An Email to CEOs Everywhere: Define Success, Not Skills

If you want to hire outstanding people, first define outstanding performance. This seems to me to be the foundation for building a company filled with top performers. Let me explain. I had a conversation a few weeks back with the CEO of a medium-sized distribution company. Her frustration was evident. She wanted to hire outstanding people, but she felt somehow that the message was not getting down to her troops. She implored them to hire only people with great experience, great academics, and great potential. Unfortunately her vision was far different than the reality. The excuses from her recruiting team were many ó unrealistic standards, not enough candidates, not enough money, a weak employer brand, weak hiring managers, etc. How many of you ó whether CEO, HR executive, or recruiter ó are caught in this same tug of war? Here’s the essence of my subsequent conversation with her, and the email I sent summarizing our talks. I hope you find a point or two useful.

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Dear CEO: As we discussed, the idea of hiring outstanding people ó while a noble goal ó isn’t practical using traditional job descriptions as the basic measurement stick. Just because someone has all of the required skills, experience, and academics, that doesn’t mean that he or she will be an outstanding performer. This problem is exacerbated when more skills, more experience, and even better academics are used to elevate the definition of outstanding performance. In fact, as we discussed, some of your best people achieved great success with little of the standard prerequisites. Instead, they achieved their business objectives by substituting basic talent, the tenacity to achieve the objectives despite challenges, the ability to motivate and inspire others, and the ability to anticipate, plan out, and solve all of the job-related problems that always crop up. A traditional job description ignores most, if not all, of these factors. In fact, traditional job descriptions are more focused on defining skills and requirements. A better idea might be to write job description that describe outstanding performance. This should be a list of the major objectives, all of the key challenges needed to achieve these objectives, and a great understanding of the environment in which all of this needs to take place. From a hiring standpoint, you then need to find people who are both motivated and competent enough to achieve these objectives. This is easy enough to figure out. Just get detailed examples of comparable accomplishments in comparable environments. A couple of examples will help clarify how this concept works in the real world: One of our clients was looking for a COO for a real estate management company. They thought they needed an MBA and at least 10 years of experience in the real estate industry. In reality, they needed someone who could quickly improve operating performance for 30 under-performing properties. This required an overhaul of most of the management team in the field and a major upgrade to the company’s performance reporting systems. They’re now looking for someone who has achieved comparable results. The person might have an advanced degree, but maybe not. The person will probably have many years in real estate, but maybe not. More importantly, the person ultimately selected will have had success turning around a comparably sized company facing similar challenges. Focusing on success, rather than on skills and experience, changed their whole approach to the search and assessment process. Another client needed to hire 100,000 camp counselors. Rather than looking for outgoing and bright kids, we discovered that their best camp counselors actually were very responsible, diligent, and had an acute awareness for the needs of others that they instantly acted upon. Many of these kids were also outgoing and bright, but “outgoing” and “bright” were not good predictors of success, since they might not be diligent and responsible. So we created interviews that looked for the success traits by obtaining detailed examples of team projects these students worked on, either in school, church, scouts, or charitable events. Many of the outgoing and bright kids didn’t pass muster when measured this way. Again, by focusing on what drives success rather than some secondary criteria, the approach to hiring and selection was improved dramatically. The key to this changeover is to get everyone involved in the hiring process to define job success, rather than just list skills and requirements. When completed, this final success profile is a list of six to ten major and secondary objectives put in priority order by the hiring team. Everyone involved should get a chance to have their say, but the hiring manager and the needs of the business should dominate the setting of the priorities. Next, make sure that advertising and sourcing programs emphasize these challenges, while soft-pedaling the requirements. This will attract a bigger pool of top performers. You’ll also be able to obtain the interest of more top passive candidates, who are only interested in jobs with more excitement and opportunity. The interview itself is quite simple. Just get detailed examples of the candidate’s major comparable accomplishments. Four to six will do. Observe the trend of these accomplishments over time to see candidate growth. Ask detailed follow-up questions to determine the real results achieved, the process used to achieve these results, the teams involved, and the environment in which these results took place. From this, you’ll be able to quickly determine the characteristics of successful people ó tenacity, competency, motivation to do the work required, team leadership, and job-specific problem solving. While it might not actually be as easy as this, it shouldn’t be that much harder. The key is to insist upon writing job descriptions that list the real performance objectives of the job before the job requisition is approved. This is the key control point. In the process of preparing these for all your new job openings, you’ll discover that people at every level in the company have a better understanding of what they need to do to be successful. Clarifying expectations this way is just good management. The best managers clearly communicate the performance objectives to their team members, anyway, so just have everyone do this before they hire anyone new. Clarifying expectations this way is the key to hiring outstanding talent. Ask your top performers what they like most about their jobs. They’ll probably tell you it’s the challenge ó not the fact that they’re getting another year of experience. In my opinion, you should never compromise on hiring outstanding performers. But you do this by first defining outstanding performance. This is how you can create a performance-driven culture. When you align these performance objectives to the vision and business objectives of the company, you are then making hiring the best a part of your culture. When selecting these candidates, don’t compromise on their ability to achieve the desired results. Most likely they’ll have all of the experience, skills, and academic background you’ll ever need. More importantly, they’ll have the tenacity and ability to achieve consistent success. This is the real hallmark of outstanding people. “In essence, make the job description equal to the real job, not some arbitrary set of criteria that could exclude the best candidates from ever applying. I hope you find these ideas useful. Warmest wishes, and good luck. Lou Adler

April 15, 2003

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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