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Dump Your Job Descriptions and Hire Stronger Talent

In my supposed semi-retired state, I’ve been asked to help some PE and VC boards hire a number of C-level officers. Most of the job descriptions sent my way start with the classic laundry list of “must-have” experiences and competencies. As a result, they all get my classic response: “This is not a job description, it’s a person description. Let’s put the person description in the parking lot and first define the work the person needs to do to be considered successful.”

In my supposed semi-retired state, I’ve been asked to help some PE and VC boards hire a number of C-level officers. Most of the job descriptions sent my way start with the classic laundry list of “must-have” experiences and competencies. As a result, they all get my classic response: “This is not a job description, it’s a person description. Let’s put the person description in the parking lot and first define the work the person needs to do to be considered successful.”

The idea behind this is that if a person has accomplished comparable things in comparable circumstances the person will have the exact right mix of skills, competencies and experiences, but more times than not these will be different than the initial job description list. This concept is what led to this basic Performance-based Hiring truism:

It’s what people do with what they have that makes them successful, not what they have.

Start with Outcomes Before Inputs

Figuring out what needs to be done for a CEO starts with this question, “What’s the business strategy and what does the CEO need to do over the first 1-2 years to execute this successfully?”

The answer usually involves initiatives that need to be started, correcting big problems, turning around a business unit or reorganizing the company to meet some business challenge. Here’s an example: “Improve operating performance and increase revenue growth over the next 18 months to create multiple exit strategy options.”

A comparable starting question for a C-level officer or functional VP has this form, “What is this person’s role in ensuring the business strategy is successfully executed and what are the big challenges the person will need to address to accomplish this?” In these cases, the objectives typically relate to building the teams to support the business strategy, improving financial reporting and/or performance, developing new products or accelerating revenue growth.

Clarifying Expectations Before the Hire is Important for Every Role

Of course, this “define the job before the person” idea is not restricted to just senior roles. In fact, every job can be defined the same way, as a series of 6-8 performance objectives defining the tasks that need to be handled and some measures of success. I call this list of key performance objectives (KPOs) a performance-based job description.

For most positions developing the performance objectives begins with a question like this, “What does this person need to do over the next 6-12 months to be considered successful? Given this, what does the person need to do in the next 30, 60 and 90 days to ensure the major objectives are met?”

For example, it’s better to say, “Complete the system design for the new robotic controller line within six months,” rather than, “Must have a BSEE in automated control theory from a top university and 5-8 years of direct industry design experience.” A 30-day objective for this project could be, “Assess the current project status and determine what needs to be done to meet the scheduled launch.”

While most hiring managers agree to the concept, many struggle with clarifying real job needs. In these cases, I suggest asking this question: “What do the best people do differently than the average person doing this same job?” For example, if your best engineers collaborate closely with product marketing before designing anything, make this a critical performance objective.

When hiring managers demand specific skills or competencies, I rephrase the question by asking, “What does (skill or competency) look like on the job?” For example, the common and important trait “Must have strong communication skills” could be, “Lead the presentation of monthly sales department performance results to the executive team.”

For critical technical skills I ask the hiring manager, “What will the person with X years of experience in (skill) be doing on the job, and how will you know if the person is doing it well?” Once the task is defined as a performance objective, I ask the hiring manager, “If I can find someone who can do (the task) extremely well, would you at least see the person, even if she/he doesn’t have the exact number of years of experience?” If you get a yes, you’ve just helped the manager hire on potential and performance, not skills and experience. This is a great way to open the talent pool to more diverse and non-traditional candidates without compromising performance.

This whitepaper by one of the top labor attorneys in the U.S. not only justifies this approach but recommends it as far superior than listing skills and competencies by opening the talent pool to a more diverse and highly talented workforce. More important, after you try out the process a few times, you’ll also discover that it’s what people do with what they have that makes them successful, not what they have.