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Carly’s Dilemma: Should Performance Profiles be Used to Vet Candidates?

Sep 26, 2008

Carly Simon did question the idea of using a performance profile as a means to determine competency in her hit song, You’re So Vain. However, in this case I’m referring to the other Carly.

On September 16, 2008, Carly Fiorina (the former CEO of HP and McCain supporter) made the statement that none of the president or VP candidates had the experience to be the CEO of a major corporation. The McCain team wasn’t too pleased with her remarks, and she’s been taken off the tour.

However, her dilemma raises an important question: Are the skills and abilities to run an international, multi-unit corporation comparable to those needed to run the U.S. government?

The answer to this becomes quite clear once you prepare a performance profile for each job.

For background, a performance profile is not a job description listing skills, abilities, and experience requirements. Instead, it describes the performance expectations for the job, describing what the person must do to be successful. It’s filled with action verbs like build, create, develop, initiate, solve, design, etc., not passive verbs and statements like “have” and “be responsible for.”

For example, a performance profile for a sales rep selling plumbing products in Peoria might state “achieve and sustain the monthly quota 90 days after successfully completing the sales training program.” The job description for this same job would state something like, “must have 3-5 years b-to-b plumbing parts industry experience.”

As I have ranted on these pages many times before, the continued use of traditional job descriptions is the primary reason companies can’t find enough top people to fill critical hiring needs. Everyone agrees that skills and experience don’t predict future performance. This is the core problem with job descriptions.

Past behavior doesn’t predict future performance, either, if the person is doing different work. This is the problem with behavioral interviewing. The use of behavioral interviewing in combination with traditional job descriptions only makes sense when the person is doing essentially the same work in the same culture with a similar supervisor.

A performance profile overcomes all of these impediments by emphasizing the performance expectations of the job and the environment, not the skills required to do it. The assessment involves comparing the candidate’s actual accomplishments to these requirements.

There are typically 6-8 key performance objectives for any job, whether it’s entry-level or executive management. Once completed, a performance profile can be turned into a compelling ad describing the projects, challenges, and opportunities.

As part of this, the requirements to apply are changed from having identical skills and experience to having achieved some type of comparable performance. This instantly opens up the candidate pool to more diverse candidates, more high-potential candidates, and more top performers who have achieved similar results in related industries and fields.

It takes about an hour discussion with a hiring manager to ferret out the key performance objectives for most jobs. To get a sense of this process, ask your hiring manager client the following questions when taking your next search assignment for a manager or executive position:

  1. Why would a top person want this job? What makes it a good short- and long-term career move?
  2. What are some of the big challenges the person taking this job is likely to face?
  3. What are some of the specific projects the person will be working on?
  4. What will success look like after six months? What about 12 months?
  5. What are the big technical issues the person needs to address?
  6. Describe the team and some of the challenges the person might face in dealing with the team or rebuilding it.
  7. What are some of the critical problems the person will face right away that need to be resolved?
  8. Are there any process issues that need to be improved or redesigned?
  9. Are there any long-term strategic issues that need to be addressed?
  10. Describe the culture and environment of the organization. Does this need to be changed or modified in some way to put the organization on a long-term path to success?

The idea here is to develop a list of 6-8 performance objectives put in some type of priority order that describe on-the-job success. Candidates are then interviewed and assessed against this benchmark by asking them to describe a series of comparable accomplishments. (Note: if you use my two-question performance-based interview you’ll be able to accurately assess any candidate’s ability to accomplish these tasks.)

Now let’s get back to Carly’s dilemma regarding the presidential candidates’ ability to run a corporation. Let’s start by examining the following pretty high-level view of a performance profile for a CEO for a large multi-national firm.

  1. Evaluate the current operating plans for all units and ensure they’re on track and that the reporting systems are in place to ensure real-time visibility into business performance.
  2. Establish programs to determine if the executive teams at all units, including corporate and group headquarters, are fully able to handle the company’s current business opportunities and overall growth plans.
  3. Ensure that the overall strategic path of each group/division is appropriate and established.
  4. Identify critical weaknesses in every unit that could affect short- and long-term operating performance and implement immediate corrective actions.
  5. Fully understand the company’s financial strengths and weaknesses and lead the establishment of programs and controls to meet government, legal, and investor needs.
  6. Lead the negotiation of big buy/sell global mega-deals that affect company strategy and direction.
  7. Lead the integration of disparate business units to achieve economies of scale.
  8. Deal with the conflict between the need to balance short-term financial performance with long-term growth.

There are probably a lot more, but you get an idea of the complexities needed to be the CEO of a large publicly traded company that’s operating on an international scale. (As a separate task, you might want to rank your current CEO on these measures.)

From my perspective, it’s pretty clear that the current crop of Presidential candidates are not qualified to be CEOs; the jobs are just too different. In my opinion, Carly was 100% right on this point, and should not have been chastised for it. The media clearly doesn’t understand these differences in roles, either, since they’re the ones who misunderstood both the comments and the underlying issues.

A U.S. President isn’t directly involved in understanding markets, products, distribution, manufacturing, accounting, IT, performance reporting, and running a business for profit. The president might be tangentially involved in the budgeting, financing, trade, organizational management, tax, compliance, and some of the diplomatic issues involved in operating on a world stage, but it’s a stretch to think they’re the same.

One could argue that there are some other overlaps, but it seems to me the differences between a corporate CEO and the U.S. President are far greater than the similarities. Of course, a person qualified to be a corporate CEO wouldn’t necessarily be qualified to be the President, either. While the intellectual, organizational and the complexities of the problems faced are comparable, how decisions are made and executed are fundamentally different. (Here’s a companion article describing a performance profile for the U.S. President. You can judge for yourself which candidate is most qualified, and even if your current CEO could handle the job.)

Despite all of this, the idea of putting a performance profile together before interviewing candidates is one sure way to make better hiring decisions. This is true whether you’re hiring a U.S. President, corporate CEO, or entry-level accountant.

Preparing a performance profile, however, requires the active involvement of the hiring manager, often the biggest stumbling block of them all.

For some illogical reason, most fight the idea of clarifying job expectations before hiring someone using the “I don’t have the time” excuse. Yet they’ll spend hours after a hire is made over-managing their newest staff member hoping for average performance. Once you overcome this hurdle, don’t be surprised that you’re finding and hiring more top performers than you thought possible.

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