Job Descriptions: It’s All About Where the Job is Headed, Not Where it is Now

My normal routine is this:

Up at 4:30. Make the coffee. Check e-mail. Listen to Bloomberg TV for the business news update, get dressed in my workout gear and into the gym by 6. My workout is over and I am walking out of the door around 7 and headed into New York.

My workout is a like a retreat. Those 45 minutes are the best part of my day. I get all my heavy thinking done, review my upcoming day and week, review the previous day, and, make adjustments accordingly. In other words (as my wife said), I spend time “thinking about my life”

This normal routine was shattered last week. On my way to the gym, I heard a news report about the uproar over the appointment of Cathie Black for Schools Chancellor in New York City. While this appointment had been made a few weeks prior, it has now gotten more heated. The main objection was that she did not have a “Masters” in education.

To give some background, Cathie Black is the former CEO of Hearst Publishing and the current Chairwoman of the Hearst Corporation. She has had success in every endeavor that she has attempted. Just recently retired, she was picked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be the next New York schools chancellor. What you would think would be a slam dunk in selecting talent is getting distracted by a job description that states that the recipient must have a Masters in Education.

My eyes glazed over as I heard that. I could only imagine that was probably the 3rd bullet point on the job description. I thought “what about all the previous Masters in Education who were in charge while the school system spiraled out of control?”

The problem with job descriptions

Lady Justice, the Roman goddess of Justice, is a symbol of the moral force in judicial systems. In every image she is blindfolded, representing objectivity. The scales she holds theoretically measure the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. I think of this image and think of replacing Lady Justice with HR, having one scale holding the company job description and the other holding the candidate’s resume as the counter weight

That analogy is equated with recruiting. I had a friend that is an HR superstar and a real 3.0 executive. After numerous rounds of interviews for a position that was ideally suited for her skills, she did not get the job. The company’s reasoning? She did not have business partner experience in her resume. As I told her then, they did you a favor.

So many times we hear  how we need “thinking out of the box, a fresh pair of eyes, etc.” As I read the prognosis from the major thought leaders concerning 2011, one of the constant themes is the need for innovation. Yet, the trusty job description has not been informed of this. It still basically comprises the same format and basic wording, for the most part, since probably the old personnel department days. Don’t think so? Well, read some of them online and see what you think.

A new set of eyes

However, at the executive level there is documented evidence that out of the box thinking works well.

I remember the days when Lou Gerstner was appointed the CEO of my former employer, IBM. There was an outrage at the time because he supposedly knew nothing about technology.

More recently, Ford Motor Company chose a former Boeing executive, Alan Mulally, to become their new CEO. Again, the naysayers complained that he had no auto industry experience. Well, all the prior CEO’s had tons of auto industry experience, and we all know what a great job they did.

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In lots of cases, companies are realizing that the most relevant skills aren’t necessarily tied to knowledge of the company’s product or sector. The most important aspect could be whether the candidate comes from a company that is synonymous with skill level A, B, or C. You fill in the blanks.

Job descriptions: next steps

This level of thinking has to come into play at other levels within the company. Hiring managers must realize and feel comfortable that each new hire could have the capability to move the needle.

Do not lock yourselves into the industry preferred statement. We see it every day: “Luxury Goods experience mandatory,” “Retail experience only” and “Financial Services highly desired.” Think of the top talent that may be a game changer reading about the opening. You are basically saying “Forget about them.”

Or think about it this way: Do you want a builder, a tweeker, or a maintainer in this new role? Do not hire someone to just sit in the seat and fill the position. Do not be afraid of looking outside your industry because they could be bringing a different perspective to your business.

The new job description should specifically talk about the type of talent the company is looking for. If you want to attract top talent, you must give them a compelling reason to submit a resume. A group of bullet points is not going to do it for the level of talent that you are seeking. Why would the candidate want to work there? What is in it for them? Is this a job that they would be excited about and would give anything to work there?

The next time you work with the hiring manger, let the driving thought be where the role you are trying to fill is headed, not where it is now.

Think of the destination and not the starting point. That will be the key for building a talented and performance driven organization.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.