Interviewing for the Right Skills

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Director of Recreation
City of Port Angeles, Washington
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the third in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

"Success in any business is 85% ability to relate to other people and attitude and only 15% job knowledge and technical skills."  — Carnegie Foundation, 2005

The recruitment of new employees is one of the most important tasks a manager will undertake. Meeting candidates face to face provides the best opportunity for gathering information about their skills and experience and, ultimately, matching the right person to the job and to the organization. George Haines, in his article on succession planning for our next-generation leaders (APWA Reporter, September 2006), says that in order to develop a great team, "you need to recruit and hire not only good people, but the right people."

While an interview is one of the most basic and accepted forms of screening done today, interviewing can be a complicated and time-consuming process. The higher the level of the position, the more complex the interview becomes. The candidate has to learn about the organization, the role, and the details of his or her responsibilities. He or she has to not only put his or her best qualifications forward in a relatively short period of time, but has to form enough of an opinion about coming on board with the agency. The employer has to check the resume, check references, decide if the fit is there and make an offer. The candidate then has to decide if the offer is acceptable. This process continues until you both feel comfortable enough to commit or not commit. But, are you conducting the interview in the manner that you reveal the true value of this prospective member of your team?

There are three major items to look for in the interview process:

  • Hard skills
  • Talent
  • Soft skills

Hard skills could include such items as education, certifications, licenses, specialization and experience—the technical abilities.

Marcus Buckingham, in his book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, indicates that in addition to the standard interview (i.e., references, qualifications, experience and technical expertise), you should be interviewing for talent. This talent interview has but one purpose: to discover whether the candidate's recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior match the job. The best way to discover a person's talents in an interview is to allow him to reveal himself by the choices he makes. Buckingham continues: "Great managers, when selecting someone, select for talent...not simply experience, intelligence or determination."

What do we mean when we use the term talent? Some define talent as the natural ability to fit the position (i.e., attitude, drive, personal charm). Buckingham defines talent as "any recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior." Talent cannot be taught. Talent consists of your verbal skills, poise, sense of humor, smile, self-confidence, attitude and integrity. Talent can also be defined as the quality of a person's charisma. Talents explain the why of a person (drive), the how of a person (how he thinks), and the who of a person (how he relates). Each person's talents are enduring and unique.

"People don't change that much. Don't waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough."  — Marcus Buckingham, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently

For the remainder of this discussion I will concentrate on "soft skills," also known as "people" skills. Each person has a combination of hard and soft skills. Hard skills are easily defined, while soft skills are more difficult to put into writing. Hard skills can be accepted without meeting the person, as these skills are reflected in their resume; soft skills can only be confirmed by meeting the person.

Hard skills, talent and soft skills are distinct elements of a person's performance. The distinction among the three is that knowledge can be taught, experience can be gained; talent is unique to each person, whereby soft skills can be acquired. Combined, these three elements create an enormously potent employee. My experience is that when it comes to job offers, the soft skills goes a long way in determining who gets the job. When all of the candidates' work experience, education and other hard skills are equal, the candidate with the best soft skills will get the job.

In order to assess someone's soft skills you must meet them. Remember the phrase from your report card—"Works and plays well with others"? That is a critical soft skill and there are many more, all of which are important for any job. The bottom line is that your hard skills may secure an interview, but your soft skills will get you the job; both skills are vital in your job search. In addition, while hard skills may get you the job, soft skills will help you keep your job.

What are some soft skills? There are many soft skills; most are related to people (or interpersonal) skills. I think some of the more prominent soft skills are:

  • Effective Listening
  • Accountability
  • Assertiveness
  • Conducting Effective Meetings
  • Time Management
  • Group Process
  • Delegation
  • Goal Setting
  • Team Building
  • Stress Management
  • Problem Solving
  • Motivation
  • Leadership
  • Interviewing
  • Effective Communications
  • Managing Resources

Kelly Pierce points out in eSight Trend Watch: Increased Value of Soft Skills that "There is a growing recognition that interpersonal (soft) skills are not simply helpful in business today; they are essential..."

I believe that all of the above soft skills can be categorized into four basic groups:

  • Problem Solving
  • Communication
  • Personal Qualities and Work Ethic
  • Interpersonal and Teamwork

What are employers looking for? It depends. Every employer seeks a different mix of skills and experiences from a prospective employee. But the one thing they look for consistently is soft skills.

This article will not discuss in any detail the soft skills as presented above. Many others more competent than I are able to discuss those skills in greater detail. I would refer the reader to a new APWA publication entitled Building on the Basics: Core Competencies for Public Works Managers. This book lists some 26 skills, or competencies, that are important to managers. Suffice it to say that the acquisition and use of soft skills is important to your success, whether in hiring a new employee or applying for (or keeping) a job. A recent study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership concluded that an estimated 40% of all new managers failed within the first 18 months on the job. The highest reason given was a lack of soft, or people, skills. As we progress along our career path and move from one job to another, the experience and knowledge we mastered through our most recent jobs tend to help determine what job we can get in our next move. In other words, hard skills will help you land your next job; however, over time, these hard skills may become outdated.

A corollary to this is that when you look over a long period in your career, how you got into your current job generally does not have too much to do with the hard skills you previously gained. I graduated and practiced as a civil engineer, with an emphasis in water and sanitary sewer design. My most recent position was that of Director of Public Works (by the way, the department did not have the responsibilities of water and sanitary sewer). I believe it was the development and maintenance of my soft skills that led me to the career path as a director. Many critical soft skills (or competencies) such as communication, leadership, team building and problem solving skills have challenged me again and again throughout my career.

So how do you prepare your interview for a new employee or prepare for that exciting new position? Hard skills got you the interview; soft skills will win (or lose) the job. Some examples of questions you or the organization might prepare for include:

Problem Solving

  • What are the critical factors you look for in evaluating the work of others? How did you develop these concepts and how, specifically, do you use them?
  • Describe a situation in which you found yourself to be very good at analyzing a problem and deciding on a course of action.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to solve a problem without having all the information you needed. What did you do and what happened?


  • Tell me about a time when you "put your foot in your mouth" and what happened?
  • What has been your experience in dealing with the poor performance of subordinates?
  • What types of experiences have you had dealing with irate citizens?


  • Describe the types of teams you have worked in and tell me what worked well and what did not.
  • Give me an example of a situation in which you managed or led a team and were able to create a high-morale, high-productive work group.
  • Tell me about a time when you had difficulty getting others to work together and how you handled it.

Interpersonal Skills

  • Describe how you developed relationships with others when you were new on your current job.
  • Describe a time when you had problems with a supervisor and had to communicate your unhappy feelings or difficult disagreements. Tell me what you did and what happened.
  • When you are dealing with coworkers or citizens, what really tries your patience and how do you deal with that?

All of the above questions are geared towards what I call soft skills; but you normally don't put them on your resume. Another thing you should notice is that the questions are open ended, requiring the candidate to give answers which may reveal their soft skills ability. These types of questions require a story in response. You may not even be prepared to answer these types of questions at the interview; but you should. It isn't your purpose to sit there and hope the right questions will be asked. Remember, the interviewer is looking for your personal accounts, not the "textbook" answer.

"Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you."  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

William A. Sterling, P.E., is a former Director of Public Works for the City of Greeley, Colorado. A past APWA Top Ten recipient, he can be reached at


First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham
Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Personnel Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment