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It has to be one of the most clichéd 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
  • 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
  • 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

  • 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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