Why You Can't Hire High Achievers

If a manager is concerned about hiring a high achiever, you need to be concerned about the manager!

We just ran a quick poll (see question and results in graphic) to determine if hiring managers would trade off experience for potential if they didn’t have to compromise performance or results. Two-thirds agreed. How would you answer the question, and how would your hiring managers? If you’re not on the same page, you’re working a lot harder than necessary.

I decided to run this poll after a techie hiring manager at a recent training asked me how much experience  a person needs to have to be successful. My response: enough to do the work; some people need more; some need less; and the best people need the least. That threw the hiring manager into a dizzy, and he left scratching his head.

The point: if you don’t define the work required to be successful, success is problematic. The work determines what skills and experiences are required. The skills and experience don’t determine success. That’s why the idea of filtering based on skills and experience precludes a company from seeing the people it actually wants to hire: high-potential people who can do the work successfully with the least amount of skills and experiences.

If you want to see stronger candidates when posting jobs, emphasize the work that needs to be done rather than the skills needed to do it. For example, it’s far better to say, “lead and complete the marketing launch of the new fracking hydraulic high pressure control valve line by year-end,” rather than “must have 5+ years oil field industry experience, a BS in Mechanical Engineering, 2+ years of high-pressure fluid dynamics experience, exceptional interpersonal and communications skills, a go-getter attitude, and be able to work closely with engineering and operations in a lean manufacturing environment.” Key to this: if you can prove the person is competent and motivated to do the work described, they have exactly the level of experiences, skills, and attitude required. You can use The Most Important Interview Question of All Time to figure this out.

Here are some other ways to find out if the candidate is on a fast track:

  1. Find out if the person was assigned difficult technical or business problems before their peers. I used to ask first-year accountants at big CPA firms what clients they were assigned and why. The best ones were always assigned to big accounts with difficult accounting issues to handle. It’s the same with the best techies (and everyone else) who get assigned the most challenging tech issues to work on, not the simplest ones.
  2. Given early exposure to senior management. On a search for an HR director I asked a young manager at a small division if she ever worked with company executives. She went on to tell me about a special project she was leading, reporting directly to the corporate CEO (a Fortune 250 company) to implement a worldwide high-potential program. Of course, she was on it, too.
  3. Assigned leadership roles in multi-functional teams before others with more seniority. As part of the most significant accomplishment question I have people describe the teams they were on and their roles. For those with the best team skills these expand over time in size, scope, influence, and responsibility.
  4. Seeks out more responsibility and opportunities to fail. I remember a young manager of financial planning I placed who consistently went out of his way to get assigned to jobs over his head where it didn’t matter if he stumbled a bit. He’s now the EVP of a major Fortune 300 company. This is a common trait of high achievers.
  5. Ask about the biggest accomplishment achieved with the least amount of skills and experience. Don’t be surprised that the best people are consistently given bigger challenges far beyond what would be expected given their current level of skills and experience. Also, don’t be surprised that they’re typically successful.

High-potential candidates get more done with less experience and master whatever skills are required faster than their peer group. I find it difficult to comprehend why any manager or business leader would preclude these candidates from consideration. Yet 95 percent of jobs posted online do just that, and these very same managers and business leaders continue to complain they’re not seeing or hiring enough top people.

If you’re a recruiter who still box-checks SKAs, ask your clients if they’d like to see some high achievers who can absolutely do the work required but have less of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. Most will say yes. Then go find these high achievers who can do the work and are excited to do it. If they say no, be concerned, since you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

Dilbert, Maslow, and Adler on Hiring High Achievers

This cartoon aptly summarizes Gallup’s Q12 research and Google’s Project Oxygen. Both these studies evaluated what drove job satisfaction, retention, good performance, and terrible performance, too. The dominant theme in both reports was pretty clear: clarify expectations upfront and assign people work they want to do, work that’s important, and work they’re good at. You need to do the same thing if you want to hire great people on a consistent basis. This includes great diverse candidates, high-potential candidates who are light on experience, great people with physical challenges, returning military vets, any great person with a different background than typical, and great people who have exactly the experience you need immediately.

Hiring great people starts when you take the assignment.

I have personally led at least 500 professional placements from beginning to end, and have been involved in helping other recruiters negotiate compensation packages for another 500 or so different search assignments. Since most of my candidates became my clients, I’ve been able to track their subsequent performance for the next 5-25 years. Based on this more-than-semi-scientific evidence, here’s what I’ve discovered about how top people make career decisions:

  1. When comparing career options, the best people value the career growth opportunity over the current compensation package.
  2. The best people, especially passive candidates, won’t even consider a lateral transfer, unless there is some obvious near-term upside potential. (This is the Maslow part of this article.)
  3. The best people are not attracted by job descriptions that emphasize skills and experiences and other “must haves.” (This is another Maslow part.)
  4. While compensation is generally one of the first questions asked by top candidates when first approached by a recruiter, as long as it’s reasonable, it falls to 3rd or 4th on the list when it comes to accepting or rejecting an offer. (This is also Maslow.)
  5. Most, if not all, strong hiring managers will modify the job somewhat in order to hire more high achievers. (Just ask your hiring manager clients.)
  6. Most companies fall into the trap of emphasizing and screening on the wrong criteria, preventing themselves from hiring enough good people regardless of their stripes, shapes, and sizes.

Given the above, here's an action plan you should implement to attract all varieties of high achievers:

  1. Prepare performance profiles that emphasize the actual work the new hire will be performing, not the skills the person needs to have to perform the work. For example, it's better to say, "Use your Cognos, Oracle, or Quest analytics background to lead the development of a new state-of-the-art dashboard for our worldwide sales organization." This will attract more top achievers than, "Must have 3-5 years of data analytics experience on an international level." Most jobs have 4-5 performance objectives like this that summarize the majority of the work involved in any job. While the person needs some skills, you won’t filter out the high potential, diverse, and military candidates who can learn quickly and can perform at high levels with limited experience.
  2. There is no reason your postings can't cover a range of jobs. For the above job you could say, "We're looking for data analytics geeks from entry- to senior-level. We're using our data team to dig deep into every aspect of our business. You'll be exposed to our entire executive team, discussing the future of our international company and figuring out how to make it grow." This type of posting will prevent high achievers form filtering themselves out before even getting started.
  3. Stop the box checking. When you first contact a prospect for the job in the example, ask about their biggest analytical achievements, not their compensation. If the candidate asks about the compensation, just say it depends on what level the person is hired for, but that the range for each level is designed to attract the best. If their achievements are significant, arrange for a short exploratory call with the hiring manager.
  4. Add the hiring manager 30-minute exploratory step to your recruiting process. Not only will passive candidates require it, but the hiring manager will be able to see more high potential candidates, including those that offer a different mix of skills and abilities. Often the job can be modified to meet their unique capabilities, so this is a great way to hire more top people who don’t meet all of the requirements listed in the traditional job description.
  5. By changing the assessment criteria to achievement and performance, you'll open up the pool to more diverse candidates and returning military veterans. Skills can be learned, so the emphasis should be on hiring people with the absolute minimum skills level but the maximum in leadership, discipline, potential, and motivation.

Of course, you'll have to modify your reporting to meet OFCCP and EEO/AA requirements to map to these changes, so check with your legal team to make sure you remain in compliance. Since the process will broaden the candidate pool, don't be surprised if they decide this might be a way to improve your company's diversity hiring efforts. To paraphrase Dilbert, “Hire people who are both motivated and competent to do the work you need done.” Hiring great people like this starts when you take the assignment.