13 March 2013

What exactly are 'excellent communication skills'?

It has to be one of the most clich├ęd lines in job descriptions and hence, recruitment advertising - the request for 'excellent communication skills'.
It is omnipresent in today's recruitment lexicon. Alternatively, you can substitute another one of your favourite synonyms such as 'excellent', 'good', 'outstanding', 'exceptional', 'superior' or 'high level'.
Unfortunately these phrases/words are of no help whatsoever to candidates, recruiters or hiring managers.
To make an accurate assessment of a candidate's suitability for a job, it is necessary to compare the competencies required to succeed in the job with the competencies possessed by the candidate. 'Excellent communication skills' is not specific enough to be an assessable competency.
The test you can use every time to find out whether you have specific competency or a broad competency (which I prefer to call a 'concept') is to ask yourself 'do I know the specific behavior that I am seeking in the candidate?'
'Excellent communication skills' fails the test of a specific competency. There is a two- step follow-up process I recommend you follow when you are confronted with a job requirement (hence a required candidate skill) of 'excellent communication skills'.
Step #1 - Identify the actual behaviour required. Ask the hiring manager (or yourself) 'could you give me an example of what you mean by excellent communication skills?'
You might hear in response any of the following: 
  • can present effectively to a small group
  • can write clear and concise management reports
  • can negotiate effectively with key customers
  • can win over difficult yet influential team members
  • can confidently speak at a board meeting
  • can motivate an under-performing team
  • can build relationships with key stakeholders
  • can deliver honest feedback to individuals
  • can speak clear and understandable English
  • can build trust quickly over the telephone with prospects
  • can communicate IT issues to non-IT people
Step# 2 -Understand the context within which the specific competency will be required. This will be gained by asking one or more of the following questions: 
  • what sort of information?
  • to whom?
  • how often?
  • how many?
  • for how long?
You are now on the way to having sufficient information to construct a behavioural interview question about the 'excellent communication skills' that are being requested in the job brief. In other words, you have drilled down sufficiently from the broad concept (communication skills) to uncover both the specific competency and then the context within which the specific competency will be required.
This probing is critical in constructing both a specific job brief and an accurate key selection criteria. It provides clarity about the competency being sought simply by a detailed example being provided.
It also helps develop greater respect from candidates who now have a better chance of highlighting their suitability for the role because they know the specific competency being sought.
Interviewers who lack training on competencies or behavioural interviewing, will most likely assess a candidate's communication skills by how friendly and 'nice' they are in the interview or worse, by how strong their (English-as-a-second-language) accent is. This is a huge mistake.
I would assert that the public demise of each of the following high-profile people was caused by, amongst other things, a failure to reach and maintain the specific communication skills required given the context of their respective positions: 
  • Ted Baillieu (former Victorian Premier)
  • Kevin Rudd (former Australian Prime Minister)
  • Tony Hayward (former CEO, BP)
  • Sol Trujillo (former CEO, Telstra)

The importance of communication skills for success in an increasing array of jobs, means hiring managers now have a much greater responsibility to fully understand both the specific competency and the context of these communication skills.
How are you going to respond next time a candidate with 'excellent communication skills' is requested?
This article was originally published in InSight 104 on 21/10/2009

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