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Why You Can’t Hire High Achievers

by
Lou Adler
Apr 25, 2013, 6:45 am ET

hiring poll.jpgIf a manager is concerned about hiring a high achiever, you need to be concerned about the manager!

We just ran a quick poll (see question and results in graphic) to determine if hiring managers would trade off experience for potential if they didn’t have to compromise performance or results. Two-thirds agreed. How would you answer the question, and how would your hiring managers? If you’re not on the same page, you’re working a lot harder than necessary.

I decided to run this poll after a techie hiring manager at a recent training asked me how much experience  a person needs to have to be successful. My response: enough to do the work; some people need more; some need less; and the best people need the least. That threw the hiring manager into a dizzy, and he left scratching his head.

The point: if you don’t define the work required to be successful, success is problematic. The work determines what skills and experiences are required. The skills and experience don’t determine success. That’s why the idea of filtering based on skills and experience precludes a company from seeing the people it actually wants to hire: high-potential people who can do the work successfully with the least amount of skills and experiences.

If you want to see stronger candidates when posting jobs, emphasize the work that needs to be done rather than the skills needed to do it. For example, it’s far better to say, “lead and complete the marketing launch of the new fracking hydraulic high pressure control valve line by year-end,” rather than “must have 5+ years oil field industry experience, a BS in Mechanical Engineering, 2+ years of high-pressure fluid dynamics experience, exceptional interpersonal and communications skills, a go-getter attitude, and be able to work closely with engineering and operations in a lean manufacturing environment.” Key to this: if you can prove the person is competent and motivated to do the work described, they have exactly the level of experiences, skills, and attitude required. You can use The Most Important Interview Question of All Time to figure this out.

Here are some other ways to find out if the candidate is on a fast track:

  1. Find out if the person was assigned difficult technical or business problems before their peers. I used to ask first-year accountants at big CPA firms what clients they were assigned and why. The best ones were always assigned to big accounts with difficult accounting issues to handle. It’s the same with the best techies (and everyone else) who get assigned the most challenging tech issues to work on, not the simplest ones.
  2. Given early exposure to senior management. On a search for an HR director I asked a young manager at a small division if she ever worked with company executives. She went on to tell me about a special project she was leading, reporting directly to the corporate CEO (a Fortune 250 company) to implement a worldwide high-potential program. Of course, she was on it, too.
  3. Assigned leadership roles in multi-functional teams before others with more seniority. As part of the most significant accomplishment question I have people describe the teams they were on and their roles. For those with the best team skills these expand over time in size, scope, influence, and responsibility.
  4. Seeks out more responsibility and opportunities to fail. I remember a young manager of financial planning I placed who consistently went out of his way to get assigned to jobs over his head where it didn’t matter if he stumbled a bit. He’s now the EVP of a major Fortune 300 company. This is a common trait of high achievers.
  5. Ask about the biggest accomplishment achieved with the least amount of skills and experience. Don’t be surprised that the best people are consistently given bigger challenges far beyond what would be expected given their current level of skills and experience. Also, don’t be surprised that they’re typically successful.

High-potential candidates get more done with less experience and master whatever skills are required faster than their peer group. I find it difficult to comprehend why any manager or business leader would preclude these candidates from consideration. Yet 95 percent of jobs posted online do just that, and these very same managers and business leaders continue to complain they’re not seeing or hiring enough top people.

If you’re a recruiter who still box-checks SKAs, ask your clients if they’d like to see some high achievers who can absolutely do the work required but have less of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. Most will say yes. Then go find these high achievers who can do the work and are excited to do it. If they say no, be concerned, since you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

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. Jim Cargill

    Lou, thanks for another great, no-nonsense article. I had to chuckle at your comment about, “high achievers who can absolutely do the work required but have less of the skills and experiences listed on the job description”, as that is certainly one of the most frustrating scenarios we TPR’s have with HR “job requirements”.

    On numerous occasions, I (or my colleagues) have been told by an HR Manager that “the candidate must possess a bachelor’s degree in X field to get an interview”. Our fairly standard response is, “So, if we bring you a candidate who can prove they have successfully performed the exact job you need to fill, but who does not have a 4-year degree, you would not want to see them…is that correct?” It is sadly amazing how many HR people respond that they do NOT want to see anyone without a degree, period. This is only one of many similar situations that commonly occur on both sides of the recruiting table that leaves those involved scratching their heads in wonder.

    I wish more people would heed the simple basics discussed in this article, rather than constantly trying to apply the “rocket science” solutions to recruiting issues. Folks, if we can’t get the basic stuff that makes the most sense done, why do we think that studies of complex matrixes, and development and application of even more complex selection processes, will do any better?

  2. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Lou. Makes a lot of sense. ISTM that the:
    1) greater the “perceived” need/urgency to accomplish the tasks
    2) scarcity/high demand for the people with those abilities,
    3) more decentralized of the organization,
    the more the hiring manager is willing to give “loose fits” a go.
    Fundamentally:
    Is it more important that the job get done or that the hiring manager not make a-less-than superior hire? Quite often, I think it’s the latter….

    Cheers,
    Keith

  3. Jerry Killgore

    Hi Lou,

    I find myself on the other end of this article. I am a Salesforce (SFDC) consultant, a highly-competitive market at the moment, but have only 1.5 years experience. I managed to master SFDC and earned my certification within a month of beginning to use the platform. In six months, I went from business analyst to lead solution architect on my projects. Some of the complex issues I have resolved have even caught the attention of Salesforce directors, won innovation awards, and my solutions are the ones put up to win over large clients. I have an extremely proven track record and can easily show how I’ve excelled far beyond my peers, but I often get turned down for positions.

    Sometimes I’m told I don’t have the time in grade for the position and, for others, I don’t have the specific experience using a certain technology or application. Our firm is not big enough to get on the projects like you mention in the article, which is part of the reason I’m on a job hunt. So what’s the secret to 1) finding the positions or firms that let ‘high achievers’ shine and 2) how can I effectively communicate that I’m right for the job even if I lack experience on X or my work experience is not Y years?

  4. Rachel Schneider

    @Jerry: You describe a common malady among high achievers and non-normers, non conformists who typically don’t fit in among the common performers and folk. While a risk, but one that will likely pay off in the longer term…go out on your own. The only way to really prove your value is….just do it yourself. With the right marketing, you’ll get the projects and the opportunities you want without anyone or anything holding you back – you may even get MORE money.

  5. Keith Halperin

    @ Jerry @ Rachel: It’s not just how well you do that matters, it’s how well you fit into expectations. You may find organizations which are glad to have you and your peers and manager aren’t intimidated by your achievements, or maybe you’ll have to go out on your own as Rachel says.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  6. Mary Spilman

    Thanks Lou, results matter, high achievers have the, early completion if projects, etc, a general DNA, that tells you that this person is tracking higher than others, pay close attention to vocabulary. Mary

  7. The Engineer

    Let’s get this straight: high achiever is a politically correct term for underpaid.

  8. Keith Halperin

    @ The Engineer: Got it in one!
    We need more comments like that and commenters like you, damn your eyes! Keep ‘em comin’….

    Keith

  9. Carlos Rohrer

    Interesting perspective Lou!

    Thank you very much!

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    [...] talent, but also to hiring military-experienced talent. Lou Adlers’ recent post on ERE.net, Why you can’t hire high achievers , details where most postings fall short. As Lou says, “The work determines what skills and [...]

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