Whether you know it or not, when you look for a VA, you’re probably looking for the wrong thing.
In order, what you should search for is:
1. Someone running a profitable and professional VA practice (anyone else is likely not to be in business very long, and that means you’ll be searching again)
2. Someone who fits with you and your company culture (fit can’t be faked)
3. Someone who is intrinsically motivated (motivated by the joy and challenge of the work, and a job well done)
And what I really want to talk about today:
4. Someone with killer soft skills (the most important skills)
Truth: monkeys can learn hard skills. And if they can, then your VA can certainly learn any hard skill you’d like her to have(she may not want to waste your time and money learning something that isn’t a strength for her, but she could learn it, and that’s the point).
Soft skills, on the other hand, take a long time to learn and are worth more than their weight in gold because many people never develop them at more than a basic level. Your business, I promise, needs you to have a sidekick with awesome soft skills.
When you ask, for instance, for someone who can manage your affiliate program, the steps to push the buttons and make things “go”—hard skills. The thinking about the sequences you use, the dot-connecting the communication, positive attitude, and nurturing (to name a few) that are far more critical to the success of your program—soft skills. And there are bonus points for having the one who fits you and your company culture because those sequences will effortlessly reflect what matters most.
I suggest creating a list of soft skills you need someone to have and employing that while talking with the VAs you’re considering working with.
While a search of the magical Google machine will turn up any number of other posts about soft skills to look for in those you work with, to get you started, here’s a list of my favorites, specifically to look for in anyone I add to my own team:.
Refers to the ability to show up with a positive attitude, no matter (with few exceptions) the circumstances. No BMW (bitch, moan, and whine), and no drama.
Refers to the ability to be appropriate in what one does and communicates with clients and on behalf of them. I like VAs, who can be friendly and have fun without being inappropriate, oversharing, adding drama to my life or showing they need me to take care of them.
Attention to detail:
We all make mistakes, but I find that a VA who has strong attention to detail almost never does.
Capacity management skills:
Refers to how one manages her life and work, and keeps herself from being overwhelmed. I like VAs who know where her capacity (her limit) is and manages it well; when she realizes she’s getting to be over capacity, she takes immediate action to make it stop.
Refers to how one works with others. I like VAs who are self-sufficient in doing their own work, but who can come together with other team members and me to figure things out, make things better, brainstorm, or just share a laugh.
Refers to what also might be called a good work ethic. I prefer to work with VAs who are all-in, motivated, confident, positive, conscientious, offering their best work, and have the can-do outlook that lets me know it never occurs to them that there are things they cannot do (courtesy of Marie Schulz, who was my VA for 11 years and the poster-child for living that idea).
Refers to communicating verbally, non-verbally, para-verbally, in writing, and in listening to what’s said and unsaid (whether verbally or in writing). Also refers to being a thorough communicator so that everything that needs to be communicated gets communicated, and to being a truthful communicator.
While all VAs should be competent, I like to work with those who blend competency with the can-do attitude because it seems they’re always working for and looking toward growth, which is always a benefit for me.
Refers to how a VA thinks of others. I like working with VAs who consider me in all their decisions that have anything to do with our work and our relationship.
Refers to one’s skills with insight/perception and judgment. Good vs. bad, high quality vs. low quality, attractive vs. unattractive–these are all discernments. It also refers to being easily able to discern what’s needed in any situation and decide what action to take or recommend as a result. I like to work with VAs whose discernment is at least similar to mine and like it better when their sensibilities are higher than mine are.
Refers to one’s Emotional Intelligence. I prefer to work with VAs who have high EI without dysfunction (haven’t gone to the dark side to use to manipulatively), who can hear a “no” on an idea without taking a hit on self-esteem, and who can accept feedback knowing my heart and intentions and processing what I say through that lens.
Refers to how one shows herself to be an equal in the relationship with a client. I only work with VAs who show themselves able to stand toe-to-toe with me.
Refers to one’s integrity or the course that guides her. I only work with VAs whose ethical sense is very high.
Refers to one’s ability to get what she needs from other people, whether it’s just by asking, or actively managing people to get it. I like to work with VAs who find it easy to interact with others to get things accomplished.
Refers to how one juggles all the things in her life and work that need to get handled. I prefer to work with VAs who juggle well and easily and rarely have capacity issues.
Similar to project management, this refers to how one manages all the things that need to be done and appropriately scheduling things at a solid and manageable pace from the start of something to its completion. I prefer to work with VAs who are slower and more methodical, than those who push hard or rush to meet deadlines because they’re driven by the adrenaline.
Refers to how one works in long-term relationships, and the skills needed to form partnerships. It includes how one brings all she has to the relationship, and how she expects and engages me to do the same. I’m a natural partner and prefer working with VAs who engage and invest in our partnership in similar ways.
Refers to how one manages and interacts with people. I prefer only to work with VAs who are gracious, courteous, compassionate, nurturing, respectful, diplomatic and appropriate in all her interactions with others.
Refers to how one sizes up work and makes suggestions for making things better in some way, or points out what more needs to be done, or shows the holes in a process before a problem shows up. I like to work with VAs who feel like proper sidekicks because of how close they stick and how they always want to make things better but don’t feel like they have to wait for me to start a conversation.
Problem Solving skills:
Refers to one figures stuff out. I love working with VAs who, even when they don’t know the answer or a clear solution, never send something back to me and make it my problem alone. I love when they give me at least one well-thought-out idea, because I love to collaborate, and I never, ever, believe other people don’t have good ideas; they just sometimes have ideas they haven’t shared.
Refers to how one gets the info she needs. When it comes to getting info from me, I prefer to work with VAs who do it while causing the least amount of interruption. I love when my VAs ask me clarifying questions, and it makes me nuts when something’s written, and someone misses it and asks me about it.
Refers to how well one takes in info (receptive) and processes it, turning it around into something requested (expressive). I prefer to work with VAs who do have this skill highly developed
Refers to how resourceful one is. I prefer to work with VAs with tons of ready resources she’s ready to use or connect with on my behalf so that I know I can ask her to handle anything. It’s so freeing!
Refers to one’s stick-to-itiveness. I only work with VAs who are tenacious, yet appropriate and discerning.
Time management skills:
Refers to how one manages her time. I prefer to work with VAs who always meet agreed on deadlines, or communicate early when a timeline needs to be adjusted.
Finding someone with great soft skills
Whenever I talk with folks about soft skills and mention some of these, invariably I see in their eyes that connections are being made—to things they hadn’t considered, and to things they recognize that they really need. The next question is: “How in the world do I screen for those things?”
You can pay a ton of money for psychometric testing, or you can create some great behavior-based scenario questions, ask them, and listen very closely to the answers.
We’ve all seen these–questions like, “Tell me about a time when you had to find a solution for a problem quickly, and how it worked out.” Or, “Has there ever been a time when you knew the truth you needed to tell would hurt someone’s feelings? (everyone has, by the way!) What did you decide to do?” Once again, a search of the Google machine can help you with this.
You can also ask more technical questions to look at the underpinnings of the soft skills, for instance, “How do you manage your time?” That will tell you not only whether someone says she meets deadlines, but also the mechanics of the managing (does she calendar everything, work from a to-do list, etc.).
And as with most things, you’re looking for the places you and she easily intersect (they’re good places) and places of disconnect (they’re not good). Exploring the disconnect points in greater details will help you decide how much disconnect there is, and whether what you’ve found is a deal breaker.
One thing to note: given that we’re all human and have our own quirks and ways of being in the world, it’s unlikely to find an absolutely perfect match. So think about what’s perfect enough for you, and which matching points matter most and least. This will be hard if one of your own quirks is that you like to retain tight control, or that you don’t especially like quirky people, but if you’re a flexible, accepting sort, letting go of some of the things that matter least to you can help you find someone quite lovely to work with.
And ultimately, after all the conversations have been had, and you’re as sure as you can be about your choice, go for it. Trust that what you’ve been told is what you’re going to find and chances are that’s what you will find. And if you don’t? That’s a discussion for another post.
Your turn…what are your favorite soft skills, and how do you screen for them? Leave me a note in comments.