Define the job before the person: Lou Adler

Define the job before the person: Lou Adler

In an exclusive interaction with Human Capital, Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group, best-selling author, and one of the most influential experts in the recruiting space, shares why traditional job descriptions are not effective at finding the best talent, how to use the pioneering "performance-based hiring" approach to assess technical and non-technical skills accurately, and how recruiters can achieve win-win hiring outcomes.


Most people recruit by writing job descriptions that list the skills, experience, credentials, and personality traits they’re looking for. Why, according to you, is that an ineffective method to bring in the best hires? What alternative approach do you recommend?


My first search project was for a plant manager in a company that made automotive components. The job description mentioned ten years of this, five years of that, and so on. That’s when I said to the president of the organisation, ‘That’s not a job description. That’s a person description. A job doesn’t have an academic background, skills, or experience.’


I then asked him to put the person description in the parking lot, walk through the manufacturing plant with me, and determine the work the person needs to do to be considered successful.


We toured the plant for an hour and saw that the raw material was all scattered about. There were a lot of bad parts. We found several maintenance issues. Some people were working hard, but some weren’t working at all. We identified six to seven things in the plant that needed to be fixed. I then said, ‘I’ll find someone who can fix those things.’


Since that day 42 years ago, I have never used a skills-based job description. I use a performance-based job description. It's what people do with what they have that makes them successful, not what they have.


A skill-based JD eliminates those who can do the work exceptionally well but have a different mix of skills and experience than what’s listed, falling short of attracting the right talent and, worse, creating diversity-related hiring challenges. A performance-based JD opens the door to a diverse talent pool.


A job description should boil down to five or six performance objectives that ultimately measure success for the role. Define the job before the person.

What kind of questions should a recruiter ask the hiring manager to prepare a performance-based job description?


Let’s assume you are hiring for a job in engineering. I would simply ask: What kind of projects is the person going to work on?


When hiring managers demand people with X years of experience doing Y, I ask them, ‘What will the people with X years of experience (in skill Y) be doing on the job that indicates they’re really good at it? What do they do in the first 30, 60, and 90 days of the job that’ll make them successful?’


When hiring managers ask for specific skills or competencies, I ask them: What does this skill or competency look like on the job? For instance, ‘strong communication skills’ could be demonstrated by ‘leading the presentation of sales department’s monthly performance results to the executive team.'


Another way to define a job is to make a pie chart of the kinds of work people are going to do. For instance, they might spend some time interfacing with people, some of their time doing individual contributor work, and so on. If, for example, they will spend most of their time doing creative work, I’ll ask the hiring manager: Give me an example of a creative project for this role.


I remember when I was at an insurance company that was hiring many people for their big call centre. The HR people wanted me, but the hiring manager said, ‘No, we don’t need your help. We hire good people.’ I asked him if there was a difference between the top third and the bottom third of the people who stayed. He replied, ‘Absolutely!’ So we set out to find what the top third did differently. It turned out that they could handle three to four calls at a time. They could ask a series of questions to quickly make out what the problem was, and within two to three minutes figure out what to do next and put the call in another queue, etc. So that’s another question you could ask: What do the best people do differently than the average ones? When the work was properly defined, the company hired exceptional people, not just those who had the exact skills initially listed.


Many a time, the requirements of hiring managers are such that recruiters find themselves seeking purple squirrels. Too often, the result is disappointing because a candidate with a perfect mix of skills, education, and experience hardly materialises. What advice do you have for recruiters and hiring managers on this front?


I was once called by a midsized company in San Jose that was looking for a senior executive. I knew somebody on the board of directors who said to me, ‘Lou, you got to talk to our company’s president. He’s hiring a VP of marketing. He has no idea what he wants. He’s looking for a purple squirrel.’


The president of the company wanted somebody with an engineering degree from a prestigious Ivy League school. He also said the person should have a master’s degree in engineering from a top-tier school. He wanted the person to have a minimum of 10 years of experience, among other criteria. When we met, he said to me, ‘Why am I even talking to you? You don’t know anything about this. You’ve never done a search like that.’ He was aggravated that I was there.


I asked him to calm down and told him that I was there to help him define the job. I then gave him a hypothetical scenario: Imagine it’s a year from now. You’ve found a great VP of marketing. You want to give this person a big bonus. You’re in front of the board, and you’re justifying giving a big bonus to this person. One of the board members asks, 'What did this person do that was so great that you want to give him a bonus?' After a few moments of stone silence, this president said to me, ‘Adler, you finally asked a good question.’


He then talked about how he wanted the VP of marketing to develop a three-year product roadmap with the engineering team to understand the technology evolution in Silicon Valley. He wanted this person to figure out how to optimise their engineering resources, build state-of-the-art products, lead product design effort, and so on. I then asked him, ‘If I could find someone who can do that kind of work exceptionally well but didn’t have that pedigree stuff and the exact years of experience you said a half-hour ago, would you at least see that person?’ He said that he would, of course.


I only compromised on one thing: I told him we’re going to look for a performance-qualified purple squirrel instead of a degree-qualified purple squirrel — and that was a difference-maker. We placed several senior executives in that company over the next five years, and he became a good friend of mine.


Could you talk about what you call the “Sherlock Holmes’ deductive interviewing technique”? What does this investigative technique entail, and how can it accurately predict technical ability?


I spoke with a VP of a technology company a few weeks back. His company had adopted performance-based hiring. I asked him how many people he had hired in his organisation, and he replied that he had hired about 60 people in the last two years.


I then asked him if he agreed with me on this: When you hire somebody who looks pretty good, you give them a project you think they can handle. If you find they’re really good, the next assignment you give them is a stretch project or a more important project, and you put them on bigger teams. Whereas for the people who are not as good, you don’t give them hard projects. You give them assignments that are a little bit easier for them to work out. He said that, of course, he did. He had seven people on his 70-person team who always got the toughest and biggest projects. He knew they would get it done. Every manager does that.


Typically, good people are assigned to bigger and more important projects on a continuing basis. Sherlock Holmes’ Technique is about seeking deductive evidence in the interview to infer if the candidate is a strong technical person or not.


Ask the candidate during the interview to describe the significant technical projects he/she was assigned within two to four months after starting any new job. And then dig deep: How did you get the project? Who was on the team? What were the technical challenges you faced? What was your role?


I also ask candidates what projects they were assigned as a result of their performance on the first project. If they were given stretch jobs, exposure to important people and cross-functional teams, or critical tasks multiple times at different companies, you’ve got a good technical person.


This technique reveals to the interviewer what the candidate’s supervisor thinks of him or her.


The projects one regularly works on is an accurate assessment of their competency because it’s made by those who work with and manage the person.


Employers now look for a mix of left-brain/right-brain talent, rather than just excellent techies. When it comes to interviewing for non-technical abilities, how can interviewers accurately assess soft skills?


Several years ago, a senior engineering executive at a well-known organisation wanted me to put together a two-hour program on soft skills interviewing. He told me that they would spend almost a full day assessing their final candidates’ technical skills and about 45 minutes at the end of the day evaluating soft skills.


I told the executive that there’s no way soft skills can be measured in 45 minutes. They’re too important. I then asked him if he considered the following items to be soft skills: getting high-quality work done consistently on time; collaborating with cross-functional teams on critical projects and working towards deadlines; making presentations to company executives, customers, and other stakeholders; taking directions from different project managers in a matrix setting; and persuading others to take into account different points of view. These are only a few questions – I asked many more.


The response to every question was a resounding ‘yes’.


Finally, I said that the program needed to be four hours long instead of two hours. I also suggested that hiring managers spend at least two hours measuring essential non-technical skills (soft skills are too important to be called ‘soft’) instead of just 45 minutes.


A few days later, though the senior executive did not agree to conduct a longer duration course, he did increase the time spent assessing non-technical skills to 1 hour 15 minutes. In my mind, it showed that I was not very good at persuading people with my soft skills, but he thought I was great at it.


People usually get hired for their technical skills, but often, they underperform because of the lack of soft skills.


During an interview, ask the candidate to describe a few of his/her major technical accomplishments. For each accomplishment described, ask for examples of how the person used non-technical skills like consistency, collaboration, project management, reliability, etc., to accomplish the task.


Another good technique is to use the Sherlock Holmes’ deductive approach, which we talked about earlier. Ask people how and why they got assigned to different teams and roles. People with strong non-technical skills regularly get assigned to important teams.


I was intrigued by the title of your recent article, which said that the future of recruiting might not have any recruiters. Will the role of recruiters be minimised or made irrelevant in the coming days?


Before the 1980s, it took three or four years for a car company to develop a new car. The marketing people said what product they wanted, the engineering team then figured it out and turned it over to the manufacturing department, which then grouped prototypes that went back and forth. That was a long, linear process. In the '80s, companies started adopting the concept of concurrent engineering, in which different departments worked on different stages of product development simultaneously. The parallel execution of tasks saved time, reduced costs, and increased productivity.


The modern-day recruitment process needs to resemble the concurrent engineering approach.


Say a sourcer identifies 100 candidates and then turns them over to the recruiter, who tries contacting the candidates and takes a week’s time to give the shortlist to the hiring manager, who then dilly-dallies around and says they aren’t any good. Then the process starts over. That is a long, linear, ineffective process.


How do we make this terrible process more effective? The sourcer and recruiter need to be combined. For instance, if I find your name this afternoon, I have to call you right away and take the process forward. If you separate the two roles, the process takes weeks.


Moreover, now that technology is there, hiring managers can easily do their own recruiting. It doesn’t take much effort or training to find talented prospects by using LinkedIn in combination with basic Boolean. Hiring managers don’t need recruiters if it’s just going to be an administrative job.


However, a recruiter can add value by helping the hiring manager create performance-based JDs, describing the significant performance objectives and the importance of the role to the candidate, converting a strong prospect to move forward in the process, presenting the job opening as the best career opportunity even if the organisation can’t offer the biggest compensation package, partnering with the hiring manager to interview better and remove bias from the decision-making process, leveraging their own integrated network, etc. Such recruiter competencies achieve win-win hiring outcomes.


Recruiters who are value-added partners to their hiring managers and trusted career advisors to their candidates will be in high demand.

With 6+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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