolerance. Productivity includes accountability, accuracy, determination, logical mindset, timeliness, and the will to succeed.

For senior roles, you also need more sophisticated soft skills, which she calls complementary traits. Among them are the ability to ask open-minded questions and deal with ambiguity, as well as assertiveness, charisma, insight, negotiating skills, political savvy, and the discipline to set priorities. This will move the conversation about candidates to specifics: "She has ability to handle ambiguity, political savvy, curiosity, and is open to change and feedback."

In a recent search for a sales vice-president, for example, she gave the five interviewers her lists and they independently wrote down the traits they considered essential. Then they shared and developed a consensus on these fundamental traits: Integrity, positive attitude, ability to deliver relevant information, accountability, and humility. The top complementary traits were leadership presence, creativity, drive for results, entrepreneurial outlook, ability to cope with pressure, and autonomy. As well, of course, there were certain hard skills related to selling. During interviewing and assessment, the search for these traits kept them on track.

There is no limit on the number of traits you might pinpoint but she urges hiring committees to strip it down to the most important. She also warns against making snap judgments during the interview process. In prescreening, for instance, the candidate might seem agitated, not the calm person you are seeking. But perhaps it has been a decade since the individual's last interview and her nervousness is momentary, though she would perform well on the job. Keep interacting so that you can get a better low-down on the person.

She also urges you to be alert to whether your organization and the open slot fit the candidate's expectations. The person may want a promotion, a more challenging role, higher remuneration, a desire to work closer to home to reduce commuting time, or other factors. Those are crucial to the ultimate fit.

She cites a manager of operations who has moved from firm to firm and relishes continual improvements in title. He is hired by a family firm that doesn't fuss about titles, has a flat structure, and expects loyalty. He may have all the right traits, but his expectations are out of whack with this job.

Many companies these days prescreen candidates but usually only for hard skills, rather than soft traits. They also tend to rely on telephone interviews, while she feels you should also use e-mail and LinkedIn.

She tries to maximize rather than minimize interactions with candidates at that preliminary stage to probe deeper. She may ask questions simply to check writing skills, since the résumé could have been prepared by somebody else. The questions during prescreening might reveal how thoughtful and well-organized the candidate is, or whether the responding e-mails are shallow and carelessly constructed. It's important to ask why they are specifically interested in this job, to see whether the person's expectations truly match yours. You want to keep the conversations and process going, ideally in different media, before determining whether to have a formal interview.

For those interviews, prepare questions that will help assess the traits you are looking for. Open-ended questions aren't the best as the responses can be too vague. She lacks a pet question but often will ask: "If we hire you, what support will you need?" That can show whether the person takes initiative, has gaps in knowledge, collaborates, and has humility. In evaluating answers, remember that some skills you can coach for later but a lot of these soft skills must be inherent when hiring.

She sums up: "It's good to know what you are hiring for as you can't hire for it otherwise." Think about fit in a more precise, deeper fashion than fleeting feelings about compatibility.

Web tail: Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter