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5 Ways To Evaluate Interpersonal Skills in Executive Candidates

5 Ways To Evaluate Interpersonal Skills in Executive Candidates

Camille Fetter

Reach the most accurate evaluation of interpersonal skills in executive candidates.

Evaluating interpersonal (aka soft) skills in executive-level candidates is one of the most challenging responsibilities of a hiring manager. A candidate’s interview behavior may not represent how he acts in general because very few people display their authentic selves in interview settings. It’s especially difficult to gauge assertiveness and extroversion in an interview. Candidates know they’re being judged and evaluated, so they don’t want to come across as egotistical.

Gauging a potential executive’s interpersonal skills is crucial, but how can you get to know him with only an interview? And what if you need to hire a new team leader within a few days?

There are five ways that hiring managers can reach the most accurate evaluation of interpersonal skills in executive candidates.  


1. Meet Your Candidate in an Informal Setting

If you only have a few days to hire someone, holding your interview at a coffee shop or over a meal is the best way to fast-track the hiring process by observing your potential employee in a casual environment.

Observe how the candidate behaves from beginning to end. What’s your impression within 30 seconds of meeting her? Is she quiet and reserved, or warm and outgoing? Does she stand up immediately and give you a firm handshake while maintaining eye contact?

Notice how she engages with the barista, server and host, depending where you are. Do people seem to like her or feel put off by her behavior?

You’ll quickly be able to tell if the candidate is outgoing and friendly or quiet. On the executive level, the people who thrive are those who connect easily with others and show compassion and empathy.

2. Plan Specific Situational and Behavioral Questions

Posing open-ended, situational and behavioral questions helps you get to  a candidate’s interpersonal skills. An example of a situational question would be, “If you got into a conflict with a co-worker over originality and idea ownership, how would you handle it?”

Behavioral questions force candidates to pull from their past. For example, “Describe the biggest challenge you’ve had in your career so far. How did you navigate it?”

Pay attention to how the candidate receives these questions. Do they make him nervous and tense, or at ease? Does it seem like he’s answered similar questions before?

I like to see candidates use the STAR method to answer these questions. STAR stands for situation, task, action, result. Candidates describe the situation—usually a challenge—then the task, which is what needed to happen to rectify the situation. The action is what the candidates did to reach success or overcome the challenge. The result is what happened.

An example would be, “We lost two key advertising clients, and we needed to fill their places within a month. I reached out to my private network and held multiple coffee meetings to acquire new clients. We filled the two open ad spaces and took on an additional two clients due to my series of meetings. That resulted in a 40% increase in revenue.”

Using the STAR method shows candidates have interview experience, and it allows them to objectively outline their successes without coming across as overly confident. When used effectively, the STAR method helps candidates state the facts of what happened to demonstrate their soft skills.

Before the interview, draft at least three situational and behavioral questions that relate to the position you’re hiring for. This will help you identify soft skills, such as ability to communicate and work under pressure. When you prepare questions, you won’t have to resort to general queries that don’t tell you much about a candidate’s personality. You’ll quickly find out how dynamic the person is.

3. Get the Inside Story from Your Candidate’s References

Remember to ask your candidate’s references about their interpersonal skills. It’s easy to focus on the numbers and big wins when you call a reference, and those facts do matter. However, asking a past supervisor about your potential hire’s soft skills is one of the best ways to learn about their personality.

Find out the most challenging aspects of the candidate’s personality, and how he dealt with conflict. A great question for a reference is, “How would Joe’s direct reports describe him and his communication style?”

4. Put Your Candidate Through the Lunch Test

If a candidate doesn’t ask you anything about yourself for the entire interview, that’s a sign she could be self-absorbed and only in it for herself. An interview is a two-way conversation, with the hiring manager leading. You want your candidate to show interest in you without trying to take the reins on the interview.

The conversation should be approximately 75% about the candidate and 25% about you and the company. The candidate is there to sell herself, but she’s also there to learn if she’s a match for the company, and to do that she needs to learn about you. A candidate can (and should) decline a job offer that isn’t the right fit, and she needs to ask questions to find that out.

You’ll want to grab lunch with the right candidate after the interview; you wouldn’t want to spend more time with someone who talked about themselves for the entire interview, would you? It’s important to surround yourself with people you genuinely like and will enjoy being with in the workplace.

5. Find out How They’ve Taken Initiative

Did the candidate ideate a project with his current organization, or has he mostly executed other people’s ideas? Being able to take initiative and be assertive is crucial in any leadership role. Ask him what projects he’s executed from inception to fruition.

At this point, you also want to ensure the candidate is humble by noticing if he’s credited his team or not. Is he always speaking in first person, or does he give credit where it’s deserved? Look for someone who uses “we” more often than “I.” No one wants an egomaniac leading their team.

This is also a great time to find out how a candidate inspired his team and leveraged resources for a project. How did he inspire great work? And how would he describe his leadership style? I’m always surprised by how many executives struggle to answer this question.

Self-awareness is extremely important, and being able to describe oneself accurately and honestly is a key indicator of it. If we’re not aware of our own behavior, we can’t grow and evolve.

Camille Fetter is president and managing partner of TalentFoot, an executive search firm. She has been featured in AOL, MSN Careers, Crain’s New York Business, CareerBuilder, TheLadders and Today’s Chicago Woman.