Write a Better Job Description that Attracts the Right Candidate
Paraphrased by Rob Andrews from Whitney Johnson’s article in Harvard Business Review August 08, 2020
Whitney Johnson, CEO and Founder of boutique consultancy firm WLJ Advisors, is one of the leading management thinkers in the world and author of the award-winning Disrupt Yourself (Harvard Business Review Press). When I read Whitney’s article in this month’s HBR, I immediately wanted to sign up as president of her fan club! Below are her thoughts, with a few observations of my own.
Far too many organizations miss golden opportunities to bring and onboard the best possible talent for the tasks at hand — and those of the future. When it’s time to recruit, hire, and onboard, the approach used by the vast majority are routine and rote, prone to misjudgment and error. The process is costly and, in the end, unfruitful.
This failure begins at the very first step: writing the job description. As international talent management expert Dorothy Dalton laments, “Copy-paste recruitment is generally business as usual in most organizations…Even if the post was last filled five years ago, the chance of anyone thinking it might have to be crafted differently are slim. Generally, the only changes I see are to inflate the qualifications.”
Most job descriptions are nothing more than woefully inadequate lists of attributes based on background, experience, and credentials. We’ve been studying failed executive placements for 26 years. We almost never see a failed hire that resulted from a disconnect between job description and resume. Most failed because of cultural misalignment or the candidate’s inability to deliver on expected performance. Ironically, most job descriptions say little about either.
Know what you need now, but also envision the future
When hiring a key player, you often need a sharpshooter with the expertise to solve a pressing problem. You can’t wait for them to grow. The tradeoff is that they will quickly move on, either to another organization or to a new challenge in yours (if one is available for them) and you will need to hire again, hopefully for a longer tenure.
Before writing the job description, think about what will best serve the organization in both the short and long term. In some cases, it may be more appropriate to contract a gig worker to solve the problem and hire an employee for longer-term growth.
When it comes time to make a critical hire, it is vitally important to set the list aside, think from a clean sheet of paper and identify the current and future needs of the job, zeroing in on the critical capabilities that will make or break the hire. The result is not a long laundry list of every trait that the candidate should have, nor is it one single item. It’s a strand of two or three capabilities that are tightly interwoven and absolutely required for the new leader to succeed, taking into account both the market conditions and the current and desired states of the business. This is what should make the decision turn toward one candidate or another. That’s why Ram Charan, the famous Harvard CEO selector, calls it the pivot. Each situation is distinct. And so is each role’s pivot.
It is critical to identify the pivot in very specific terms, and to get it right. Hiring managers who get this right work hard to do so. They talk with customers, insiders, consultants, and analysts to expand their thinking. They go deeper and broader than most hiring managers do. They don’t dismiss complexities or complications; they cut through them and deduce what skills, attributes, and experiences are essential, continually adapting until they’ve arrived at the right combination.
Understand the hiring context
Evaluate the role in the context of the team in a large organization, or in the whole organization if your workplace is on the smaller side. Filling a job is a growth opportunity for the business, not just for the individual; the best fit is found when it captures growth for both. You can better align your job openings and descriptions with what your business needs by better understanding your current roles.
Every key hire should be viewed as an opportunity to take the team to a new level. Don’t think in terms of replacing a person who just left. Talent acquisition is the responsibility of the entire leadership team. Some teams perform brilliantly while some repeatedly make the same mistakes, which include being influenced by star power, impressive resumes, personal presence and what we refer to as the A’s: attractive, affable, and articulate. Others are inappropriately swayed by relationships, tradition, biases perfectionism, impatience, etc.
According to Ram Charan, great hiring decisions are usually driven by one or two leaders who are particularly adept at talent acquisition. These hiring managers select high performing employees, build powerful cultures, and grow enterprise value and shareholder wealth. They accomplish this by doing four things that others don’t.
First, they work painstakingly to identify the qualities and attributes necessary to perform well in the job.
Second, they keep an open mind in terms of where the best candidate will come from.
Third, they dive deep to determine which candidate is the best fit.
Fourth, they allow for imperfections in the chosen candidate.
Address culture in specific terms
Over 26 years we have studied nearly 5,000 failed executive placements, some performed by other search firms, and some by in-house hiring departments around the globe. By isolating and cataloging the reasons for failure, we’ve found that almost half of failed assignments fall into the cultural misalignment category. It’s not about good or bad, or right or wrong. It’s purely about fit. The behavior that’s revered in one organization gets you fired in another. A great fit for Wegmans will probably be a terrible fit for Kroger. Be specific about describing the culture of your organization at present and where you’re trying to take it.
Time and again, we see talented people join companies whose values and attitudes are misaligned with their own. When we ignore culture and settle for matching a resume to a woefully inadequate job description, our hires are destined to fail.
Think about meaning
People want to contribute, to feel energized and passionate about what they do. They want to be inspired by ideas that can help solve problems and meet needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing the world or addressing cosmically important issues. But it does mean believing that we are making our corner of the world happier, brighter, and safer in some small but significant way.
It is critical that organizations ensure the roles they are hiring for are quality opportunities for meaningful work, personal growth, and impact. This needs to be conveyed through the job description and even into the interviewing process. For example, Chatbooks is a company that helps people create printed scrapbooks from their Instagram photos. Rather than focusing on specific skills, they use words like “high-performance creativity,” “grown up,” and “optimistic” to describe their values and the kind of candidates they are seeking to employ. When you hire an individual whose values align with the purposes of your organization, it’s a win-win. Craft the job description to invite those people to apply.
When you get a job description right, you provide an opportunity for your next employee to assume market risk — to play where others in your organization aren’t, utilizing their distinctive strengths. The odds of success are much higher than if they face competitive risk, battling for turf with entrenched players in your organization. The right fit means that a new hire has room to grow; when your employees grow, so does your organization.
When deciding on your must-haves for any new position, it is vital to know what can and cannot be taught. Of course, any employee faces a learning curve when they join an organization. But while the likelihood that your hires will adapt to a new CRM is quite high, the central values that drive your organization are harder to teach.
A person who is already on board with your purpose, who already finds meaning in the work you do, will learn everything else much more readily than a dispassionate jobholder – even if that dispassionate jobholder looked great on paper. When your job descriptions are clear on the purpose of your organization, you will attract candidates that are genuinely excited about contributing to your growth, and not just about receiving a paycheck.
If you find this material helpful and would like to know more about developing human capital practices that will allow you to build an employment brand that ensures a pipeline of candidates competing for your positions, give us a call.