I was driving up First Street in San Jose, CA, last month and drove past the building of a client from long ago. At the time, I was a full-time recruiter, and the client was a fast-growing Internet hardware company. While the full-time recruiter is history, the story is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

It also highlights an all-too-common corporate conundrum: Since we promote people based on their performance, why don't we hire them the same way?

I was introduced to the president through the chairman, whom I had worked with previously. He believed that our process of creating performance-based job descriptions might be useful for helping the company clarify the role of the new vice president of marketing. The president was none too happy upon my arrival, and within a few minutes was letting me have it with both barrels:

  • "What do you know about Internet hardware?"
  • "How many VP marketing positions have you placed in our industry?"
  • "With your background, I don't even understand why we're having this conversation."

Then I asked him to tell me a little about the job. This launched another barrage of expletives, and as best as I can remember, he said something similar to the following:

"I need a BSEE from a top university. In fact, the person should have an MSEE, too. In addition, the person should have at least 5-10 years in the industry plus an MBA from a top school like Stanford, Cal or Harvard, but not from any second-tier schools."

He ranted on like this for at least another 10 minutes, although it seemed like an hour, describing more "must haves." Then he threw me another missile. "Can you find someone just like this, and how many times have you found people in our industry just like this?" Of course, the answer was no and none, but before answering he burst in again with, "I don't even understand why John wanted me to meet with you."

Then I calmly suggested that what he was describing was the description of a person, not the description of a job. This drew a momentary pause and with the temporary opening I asked, "What's the most important thing the person you're hiring for this position needs to do in order for you and the board to unanimously agree you've hired a great person?" He hesitated at first, and repeated the list of requirements, but I pushed him again with the same question, suggesting he put the person description in the parking lot and first define on-the-job success.

The president hesitated again, and after a few minutes said something like, "Well now, that's a really good question."

Then he said: "The person in this role needs to put together a dynamic three-year product roadmap addressing all product opportunities we have in significant detail. As part of this, the person must understand our industry trends, especially what Cisco is doing, and put us in a position to stop playing catch-up. We have about 80 engineers and we want to tap into their expertise, so this product map needs to address what we can develop most efficiently without a heavy investment in new people and new technologies unless absolutely necessary. A rough plan needs to be presented to the board within four to six months."

He then described a few more typical VP of marketing performance objectives to add to the list.

I then asked, "If I could find someone who could do this extremely well if they've done something reasonably similar in the past, would you at least talk to the person, even though they didn't have all of the skills and experience first described?"

The president looked at me as if I just landed from another planet, and calmly said, "Of course, that's what I just said."

The moral of this tale: Focus on what people need to do, not what they need to have.

Epilogue: We filled the position with an all-star person who delivered all of the results, but met none of the "wish list" criteria.

If you're a person being interviewed for a job, ask everyone you meet the same question: "What does the person in this role need to actually do and accomplish in order to be considered successful?"

If you're a recruiter taking the assignment, you must ask the same question before starting every search and follow it up with: "Would you at least see the person if they had accomplished something similar?"

And if you're the hiring manager, you must know the answer before the question is even asked, at least if you want to hire someone who is actually competent and motivated to do what you need done.

Published on: Sep 12, 2014