Should You Replace the Incumbent?

Oct 19, 2012

I was talking to an old client of mine the other day. He was the CEO of a fast-growing manufacturing company in the 1990s, and now he’s on the board of seven mid-sized companies in southern California. My firm placed about 10 people on his management team in the company’s heyday. While I don’t do much real executive search anymore, he asked me if I had the script we used then to convert traditional skills-based job descriptions into performance profiles — aka performance-based job descriptions.

Many of his companies now need to replace some of their senior executives and he wanted to make sure their CEOs totally understood where the incumbents were falling short, and why they need to hire a new person. He believed this type of weak vs. strong performance comparison would get the hiring executives to move more quickly.

Following is roughly how the discussion went for a CFO position. You can use the same approach to better understand how work should be defined for any type of job, and if the current office holder is performing adequately. 

Start by ignoring the job description. Instead write down 3-4 short action-oriented statements representing what the person actually does on the job. For salespeople these are things like “sell industrial components to buyers at OEM manufacturers” and “make 20 onsite presentations per month.” For a software engineer it could be write code in HTML5 and Ruby to develop new user interface. For the CFO is was:

  • Upgrade the internal financial reporting focusing on product line profitability
  • Lead the installation of the new SAP ERP system
  • Conduct the investment analysis for two acquisition opportunities

Next review the job description and highlight the essential skills and experience requirements. For the CFO job, these were having a CPA and multiple years of financial reporting and budgeting experience. For the highlighted items, describe how these skills are actually used on the job starting with an action verb and a description of the task. For the CFO a CPA was needed to coordinate closely with their outside CPA firm from a tax-planning standpoint. The budgeting experience was needed to develop real-time financial performance reporting systems. Now add these to the master list of performance objectives developed in the previous step.

Add any sub-tasks, specific problems, or challenges, and anything that needs improvement to the master list. You want to make sure all of the critical performance objectives are covered, short and long term. Sometimes these are things that need to be done right away, and sometimes they’re long-term changes that escape initial notice. For the CFO they were completing the year-end reports, rebuilding the accounting team, and putting together a long-term capital expansion plan.

Take all of the tasks developed above, put them priority order, and make them more understandable and measurable. Select the most important 5-6 of the performance objectives from the master list. Clarify these key tasks so that they are more specific and measurable. You’ll use these to see how well the incumbent has performed, and if replaced, to see if any potential new hire has the right stuff. In this step you want to capture how long it should take to complete the task, some measure of quality, and attached to a specific deliverable if possible. For the financial reporting task the performance objective became: within six months prepare in-depth monthly reports highlighting the company’s performance to forecast and plan with a specific emphasis on margin problems by product line.

Describe the environment. As part of putting together a performance profile, you’ll want to include some overriding statement describing the company culture, critical business challenges or pressures, resource limitations, and potential managerial or team interface problems. The big ones for the CFO spot were the CEO’s lack of financial insight, the rapid growth of the company, a less than stellar team, and weak systems.

A performance profile prepared this way provides the hiring manager a view of what on-the-job success looks like. With it, it’s a simple matter to rank any incumbent’s current performance against the objectives listed. If an incumbent is found wanting on this comparison, the same performance profile can be used to assess a possible replacement. The key is to ask the candidates to provide specific examples of their accomplishments most comparable to each of those listed. Hire With Your Head, and my new book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, provide all of the details on how to do this.

It’s pretty obvious you’d never use a skills and experience-based job description to measure an incumbent’s performance, so why would you use it for a new hire? The idea behind a performance profile is pretty simple — clarify performance expectations upfront and measure a person’s past performance against this same standard. When you do, don’t be surprised that the new people you hire are both competent and motivated to do the actual work required. Even better, they’ll ace their first performance review.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!