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The Intangible Skills You Can’t Interview For
But many intangible attributes go into building a great company that are just as important as hard skills. These intangibles are easy to observe on the job, but hard to measure in an interview. Identifying and harnessing hard-to-measure skills is a great way to gain leverage as a manager – it allows you to capitalize on the most special traits on your team. And if you see these intangibles in yourself, consider how you can use them to further your career.
Cut-Through on Crappy Tasks
Most people max out at about 10-20% of their peak capacity when they’re working on something they hate.
But a lucky few people can reliably hit 80-90% of their peak on work that they despise.
Some work just sucks – they don’t pay you for it because it’s never-ending fun. The suckiest part of a project turns into the rate limiting step. In engineering, think of things like meticulously QAing a complex feature or writing a thorough test harness. People who can cut through the most painful parts of a project can meaningfully increase the overall velocity of your team by preventing you from getting stuck in the inevitable ruts in the road.
Knowing How to Finish
The last 10% of a project often takes up 50+% of the work, and it’s usually the more boring 50%.
Most people aren’t good at finishing things. In fact, it’s a common failure mode amongst very curious and smart people. They want to leap into the next interesting topic, rather than meticulously catching all of the details that come at the end of an endeavor. People who are natural closers can get over this hurdle. Closers are obvious from the significant number of accomplishments on their resumes, since they reliably complete what they set out to do.
When you find someone who can really finish a project, they’re worth their weight in gold. You should ensure that the hardest projects all have at least one closer to help them over the finish line.
Knowing How to Start
Knowing how to start a project is the converse of being a closer.
Startups with a moderate amount of scale naturally have inertia. This is often good; even if they’re disorganized, they inevitably have a plan that they’re following, even if it’s sketchy and high-level. There’s typically a hiring plan, a product roadmap, a marketing story, and a sales plan. Startups post product/market fit are like a plane at cruising altitude – even if there are bumps, they generally don’t just fall out of the sky.
But what do you do when you hit a situation that isn’t in the playbook and wasn’t foreseen, when you have no idea what to do next?
A key person with widespread influence and strategic insight leaves the company
Regulations were just passed that pose an existential risk to your business
Technology changes provide sudden huge opportunities (and the associate risk of missing out). E.g. you’re a retail business during the rise of Amazon and now Shopify
A global pandemic appears and locks down the world economy for over a year, freezing or destroying some industries while injecting others with anabolic steroids
Some people are natural starters, with a mix of creativity and first-principles thinking that allows them to take action in novel circumstances. Think of the creator of Gmail or Adobe’s transition to a subscription model or whoever saved Toast from ending in a Covid-shaped crater. These people are great at turning uncertain, novel, or dynamic situations to their advantage.
As a leader, you want these people to be in positions where they have:
High information so they can spot new opportunities when they arise
High leverage so that they’re empowered to actually kick-start new initiatives when needed, even when the inertia of a company is steering you directly towards the Innovator’s Dilemma
Note that this is especially true for engineers: many companies lock engineers in the back without information and prevent them from having leverage to make shit happen. If they were to make it easier to gain strategic perspective and give engineers a bit more bandwidth, they’re some of the best suited to move fast and capture new opportunities.
By aiding starters at what they’re best at, you can dodge situations that would otherwise cause your team to get lost in the face of uncertainty, and navigate some of the toughest times in your business.
Giving (And Receiving) Diagonal Feedback
Nobody is perfect and feedback amongst team members helps you improve. One of the most powerful types of feedback comes diagonally – that is, upwards or downwards, to another team:
An Engineer tells a Director of Product that they need a more compelling vision for the ultimate purpose of their team
A Director of Product raises to an Engineering Manager that the way their team is executing on its product QA appears to be causing issues
Diagonal feedback is extra helpful because it comers from a relatively objective source – someone who has both a different perspective due to seniority as well as vocation. It prevents you from getting into a bad groove, when (say) all of the PMs agree on topic X, without realizing that everyone else at the company resents them for it. It’s often also fairly objective; the person giving the feedback isn’t a direct competitor, threat, champion or ally of the receiver.
But the incentives for great diagonal feedback often aren’t there. Why should I go and tell someone senior to me on another team that they’re screwing up? Why should I risk causing politics or ill feelings by providing feedback to someone more junior to me in another department? Diagonal feedback is an easy way to make enemies locally, and only benefits the team as a whole.
Given the value of these perspectives, finding people who can give and receive feedback diagonally is a huge benefit. Diagonal feedback is one of the most powerful tools that your team has to improve, and people who can give and receive it are invaluable.
Harnessing the Value of Intangibles
Intangible skills are areas where you can get a 10x advantage out of your team by deploying them in areas where they are uniquely valuable.
If you’re a manager, identify people with these traits and harness them. Deploy closers to close key projects. Deploy starters to identify opportunities and give them initial momentum. Get them to teach others what they know. All of these traits get at least somewhat better with practice and training. Add them to your team’s toolkit. And if you find that you have these skills, find ways to use them to boost your career.
Lastly and most importantly, reward people with these traits so that they’re happy and stay on your team. It’s hard to get hired for these traits because they’re both difficult to prove and difficult to assess from the outside. That means that you have a unique advantage when you find them on your team.
For example, if someone is a great closer, they might be 5x more effective than others at finishing a particularly hairy and complex product launch. If you find a way to pay them more and keep them on the team, you’re taking advantage of information that only you have; If you lose them, you might have to hire several other people to regain those skills. By keeping them happy, you get significantly more organizational leverage and make the most of the hand that you’re dealt.