I thought black swans were rare, but a small nonprofit was apparently looking for one. They asked me to help them hire their next executive director, but when I read the job listing I was flabbergasted. They were looking for someone with years of experience in every facet of operating a nonprofit -- from fundraising to grant writing to management and beyond -- with detailed requirements in each area.

I had three thoughts:

  1. "Wow, if I work really hard I might be qualified to run this organization in another ten years!"
  2. "They must have cobbled this together from every executive director job description they could find on the web."
  3. "I wonder how much they're paying for this position, because someone with this experience will be very expensive."

So, I called the chairwoman of the organization, who said a consultant advised them that the salary should be about $65,000 per year, considering their size. Well, that was clearly a problem, since anyone reading the job description would expect the position to pay well into six figures. Then the chairwoman told me that because fundraising had been tight, they could only afford $45,000 per year.

With this information, the outcome to me was obvious: They were guaranteed to hire the worst person who had ever held an executive director title. The job posting would scare off anyone who hadn't held the title and couldn't claim experience in multiple areas. Only mediocre candidates would accept the job for $45,000.

When I pointed this out to the chairwoman, she said they might find someone who was willing to do the job out of the kindness of their heart, because it was such a good cause.

She was searching for a black swan.

It's tempting to make your job descriptions as complete as possible. What should you do instead to ensure you hire the right person? Here are four recommendations.

1. Don't look for a black swan.

This is a candidate unlikely to ever be found, because the desired set of experiences and skills are so unusual. Even if discovered, this person probably would not work for the hiring company. Meanwhile, the people who overrate their own skills will apply in droves.

2.  Consider talent over job experience.

Just because someone has lots of experience doesn't mean he or she will be successful. Talented people - those with creative initiative, motivation, exceptionalism, and high value - are looking for ways to grow. They may bring more fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and flexibility to the role than experienced people who are set in their ways.

3. Decide and communicate ahead of time what is crucial for the position. 

You may determine that experience is more important than talent - either because the company does not know how to do something or doesn't do it well. Either way, your HR team and hiring managers must know what the job requirements are, who they are looking for, and which key traits are critical. This will avoid wasting everyone's time and hiring the wrong person.

4. Only include experience that is absolutely necessary.

Avoid creating a job description that includes everything but the kitchen sink. The lengthy list of qualifications, experiences, degrees, and skills will keep good candidates from applying. These are people who could actually do the job well even if they don't meet every criteria.

If you put out a black swan job posting, don't be surprised when most of the candidates applying are ugly ducklings. It is a lazy approach to recruiting. It also shows that the company has not spent time thinking about what they really need in a given position or what type of person would be successful in their company.

Published on: Jul 24, 2018