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Recruiters Must Demand Their Hiring Managers Prepare performance-based Job Descriptions

by
Lou Adler
Jan 23, 2013, 12:33 am ET

Since we promote people based on their performance, why don’t we hire them the same way?

Amazon willing, my next book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, will be available as an eBook on January 31. The book is written for everyone involved in hiring: recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates. This story, and many others like it, inspired me to write the book and articles on ERE, and elsewhere. The technique described as part of the intake meeting helped my win the hearts of my clients and make more placements than I could ever have imagined. It might help you the same way.

Public admission: So there’s no ambiguity, I think the use of skills-infested job descriptions prevent companies from hiring the best people possible. Worse, they prevent good people with the so-called “wrong” mix of skills and experiences from getting the jobs they deserve. I refuse to use them, and in my 25+ years as a full-time recruiter, I never have, and never will. So if you’re doing the hiring, a recruiter helping someone do the hiring, or the one being hired, this story will give you some ideas on how to break free from the misguided and confining reliance on traditional job descriptions.

I was driving up First Street in San Jose just before the holidays and drove past the building of a client from long ago. This was when I was a full-time recruiter and the client was a fast-growing Internet hardware company riding in Cisco’s wake. While Cisco is still around, the client and the recruiter are long gone, but the story is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

I was introduced to the president through the Chairman, whom I had worked with previously. He believed that our process of creating performance-based job descriptions might be useful for helping the company clarify the role of the new VP of Marketing. The President was none too happy upon my arrival and within a few minutes was letting me have it with both barrels:

What do you know about Internet hardware?

How many VP Marketing positions have you placed in our industry?

Do you even know what you’re doing here?

Then I asked him to tell me a little about the job. This launched another barrage of expletives, and as best as I can remember, said something similar to the following:

I need a BSEE from a top university. In fact, the person should have an MSEE, too. In addition, the person should have at least 5-10 years in the industry plus an MBA from a top school like Stanford, Cal, or Harvard, but not from UCLA (ouch, this hurt, since I got mine there in the John Wooden days).

He ranted on like this for at least another 10 minutes, although it seemed like an hour, describing more “must haves.” Then he threw me another missile. Can you find someone just like this, and how many times have you found people in our industry just like this?” Of course, the answer was no and none, but before answering he burst in again with “I don’t even understand why John wanted me to meet with you.”

Then I calmly suggested that what he was describing was the description of a person, not the description of a job. This drew a momentary pause and with the temporary opening I asked, what’s the most important thing the person you’re hiring for this position needs to do in order for you and the Board to unanimously agree you’ve hired a great person? He hesitated at first, and repeated the list of requirements, but I pushed him again with the same question, suggesting he put the person description in the parking lot and first define on-the-job success.

The president hesitated again, and after a few minutes said something like, “well now that’s a really good question.” And then said:

The person in this role needs to put together a dynamic three-year product road map addressing all product opportunities we have in significant detail. As part of this the person must understand our industry trends, especially what Cisco is doing, and put us in a position to stop playing catch-up. We have about 80 engineers and we want to tap into their expertise, so this product map needs to address what we can develop most efficiently without a heavy investment in new people and new technologies unless absolutely necessary. A rough plan needs to be presented to the Board within 4-6 months.

He then described a few more typical VP Marketing performance objectives to add to the list.

I then asked, if I could find someone who could do this extremely well if they’ve done something reasonably similar in the past, would you at least talk to the person, even though they didn’t have all of the skills and background just described? The President looked at me as if I just landed from another planet, and calmly said, Of course, that’s what I just said.

The moral of this tale: focus on what people need to do, not what they need to have. That’s how you convert a job into a career. Even better: you’ll see and hire more great people!

Epilogue: we placed about eight executives with this firm over the following years until the Internet bubble exploded. Each search started by defining success as described and what the person needed to do. Not surprisingly, if you can prove the person has accomplished something comparable, you’ll discover that the person has the exact level of skills and experiences needed to be successful.

If you’re a person being interviewed for a job, ask everyone you meet the same question: what does the person in this role need to actually do and accomplish in order to be considered successful?

If you’re a recruiter taking the assignment, you must ask the same question before starting every search and follow it up with — would you at least see the person if they had accomplished something similar?

And if you’re the hiring manager, you must know the answer before the question is even asked, at least if you want to hire someone who is actually competent and motivated to do what you need done.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Keith Halperin

    Hi Lou,

    A couple things for now:
    1) Would you tone down the open, first-line, advertising of your new *e-book? While I’ve previously mentioned we’re here on ERE to self-promote, perhaps a less “in your face” approach might be warranted here.

    2)”Recruiters Must Demand Their Hiring Managers…” DEMAND? These days companies are increasingly bringing aboard perky, attractive, 27-year old “recruiters” named Dakota and Madison with a couple of agency years behind them who’ll take the orders and say “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, sir!” They’re not hiring so many senior folks who can “call them on their s***”. Consequently, many of us (particularly those of us who aren’t turning down multiple $100/hr offers or four/five-figure paid consulting/speaking engagements) are less able to demand anything…

    Cheers,

    Keith “Bitter or Cynical: YOU be the Judge” Halperin

    *What’s the order code and ISDN number?

  2. Howard Adamsky

    Lou, you know I adore you but I must disagree.

    A Recruiter who makes these demands is a recruiter who will soon be looking for a job.

    Hope you are well.

    Howard

  3. Lou Adler

    @Howard – is it the word “demand” that bugs you? Would urge, counsel, or influence be better suited? In the story, “demand” is what the chairman wanted be to do, so it’s certainly appropriate to the story. At lunch today the VP of Talent told me his CEO for a major company wants their recruiters to lead the process of creating performance-based job descriptions. Their problem, and the ones I hear frequently from executives, is that their newbie recruiters are too differential. So to arbitrarily say that the recruiter will soon be looking for a job is silly. In fact, I suggest that these are the recruiters that their hiring managers will flock to. If a recruiter doesn’t understand the real job, and takes the assignment without pushing back, they should be looking for other jobs, since their affecting the lives of their clients and candidates, alike. To me this is irresponsible.

  4. Lou Adler

    @Keith – what opening comment? When you spend six months standing up writing a book, it’s hard to tone anything down. But, I’ll try!

  5. Howard Adamsky

    I do not disagree with you Lou. I beleieve a CEo, if enlightened, might have that as a goal and a viewpoint.

    On the other hand, when it come to mid managers who are stuck in their ways and see recruiters as working for them, I tend to expect very little.

  6. Keith Halperin

    @ Howard: Well-said.

    @ Lou: “what opening comment?” The one advertising your book. IMHO, it’s fine to advertise- just not so blatantly right here.

    I think you’ve hit on many of the problems in contemporary corporate recruiting right here:
    “At lunch today the VP of Talent told me his CEO for a major company wants their recruiters to lead the process of creating performance-based job descriptions. Their problem, and the ones I hear frequently from executives, is that their newbie recruiters are *too differential.” ISTM that the real problem isn’t the recruiters using the wrong kind of form, it’s that they have a micro-managing CEO who is concerned about what kind of form his recruiters use. Does s/he also have the same level of micro-management over Legal or Finance or Engineering? If so, that’s THE problem, and if not, why does the CEO thinks s/he knows anymore about recruiting than s/he does about Law, Finance, or Engineering? IMHO, the obvious thing would have been to ask the recruiters (who are actually doing the work) what they need to be more effective, and then have the VP of Staffing implement those changes. This is because even most of the Dakotas, Madisons, and Devons of the recruiting world are likely to know more about how to do their own work and improve it than most VPs of Staffing of staffing do (If nothing else, the VPs of Staffing aren’t doing the same work), and almost certainly more than the CEOs do. They should have brought in your “big guns” if they needed a way to get the CEO out of the way so the recruiters can get their suggestions for improvement implemented.

    Cheers,

    Keith

    *I don’t follow. Too “deferential”?

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  8. Compensation Insider - Share the knowledge - January 2013 | Compensation Insider

    [...] ERE.net, Lou Adler strongly advocates for performance-based job descriptions from hiring managers, instead of the classic list of skills/education, and tasks we normally get (ie moving from [...]

  9. Alfonse Peterson

    As a job seeker, I currently have an active on again off again relationship with several different recruiters at the same time. I find myself coaching all the recruiters I encounter, one way or another, in the ways of Lou Adler and performance-based hiring. Some don’t talk to me anymore because I asked the question…what does the person, me, in this role need to actually do and accomplish in order to be considered successful…others are numb to the question and ignore it, but a small few are receptive and I send then links to all the places Lou is hanging out on the web. I have been a silent follower for about 8 years and it is time to speak up. I digress. The question is how serious are employers about answering the question and hiring the folks that will help them meet their goals? No one is in business to fail so, why set your recruiters up for failure? Here’s a couple of question, just think to yourself: What is your current placement rate? What is your post placement failure rate?

  10. Thomas De Brun

    In my years of interviewing I have always asked a question which Lou has advised. When a candidate describes his biggest accomplishment in detail at the end I ask them what they would do differently if they could go back in time with the knowledge they have today and do the whole thing over again. The best performers consistently say they wish they had been more forceful when it came to getting others to co-operate and with each new accomplishment thats exactly what they do. Being forceful or demanding does not mean you have to be insensitive to others. You can be forceful/ demanding if you have built good relationships with people and are emotionally intelligent , creative and persistent . The best performers also know when they have no chance of succeeding and are willing to accept they did what they had to do.

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  12. Shankar Ganapathy

    Well pointed out. There is a need to move away from classical job descriptions to more task based requirements. As you put it the job role is more important than qualification. But now how does one quantify job role? Qualification and Experience can be quantified by rank of school and years of experience. But job role? Can we use technology here. For example – http://goo.gl/5U9Cu0

  13. Inderjeet Gujral

    Hi All, I think a JD depends on if it is a Functional or technical role. It’s a Job description – we all know so it should have everything in it to make a candidate match his technical as well as functional side. What this person going to do in a team, where he stands in a team, what are the technical skills are must, what kind of technical knowledge is desired, on what skills the company can train a person (showing a future through leaning & development). If you would like to hire a AP guy – this guy need to from Finance sector – no need to mention it in JD, if HM demands AP/AR/GL/P&L/RR everything in one person from a IT company & HM is targeting to hire from big shots then sorry it will be very difficult to get a such kind of equipped person – as we all know every company run these finance sets as a separate function. Here you can set the expectation right with HM to change the JD – either hire from manufacturing where you will get a guy doing all this, or hire from a small IT firm etc etc. Even if you call the candidates – you need to show them a grown path that you will be involved in all the activities & functions. While creating a Job the HM’s never write the descriptions they just pick the generic JD if you need to ask to change the JD & when you ask to change that JD just think as a candidates, see as a candidate.

    If it is technical job you need to mention the technical skills rather then soft skills. Here you need to check what technical combination a HM is asking, is this combination is avaiable or rare, research market & set the right expectation. Yes – when you arrive with real data – with this combination only this much candidates are available in 30 miles. is there something we can do with JD change it with alternative skills, or out of all skills is there any skills on which training can be give. More Short the JD – more the talent pool – let candiates know that if you strong in A, C, D skills – we will give you a path to learn B.
    You should understand that why this position is do important & what this guy will do here in organization then you can show the right picture to candidates & build the relation.

  14. Inderjeet Gujral

    Hi All, I think a JD depends on if it is a Functional or technical role. It’s a Job description – we all know so it should have everything in it to make a candidate match his technical as well as functional side. What this person going to do in a team, where he stands in a team, what are the technical skills are must, what kind of technical knowledge is desired, on what skills the company can train a person (showing a future through leaning & development). If you would like to hire a AP guy – this guy need to from Finance sector – no need to mention it in JD, if HM demands AP/AR/GL/P&L/RR everything in one person from a IT company & HM is targeting to hire from big shots then sorry it will be very difficult to get a such kind of equipped person – as we all know every company run these finance sets as a separate function. Here you can set the expectation right with HM to change the JD – either hire from manufacturing where you will get a guy doing all this, or hire from a small IT firm etc etc. Even if you call the candidates – you need to show them a grown path that you will be involved in all the activities & functions. While creating a Job the HM’s never write the descriptions they just pick the generic JD if you need to ask to change the JD & when you ask to change that JD just think as a candidates, see as a candidate. If it is technical job you need to mention the technical skills rather then soft skills. Here you need to check what technical combination a HM is asking, is this combination is avaiable or rare, research market & set the right expectation. Yes – when you arrive with real data – with this combination only this much candidates are available in 30 miles. is there something we can do with JD change it with alternative skills, or out of all skills is there any skills on which training can be give. More Short the JD – more the talent pool – let candidates know that if you strong in A, C, D skills – we will give you a path to learn B. You should understand that why this position is do important & what this guy will do here in organization then you can show the right picture to candidates & build the relation.

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