It’s About the Work, Not the Job Description

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Mar 14, 2019
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It was a mid-sized technology services company in the middle of the U.S. The company had always been challenged finding and retaining good technology talent, especially not being near one of the major tech hubs. The company was growing quickly and could hardly keep up. The leadership team was finding it more and more difficult to keep up with the business they had. It began to slip on release deadlines, had a few customer outages, and a number of open positions, including a chief technology officer.

This critical leadership role had been open for a number of months. The company was experiencing difficulty finding the right person and could not continue much longer in the current state. So, we got the call to assist with an interim CTO in the meantime. After reviewing the job description and speaking with a number of executives, we discovered one of the biggest reasons it was finding the longer-term role so challenging.

Wanted: CTO “Must have a master’s degree.”

To find a hands-on, versatile leader within its industry (not an industry known for rewarding education), the company was looking for a number of requirements that did not immediately appear to align with the needs of the business, but the educational requirement was the one that was the most readily and apparently divorced from the day-to-day demands of the role.

This conflict is nothing new for recruiters and talent-acquisition specialists. The multi-page job description has not changed much over the years, but business has changed and continues to rapidly: so rapidly, in fact, that it is time to begin moving the needle on how we look at mandatory requirements.

We know better than to say, “Ignore the job description.” Our clients won’t agree to that.

But here is a list of questions we have found invaluable when it comes to moving stakeholders beyond preconceptions of what they want and need. The questions get to the heart of performance-based job requirements at the executive level, centered around outcomes rather than roles.


  1. What is the history of this role? Is there a list of individuals who have been in the role prior to this? How would you rate them?
  2. Based on history, ask why each person received the ratings they did; drill down on the characteristics that contributed to successes and failures.

History does play a role in recruiting, and not just the candidate’s history of work experience and education. The history of the company and the role can also contribute to successful talent acquisition.

How many times has this role been vacant in the last couple of years? Has there been turnover at the manager level? Any significant changes or shifts in the department or company? What do these pieces of history indicate about the personal qualities required of candidates? Should they be comfortable with rapid change? Highly flexible? Comfortable with turmoil in markets or adept at managing change?

The incoming candidates should be screened for their ability to fit into the current circumstances, which is often dictated by the history, in order to have the abilities and skills to get it to the future state. No matter what level of the role, everyone in the company plays a part in the success of the company’s vision and goals.

Current Situation

  1. Whom does this role supervise?
  2. Are there any pending projects or initiatives this role will need to quickly get up to speed and lead?
  3. What issues currently exist in the department, the role, the team, the company?

Not much time needs to be spent in this area, but knowing some of the basics to paint the picture of the situation the executive will be walking into on Day 1 can make all of the difference. If it is an unstable situation and the executive will need to walk in and rebuild the team, the job requirement “leadership skills” just took on a whole new meaning.

Future State

  1. What are the company’s strategic goals over the next year?
  2. What is required by this role to accomplish the strategic goals?
  3. What are the performance goals for this role?
  4. What is the goal for the company in the next 3-5 years?
  5. What expertise will this role need to help the company accomplish this?

At the end of the first year on the job, what should the individual in the role have accomplished?

Understand how this role and the associated outcomes fit into the company’s overall strategy. Though this may not be appropriate (and may in fact be confidential) to share with the candidates, when recruiting for the role, such information can be a great guiding light.

Wanted — Marketing Director: Increase speed to market of marketing programs, increase tracking and visibility of marketing program performance, increase marketing program ROI.

That is focused on outcomes rather than the individual; it focuses on results, not tasks, and it emphasizes the ability to accomplish outcomes. This helps the recruiter greatly to identify candidates who have done the activities and accomplished the outcomes. Many have done the first, yet are never able to show the outcomes as a result of their performance.

This type of job requisition statement also leads to a very productive and focused interview: you can start with the accomplishments and work backward.

“What will success looks like” can be established using numbers, project milestones, or activities, depending on the level and type of role. Success metrics are by far the most challenging for any leader to provide, so these are frequently the least-supplied details on a job req. However, the more such information is requested, the more it will encourage business managers to think about why they need the role filled — not just a list of minimum requirements they think the right person should have.

With all of that said, let’s go back to our client who was requiring the master’s degree.

The ideal individual for the interim assignment to get that tech company through crunch time did not have a master’s degree.

He was a few classes short of achieving that educational milestone, even though he had been working in the tech industry for over 10 years in a leadership capacity. It was a tough sell to the hiring manager and leadership of the organization, but they did bring him in on an interim bases while they continued recruiting for the longer-term individual to fill their full-time vacancy.

After many more months, an exhaustive search and numerous interviews, the company officially removed the master’s degree requirement and added the interim executive to the candidate pool. They ultimately brought him on full-time. And just in case, the interim did begin pursuing night classes to finish up his master’s degree (showing that those “minimum requirements” can be enormously difficult to remove; even executives must sometimes jump through HR hoops, just like everybody else).

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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