What’s work, anyway?

It’s certainly not a job description listing skills, experiences, “must have” personal traits and academic requirements. This is a person description, certainly not a job description. Adding a list of generic responsibilities doesn’t help much in defining the actual work, but collectively this is what companies around the world use to attract, screen and select new employees. In my opinion, this is the core reason why we have diversity hiring challenges, an artificial skills gap, a stubbornly high unemployment rate, why companies find it difficult to find enough talented people, and why there’s a huge group of fully employed people who are unsatisfied with their jobs.

The next time you’re hiring someone for a new position, you might want to put the person description in the parking lot and ask the following questions to better understand what it takes to be successful. The questions and responses below are all based on actual discussions I've had with hiring managers. Job-seekers should ask the same questions at the beginning of every interview.

Some Questions You Can Ask to Understand the Real Job

“What are some of the big performance objectives for the job?”

  • For a cost manager, it was, “Working with IT, outside consulting firms, accounting and internal audit, lead the worldwide implementation of the latest SAP manufacturing cost module under an extremely tight launch schedule.” The job description said, “Must have a CPA, MBA, strong cost and systems knowledge, excellent team and project management skills and 8-10 years comparable experience.” (This was in 1985.)

If the manager is having difficulty figuring out the major objectives, I ask, “What’s the most important project, challenge or problem the person will need to address over the course of the first year?

  • For a plant manager in the food industry it was, “Find out what it would take to become the first Baldridge Award winner in the industry, and then achieve it.” (This was in 1992.)

For these project jobs, I then ask, “What will the person do in the first few months and over the course of the project give you confidence the person will be successful?

  • This usually results in 4-5 performance objectives that describe the process top people use to implement big programs. They follow this rough sequence: 1) figure out the problem and/or audit the process, 2) evaluate alternate solutions and conduct a trade-off analysis, 3) develop a plan of action and get it approved, 4) obtain the resources and build the team, 5) implement the plan and resolve every problem along the way to make sure the project is completed on-time and on budget. (This was true in 1985, yesterday and every day in-between.)

For non-projects jobs I ask, “What do these people spend most of their time doing and what do the best people do differently than the average person?”

  • At a large call center selling Yellow Page renewals it was, “Contact 30-40 customers per day and achieve a minimum of 65% renewals.” The best hit a 90% renewal rate by engaging in small talk for 2-3 minutes before asking for the renewal. The hiring manager who ran the 300+ person call center for 20 years thought they needed to have detailed product knowledge and strong persuasive skills. They didn’t. (This was in 1999.)
  • For a software developer it was, “Completely understand the mobile customer requirements before writing a single line of Python, Ruby, C++, Java or Javascript code.” (This was in 2014.)

To get at the team issues, I ask, “Describe the organizational aspects of the job and some of the big team or people challenges involved? What would a good resolution to these look like?”

  • For a product marketing manager what was initially “Exceptional team and communication skills,” became, “In a matrix environment, pull together a task force of technical, operations, financial and sales people to ensure the successful launch of a new product line under a very tight schedule.” (This was in 2005, 2008, and 2013.)

When managers are insistent on the person possessing some strong technical ability, I ask, “How will the person use this skill or ability on the job, and how will you know the person is successful?”

  • For a VP Marketing, the CEO insisted on deep product knowledge and an MBA and BSEE from top-tier universities. The deliverable was, “Within six months put together a detailed three-year product roadmap defining the major product requirements and high-level performance specifications." (This was in 2000.)

For a multi-step repeatable process like selling a complex product or designing and launching an engineered product, I first ask the hiring manager to map out the basic process from beginning to end. Then I ask, “How do you track performance at each step, and what do the best people do differently?”

  • For a sales representative selling enterprise software, there were seven key steps, but the big difference between the best and the rest was, “Completely understand the customer’s business issues and gaps in their data analytics, before making the first formal presentation.” The average sales reps were primarily focused on getting as many presentations as possible. The best were focused on demonstrating how they could solve critical customer problems. (This was in 2003.)

In every single case, when the work was defined properly, the company was able to find and hire an exceptional person, and not one person had the exact skills initially listed. The results were random when using skills, experience, academic requirements and personality traits to define the work and attract and screen candidates for the same jobs. At the end of one session one hiring manager asked me, “How much skills and experience does the person need to do this work, then?” I answered, “Just enough.” And that’s why you need to define the job before you define the person.


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.