In this series of posts, Influencers explain what they wish they could fix — and how. Read all the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #FixIt in the body of your post).

It’s what you do with what you have that makes you successful, not what you have.”

Long ago, I was a full-time executive recruiter. At one meeting for a VP Marketing search for an industrial products company, I was given 30 minutes to make my pitch. In the room was the CEO plus all of his senior staff. To start the session, I was handed a piece of paper gloriously titled “VP Marketing – Job Description.” I was asked to read it and describe why my firm was entitled to the fee for finding the person. I glanced at it for less than 30 seconds, crumbled it up and tossed it the wastebasket six feet away in the corner.

Swish. (I actually missed the basket, but the point was made.)

I then said, “That is not a job description. What you handed me is a person description. A job description is what a person needs to do. A person description is what a person needs to have. If you'd like me to handle this assignment, tell me what the person in the job must do to be considered successful. More important, if we can prove the person is capable and motivated to do this using a Performance-based Interview, you’ll discover the person has exactly the skills and experiences necessary.”

Since I didn’t get tossed out at that moment, I used the next few minutes to make the following case that the use of skills- and experience-laden job descriptions were useless for advertising, screening, selection and hiring.

Why Skills-infested Job Descriptions Prevent Companies from Seeing and Hiring Stronger Talent

  • I asked if they had ever met a person for any job who had all of the skills required, but who wasn’t a top performer. They all agreed this was a common problem.
  • I then asked if they had ever met a top performer for any job who didn’t have all of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. They all enthusiastically agreed.
  • I then asked a trick question. It went something like, “Would you agree that a high potential person has less skills and experiences than an average performer? The reason a person is a high potential person is because they accomplish more with less skills.” The CEO enthusiastically agreed.
  • I then concluded my opening remarks with the statement, “It’s what you do with what you have that makes you successful, not what you have. So let’s define what the person needs to do before we define what the person needs to have.” They enthusiastically agreed.
  • I then asked, “What does the person in the VP Marketing role need to accomplish in the first 6-12 months in order for everyone in this room to agree you’ve hired an outstanding person?

We soon had six performance objectives listed on the whiteboard. I pulled the original job description out of the wastebasket, unwrinkled it and asked, “Who would you rather hire, someone who could achieve the results listed on the whiteboard, or someone who has all of the skills listed on the original description?”

"Results" won by acclamation.

Six weeks later, they hired someone who went on to accomplish all of the objectives listed. Over the next four years, my firm placed eight other executives with the company using the exact same process. A number of years later the CEO told me that the only hiring mistake he subsequently made was when he didn’t prepare the type of performance-based job descriptions we suggested at that first meeting. He has never violated this rule since. You shouldn’t either.

Here are just a few reasons why every company should banish skills- and experience-based job descriptions from existence:

  • They preclude the hiring of high potential candidates.
  • They preclude meeting great people who have all of the skills listed since the jobs appear to be lateral transfers.
  • It’s problematic if the person hired will be motivated to do the work required, if they don’t know what work is required before they’re hired.
  • They prevent the hiring of diversity candidates who by definition have diverse backgrounds.
  • They force the hiring of people for economic rather than career reasons.
  • They are discriminatory if there are people who can do the work who don’t have the skills listed.
  • They ensure the talent shortage will never be closed.

Fixing all of these hiring problems starts with getting a very big wastebasket. Then when opening a new job requisition, ask, “What does the person need to do in order to be considered successful?”



Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.