It is my contention that the only way to systematically hire superior people is to clearly define superior performance before beginning any new job search. Using a performance profile instead of a job description is an effective means to accomplish this. The benefits of using a performance profile include more accurate assessments, a bigger pool of top candidates to choose from, significant reductions in time to hire, and – by clarifying expectations upfront – a more highly motivated and competent workforce.

Over the last 25 years, I've come to the conclusion that every job has six to eight key performance objectives that determine on-the-job success. This is what separates the best, highly motivated employees from the average employees. While the hiring manager needs to take responsibility for determining what these are, the recruiter can play an important role in facilitating the preparation of these performance profiles.

Following is a shortened example of a performance profile for a software developer. As you can see, it differs from a typical job description by listing what the person taking the job must do to be successful, not what skills and experiences the person must have. In this way it defines the job, not the person. This fundamental difference has a domino effect in the way candidates are sourced, assessed, hired, and subsequently managed.

Performance Profile for Software Developer, Quick Version

  1. Complete software design, writing high-quality, efficient code to meet project deadlines.
  2. Quickly understand project scope (one week) and prepare detailed design layout.
  3. Prepare and organize activities to meet a tight, time-phased software development plan.
  4. Work with team of other developers in meeting aggressive project deadlines.
  5. Effectively work with users to develop specs and implement programs during first month.
  6. Overcome critical technical challenges specifically (describe).
  7. Lead project from post design to final implementation.
  8. Effectively utilize configuration management system to track changes.

Once completed, a performance profile lists the key results required in priority order, the critical processes or steps used to achieve these results, and an understanding of the company environment. Candidate competency and motivation is then determined by obtaining detailed examples of how a candidate has achieved similar objectives.

Recruiters who take a lead role in preparing these performance profiles are much more influential throughout the hiring process. Hiring managers and candidates alike see recruiters who have this type of understanding of job needs more as advisors and consultants rather than just head-hunters.

Described below are the three basic ways to prepare performance profiles.

1. The Big Picture Approach

Ignore the job description and just ask, "What does the person taking this job need to do to be considered successful?" Start off by getting the top two to three objectives, and then determine the two or three most important things needed to achieve these objectives. Also ask what the person needs to do in the first 30 days, first 90 days, and first six months.

As part of the major objectives, consider projects, problems, and improvements needed. Include some technical, team, and organization objectives to obtain a true understanding of all job needs. Here's an example: "By Q2, complete the assessment of all marketing needs and competitive products to support the fall launch of the XYZ product line." The Big Picture Approach works best when the job has specific projects, tasks, or assignments that need to be completed.

2. Benchmarking the Best

For jobs that are more process-focused (e.g., call center, retail, non-exempt), performance objectives can be determined by observing what the best employees do differently than average employees. At the YMCA, we discovered that the best camp counsellors proactively engage with their kids in daily activities. At a major fast-food restaurant, the best counter staff went out of their way to clean up the store during their shift. At a large call-center, the best reps were able to complete the processing of orders with all team members in a very positive manner, even at the end of a long day.

3. Convert "Having" to "Doing"

Just convert each "must have" skill or factor on the traditional job description into an activity or outcome. For example, if the job description indicates the salesperson must have five years of industry sales experience, ask the hiring manager what the person needs to do with that five years of industry sales experience. A typical response might be, "Conduct a thorough needs analysis and present the product as a solution."

Here's another example for the oft-stated "good interpersonal skills." Ask the hiring manager what good interpersonal skills look like on the job. You'll probably get a response like, "Work with other departments in completing the launch of the new system."

Using the above techniques, collectively or individually, usually results in a list of 10 to 15 objectives. The top 6 to 8 are usually all that are needed to assess candidate competency and interest. It's best to pare the complete list down to a more manageable number, and then put these in priority order. During the interview, you'll look for candidates who are both qualified and highly motivated to achieve these top objectives.

I suggest to my clients that they make each of the performance objectives as "SMARTe" as possible. SMARTe objectives are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Results-driven, Time-bound, and include a description of the environment. The example in Step 1 above is a pretty good example of a SMARTe objective.

The SMARTe acronym is also useful for interviewing candidates and digging deep into their accomplishments. For example, ask candidates how long the project took to complete, what the environment was like, what actions they actually took, and what specific results were obtained. The key to this assessment approach is to first obtain a list of SMARTe performance objectives, then ask the candidate SMARTe questions, and don't stop until you obtain complete SMARTe answers.

Performance profiles are a practical way to assess competencies, skills, behaviors, and motivation. It's what a person does with these attributes that really matters, not the attributes themselves. During the fact-finding questioning, you're evaluating how these attributes really come together to achieve measurable results. These results – and how they are achieved – can then easily be compared to the objectives described in the performance profile.

Another key point: Candidates like this form of interviewing for a number of reasons. First, it lets them talk about their accomplishments. This builds their egos, and is a subtle but powerful recruiting technique. Second, they learn what they'll really be doing once on the job. This is the key determinant that the best candidates use to accept or turn down an offer.

Interviewing is only one aspect of a complete interviewing and recruiting process. Too many recruiters and managers wait till the end of the process to "sell" the candidate. By then, it's too late. Recruiting must start at the beginning. If you describe a compelling job and then challenge the candidate to earn it, they'll sell you. If you want to hire superior people, start by defining superior performance. Then get everyone with a vote to agree. Once you know what you're looking for, it's much easier to find it.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange ( Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.