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Intangible Skills And How To Spot Them

In one of Monty Python's most famous sketches, an accountant discusses with a vocational guidance counsellor the possibility of leaving his dull job to do something more exciting, such as becoming a lion tamer.

The counsellor, unfazed, swiftly brings the accountant back to reality:

“Your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid,lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful.”


Why intangiblle skills are important

As the picture implies, some jobs are just boring. People who undertake them need to be dull too.

And yet, most jobs nowadays are far from boring. Shaken by disruptive forces such as technology and globalisation, the world of business requires passionate, creative and ambitious people.

Sadly, they are nowhere to be found. Many companies in the EU and the US report a dreadful ‘skills shortage’, particularly among graduates. It’s not that there is lack of applicants; youth unemployment is rampant across Europe, while universities spew out hundreds of thousands of graduates every year.

What most job applicants lack is a skill set that no university can teach, but is necessary for modern business: collaborative ethos, creativity, the ability to recalibrate when needed.

These are usually called ‘soft skills’, but as all HR aces know, they can be hard currency on the ground. Even more so when it comes to areas where no hard science is involved and acumen along with a can-do attitude are more useful than theoretical knowledge: marketing, business development, management, sales, to name a few.

But how can you spot applicants who have these skills? How can you tick boxes if there aren’t any, or, even worse, the relevant features cannot be safely measured? Fewer problems make a recruiter’s job harder than this.

Let’s look on the bright side of life, as the Monty Python crew suggested. The quest for the right candidate can make an HR advisor’s job more creative. Hiring someone who fits the bill with the right credentials and work experience is a no-brainer. But if no such candidate is to be found, the task gets more challenging – you need to identify applicants who have potential. So what are the skills that these candidates should have and how can you track them down?

1) Adaptability

Most companies in our days operate in a globalised and fast-changing environment where technological innovation is king. Workers need to ride on the wave of these challenges and turn them into an asset for their employers. A key skill is the ability to assess a problem, come up with a solution, and if this doesn’t work, swiftly recalibrate.


Adaptability is a particularly crucial – and difficult to measure – skill for foreign workers who have never worked overseas. A German in London does not just need to get to grips with the culture of the company, but also immerse herself in the nuances of the English language, culture and habits, proving that she can succeed in an international business environment. Hard, but not impossible.

Exposing candidates to unusual problems that take them out of their comfort zone is the best way to test their adaptability skills. A trained chemist is king in the lab, but can she deliver in a sales role?

2) Communication Skills

They are are a classic, although often unduly disregarded as superfluous. After all, we all have some sense of conviviality. And yet, this may be the most important skill that a candidate should be equipped with. Good workers are those who make their colleagues better. A polished, but not abrasive, sense of humour can contribute to team-building more than qualifications and authority.

Unfortunately, there is no better way to measure communication skills than lengthy group assessments that test each candidate’s ability to work as a member of a team. However, these can be glossed over with a sprinkle of fun. For example, an increasing number of companies experiment with video games and simulations to make the recruiting process more engaging and, eventually, more effective.

3) Creativity

In our days companies do not just need employees but thinkers – whizzes who can come up with revolutionary ideas and new ways of doing things. As the leading behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman points out in his best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, we often tend to adjust new information into existing thought patterns rather than come up with new ones. So creative people do not just think out of the box – they tear the box down.

There are various tests that can assess this skill, although two or more interviews may be necessary. This may backfire, as many creative people hate interviews just because they find them boring and pretentious. So HR managers need to come up with a way to turn them into a fascinating game, a challenge or a quest to be completed.

4) Persuasiveness

For those looking for a senior position, this is a key skill that makes all the difference between the leader and the manager, the visionary and the daydreamer. Candidates who master the art of convincing their peers can change the future of a company, not just by driving sales, but also by boosting confidence and bringing positive vibes into the boardroom.

Although there are psychological tests that can safely assess this attribute, it is much better to test it on the ground. Teamwork exercises are necessary to observe which candidates can latter, co-opt, cajole and motivate their colleagues and how they use this rare talent in real-life situations.

So this is the material future leaders are made of. This does not mean that qualifications do not matter. They are just not enough in today’s uber-competitive job market. Fortunately or not, recruiters need to spot neophytes who can turn the tables, even if they do not even know it yet.

After all, the world needs more lion tamers and fewer accountants.