My journey to understanding how to evaluate engineering talent for open roles has not been an easy one. Starting with a mindset to find the perfect candidate, failing, and eventually learning how to assess for coachability has been a game changer. I’m sharing my personal story and learnings from this experience in the hope that you find it useful.
Many years ago, when I became a manager for the first time, I was given the glorious opportunity of building a team from scratch. That meant hiring a number of people for the team in a short period of time. I was excited for the opportunity and was looking forward to delivering on bigger, more complex initiatives.
So, I started off with the first step: writing the perfect job requisition. I spent hours on it and added every possible skill that might be valuable to the role qualifications, even if in a small way. I had included skills from elastic search to understanding an Agile model, and was even considering adding the ability to sprint to the moon, but thankfully realized that might be taking it too far.
For a few months, I reviewed lots of resumes and chatted with multiple candidates, but I never found a perfect match for the skills I thought I needed. As time went by, I started to feel a bit frustrated and decided to chat with my manager. Through this conversation, the situation started to unfold. I had made perfection my enemy and wanted a superhuman who could do everything. My job requisition was literally an overloaded dinner plate at an Indian wedding buffet. I had mixed in too many choices and flavors that I lost the sense of what I really wanted.
After this realization, I prioritized the skills (like problem solving and communication) that were most relevant to the role and removed the rest (like experience building a search application or knowledge of agile methodologies). My job requisition started to look like a more balanced meal on the dinner plate. It was way more appealing than the initial one. I saw some success in the number of applicants, as well as those who cleared interviews, but I knew we could still do better.
I headed back to the drawing board and tried to do a retrospective on the candidates who were rejected. I came to the realization that we had rejected multiple candidates for the lack of a certain skill. I discussed the results with my recruiting partner and they asked me some very intriguing questions: “Is the candidate coachable? Are you willing to invest time in coaching them on the skills which are missing?” That was a learning moment for me. I had lost great candidates and much needed diversity by missing this perspective.
So, what is coachability? Simply put, coachability is an interest or willingness to learn, seek out for help, accept feedback, and adjust course. Coachable individuals, when faced with tasks they have little or no knowledge about, will take ownership, reach out, and ultimately figure out a way to get the job done, rather than feeling stuck.
Something important to note here is that taking action on the feedback is the key to ensuring individuals reach desired outcomes. Keep in mind that some individuals with critical thinking skills may challenge or reject the feedback they do not find valuable, yet, ultimately reach the end goal. In such circumstances, the ability to objectively reason and encourage further feedback can also demonstrate coachability.
Below are some ways you can test for coachability as a skill in your interviews.
- Look for responses and instances when a candidate admits to an area of improvement or lack of knowledge of a certain area. Is the candidate portraying themselves as a “know it all” or are they aware of skills/areas they have yet to gain mastery of? Self awareness and humility are the first steps in the journey to coachability.
- For coding questions, apart from focus on coding fluency and problem solving, observing how they approach the problem can tell us a lot about the candidate. They may not be able to arrive at a solution immediately, but are they willing to keep on trying or are they giving up too quickly? Are they receptive to hints and feedback that you may be offering? If they take the feedback, are they able to act on it and adjust course or are they ignoring it?
- Find opportunities to ask some open-ended questions, such as “Tell us about a challenging time and how you handled the situation.” Look for examples where they talk about reaching out for help, learning and implementing new ideas, changing direction, and an ability to collaborate with partners to solve the challenge.
- Look for ways to spot if a candidate has a learning and growth mindset. A candidate who talks about how they improved a certain skill by leveraging resources or benefited from a mentorship are good examples. Eagerness, zest, and self motivation to learn, grow their skill sets, and achieve mastery are all indications the candidate is likely to be receptive to coaching.
- For experienced candidates, look for consistent patterns of teaching/sharing with others. When they share these experiences, are they selling themselves as a champion or are focused on the individuals they worked with? Another insightful question you can ask: “What is the latest thing you’ve recently learned for fun?”
Adopting this mindset takes some time. This is especially true in the beginning, when you will need to establish which skills in candidates are truly necessary and which you are willing to help develop through coaching. Once you’ve done that and are starting to see a healthy talent pipeline, incorporating ways to test for coachability during the interview process and refining as you go will be a continuous learning cycle.
In addition to widening the candidate pipeline and reducing your rejection rate, a major effect of this approach is that it increases diversity in your teams. Hiring candidates with non-traditional career paths and experiences brings new perspectives and ideas to the table. And it is the amalgamation of ideas from a diverse team that ultimately fuels innovation and growth. So, give it a shot and propel your teams to greater success!
Parul Jalota maintains a dual role as the head of Bloomberg’s ESG and Credit Risk Engineering teams, a position she took on after spending more than 12 years in financial technology at Goldman Sachs.