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January 14, 2013

Do Job Specs Matter?

Today's post is brought to you by my friend, Paul Blumenfeld, a recruiter who is one of the most thoughtful people I know when it comes to hiring processes. Since the topic is so fundamental to the company-building process, I am pleased Paul agreed to share his thoughts.

When my wife and I got engaged, we had barely clinked champagne glasses when a friend asked when we would be visiting Crate and Barrel to register for wedding gifts. The idea sounded appealing enough, but we couldn’t think of anything we actually needed. So we created a wish list of things we thought we needed, like designer flatware, gold-rimmed china, and a blender that makes bread dough.

As it turned out, the best gifts we received on our wedding day were the thoughtful, unique gifts from people who knew us well and understood our day-to-day needs. We also loved the gifts we simply never expected.

I often compare our gift registry experience to the way many companies write job specs. What should serve as a helpful set of guidelines to find the right candidate typically devolves into an inflated “wish list” of qualities and talents that sound good at the time, but aren’t practical or even possible to find in one person. 

If I looked back at every job I’ve filled during my 15 years of recruiting and compared the company’s job spec to the person they actually hired, I suspect I would see a significant gap between their wish list and “the gift” they got.

 I see two reasons for this discrepancy:

  1. Static Specs.  Many hiring managers write a job spec that is heavy on wishes and low on real needs. They continue to use the same or similar spec throughout their search without re-evaluating it. With each candidate interviewed, the hiring manager learns something new about what they are looking for and what the real job requirements might be, but the job spec is rarely updated to reflect what they've learned.
  2. Like Pornography? Companies aren’t always clear on what they’re looking for until the right candidate walks through the door—which brings to mind Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” phenomenon. For many companies, the "best athlete" will get the job regardless of how closely they match the spec. 

It is frustrating when I learn that a client has hired a great candidate that I already knew, but decided not to send over because, judging from the job spec, they weren’t a great match. Needless to say, I’ve learned my lesson and now take the following five approaches to solve this job spec ambiguity problem:

  1. Archteypes. I ask clients to show me a bio or LinkedIn profile for a candidate whom they’ve made an offer to recently, or on someone they consider ideal for this position. Very often, seeing a real person’s bio is much more informative than seeing a job spec. Reviewing the details of a real person can help me better understand what the hiring manager is looking for, and I get a true feel for the person that would get the job, not the resume that would get the interview.
  2. Short and Sweet. I recommend that my clients boil down their job spec “must-haves” to only one or two items. I have a client who spends a lot of time creating very detailed specs for all of their engineering openings, and in doing so I find their real needs get lost. For example, “Candidate must have deep CS knowledge and know their data structures and algorithms inside and out” is a clear message and points me in the right direction. Based on those two imperatives, I can quickly find the best person out there with these skills and, because "I know it when I see it", the client likes the candidate and gives them the job.
  3. Be Open-Minded. I also ask hiring managers to be open-minded about their must-haves. A candidate’s experience may not match perfectly to what the hiring manager is initially asking for, but sometimes a candidate will have skills from a previous position that prove to be extremely valuable in a new position. For example, I was doing a search for a VP of Engineering for a company that was building a stock-trading platform. “Experience in financial services or a trading platform a must!” The VP of Engineering I placed there, however, had spent his entire career leading real-time software development at successful data communications startups. His real-time experience, and the time he spent at successful start-ups, proved to be his most valuable assets.
  4. Culture. I think of a company as a cultural community with social needs, not a machine that needs a specific part plugged in. Finding a candidate who is not only great at what they do but who also fits well into that company’s culture is going to have a better shot at getting the job and succeeding at the company long-term. For example, does the candidate rock climb or brew beer in her spare time? These qualities may not make her a better CTO or VP of Product, but they may make her “click” with a like-minded hiring manager and be more successful in a given company community.
  5. Hire Winners - If a candidate is coming from a winning environment, he or she is more likely to know how to win.  They will bring this culture with them when they join your company.   I look for candidates that have worked for companies that have built highly regarded products and have worked with people who have had previous, profitable outcomes.  The caveat there, however, is that there are often many people looking to take credit for a winner’s work. Like the old proverb says, “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.”

So how much do job specs really matter? They are an objective element to a mostly subjective process. They are also, however, an important starting point. And the more realistic, concise and flexible the job specs are, the more successful the hiring process will be. Just beware of the job spec “wish list.” After all, do you really want a blender that can make bread dough, or do you actually want a blender that makes really good frozen margaritas and milk shakes? 

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