Discussion: December 8, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

The Q&A column in this week’s newsletter asks whether employers are too hell-bent on hiring only “the perfect candidate,” when ability and talent might be the more efficient path to getting a job done. How long will a manager wait until perfection arrives?

Do employers really want only someone who has already done the exact job? Am I nuts, or is there something wrong here? Do credentials matter more than ability to ride a learning curve and come up to speed?

(Oops! Maybe ability is harder to assess than credentials, eh?)

How can you get an employer to hire you, if you haven’t already done the exact job?


  1. Here’s an example of “credentials wanted”:

    Developer needed at unanticipated client sites for S/W req. study, appl & systm dsgn, product issues, test & document appl, analyze, estimate, dvlp & implmt IBM Mainframe, Java, Teradata & Oracle 8i appl using MVS, COBOL, CICS, DB2, DB2 UDB, Dial 280, REXX, PL/SQL, Pro*C, Forms/Reports6i, Korn shell scripts, JSP, WebLogic, Java Script, Teredata utilities, AIX, Sun Solaris, ETl, Erwin, SQL*Navagator, SCCS/SCUM, CVS & VISIO, Apply to: …..

  2. Here’s some logic to throw out to a fellow manager who can’t find that “perfect candidate”:

    Let us assume such a person exists. That person is obviously working for another company. While we waste time trying to find said candidate, that candidate’s company is probably whipping our rear ends in the market place. Therefore, we should send *our* resumes to that candidate because we’re always going to be behind.


  3. Mark,

    You forgot to add that the candidate has to have n + 5 years experience for each technology, where n is the number of years it’s been in existence.

  4. Looking at it from the job hunter’s perspective, when we see ads depicting a number of specific (and conflicting) skills required for a position (kind of like Mark’s example above), many of us assume one of two things: either they’re trying to justify bringing in their H1B as they “can’t find a qualified American”, or they already have their new hire lined up and are just filling a requirement by posting the position online or in the paper.

    I’ve worked for nine companies over a 20-year programming career so far, and only one of those companies has hired people on the basis of talent rather than specific skills. How to get around that? I’m not sure. If I knew, I’d be working in C# right now instead of VB6.

  5. If the employer is the head of a heart surgery division at a major hospital I’d hope that when he or she doesn’t hire based on the ability of a doctor to ride a learning curve and come up to speed while operating on me.

    If the employer is a hedge fund managing my money I wouldn’t invest in it if the Chief Investment Officer needs to ride a learning curve.

  6. If the employer is the head of a heart surgery division at a major hospital I’d hope that he or she doesn’t hire based on the ability of a doctor to ride a learning curve and come up to speed while operating on me.

    If the employer is a hedge fund managing my money I wouldn’t invest in it if the Chief Investment Officer needs to ride a learning curve.

  7. If I see ads with so many requirements, it usually tells me that they either have the new hire lined up (in academia, which I know quite well, it is a quite common tactique of getting around formal requirements of public advertising; by stating requirements that only that golden boy or girl can fill) – or it tells me that the managers or HR in charge of recruiting really don’t know much about recruiting. Hmm, would I like to work in such a mess?

    It’s the same with the typical fluffy requirements of “Good people and communication skills, team player, focused worker…” etc. Those aren’t really qualifications for given positions, they are just something all people need in all jobs. Probably HR put it into ads because everybody else do.

  8. As a senior professional with a very ecclectic resume, I get this issue. Because I am not the perfect square peg for the square hole, I have had to learn to emphasize my intrinsic attributes rather than my specific skills and experiences.

    So, I focus on my basics—judgment, overall knowledge of various work environments, strategic planning skills, communication skills, management experience. These are things that are transferable to any job.

    The challenge for me is conveying these attributes in a convincing and persuasive manner. Normally, this cannot be done via a resume—it requires a personal connection or a referral. Therefore, my job hunting efforts are focused on developing and cultivating relationships with people in a position to hire me or to refer me to someone who can.

  9. Here is a true story about trying to hire by experience through HR.
    I worked in an engineering group that wrote and supported process simulators. We had an opening and the hiring manager wrote out six experience requirements connected by the word “or”. He sent this to HR to place an ad in one of the professional society magazines. When no responses were obtained, the hiring manager found a copy of the ad in the magazine. Much to his dismay, HR had replaced the “or”s with “and”s. I doubt that anyone on earth exisited who could meet all of the experience requirements.
    We all got a good laugh out of that. I made a mental note to review anything coming out of HR for accuracy.

  10. @Allan,

    the ability of a surgeon to “ride the learning curve” is what will allow him to learn and develop new techniques that will help him save your live. It is also what got him there in the first place. I certainly wish that if I ever have to undergo any surgery I am under the hands of some one willing to keep learning all the time.

    We live in a world of constant change and it is the experience to adapt and learn fast which makes any one more valuable.

    As a recruiter I have always valued more attitude and skills over exact experience. As a project manager I know that bringing in some one who can learn the job and add different experiences is usually better than hiring someone who will try to repeat what he/she did before.

    As a job seeker, I struggle to find the same attitude in employers. They tend to not believe me when I talk about breadth of experience and ability to learn. Also, I have found a certain type that seem to be afraid of bringing in too much experience.

    Am I unique in my approach and the challenges I face? I think I am not, but for some reason we seem to be a minority out there.

  11. 1) Once got a job at XXX which had been open for 18 months. The requirements were such that nobody could have met them all. Suspect it was their way of weeding out people they didn’t want, without appearing to be biased. I do pay much attention to requirements. If I can get my foot in the door (easier said than done), I can sell myself.

    1) Have often hired inexperienced people when they demonstrated intelligence, integrity and desire. That’s all anybody needs to succeed and I’ve never been disappointed.

  12. Manuel,

    I agree with your assessment about an ability to ride a learning curve. But is it really what got him “there” in the first place?

    What precisely do you mean by “there”?

    If “there” is a heart surgery operating room and I’m the patient I would not want a general practitioner who believes that he can “ride the learning curve” and successfully perform heart surgery operating on me.

    I’m a recruiter as well and the clients that I do business with are counting on me to deliver professionals that possess a proven competence and a track record of accomplishment oriented to their specific needs as the entry card to securing a meeting with them.

    There’s certainly something to this attitude and skills stuff over exact experience. I recall one client in particular who told me that his organziation hires a lot of people that aren’t exact fits. The problem from my standpoint was that he also said that unlike the “other individuals that we hire” there needs to be a 100% calibrated fit to their needs on the positions that I was working on due to the premium that they’re paying for those individuals.

  13. No job is static. If your needs are so specific that only a 100% match will work, that’s what consultants are for.

    The perfect fit today may well be a misfit tomorrow and your critical need of today will pass – and you’ll be left with a solution to yesterday’s problem.

  14. My husband and I both changed jobs in 2009, putting us in fields where we had to learn from the ground up. We both have decades of experience, and were fortunate to find employers willing to take the gamble that we’ll learn what’s required.

    What our employers underestimated is just how much we bring to the table – this shows up in the surprise they show when we solve problems and put forth new ideas. It’s a little amusing to realize these employers thought they hired drones who will learn then march in lockstep. There are countless ways that an experienced worker can contribute significantly, and that’s the joy in bringing new people on board.

  15. Ray,

    Plenty of CEO’s of major companies started lower down in the organization when they were originally hired.

    It’s my experience that being the 100% (or as close as possible to 100%) match in SOME CASES is what’s going to get you hired in the first place. That’s the way things work for critical positions. Once hired its an employees responsibility to do what’s necessary to stay relevant.

  16. And while wishing for a boatload of experience, some employers want to pay thousands of dollars less than what the combination is worth.

    I’m also seeing more hybrid jobs, where the employer wants people to do a combination of moderately disparate functions that would normally be done by two to five people.

    For employers, consider:

    * Probation and informal apprenticeship.

    * Contingency plans and back-up workers.

    * Referrals and feedback from the last person to hold the job.

    * Getting someone with most of what you’re looking for, then sending him to one or more classes.

    * Job sharing — Hire a couple of people part-time to do different parts of the job.

    * Training someone from within to work the hard-to-fill position, and hiring that person’s replacement from a larger pool.

    * More generally, get employee feedback on any ads, etc. How much do your ads or other material do to say “Pick me”? Employers often shoot themselves in the foot with ads that are neutral or worse.

    For job seekers, especially career changers:

    * Don’t take the expectations or stated requirement as gospel. Sometimes they are, sometimes not. For example, most people in the field I come from have a bachelor’s degree. I have only about a year’s worth of college classes.

    * School or other training can be a good way to get your foot in the door, without necessarily completing the degree. Besides the actual learning, you have opportunities for demonstration, connections through the faculty, etc.

    * Start small. Do “x” on your own and demonstrate it. Consider volunteering and student jobs. In my first career change, I moved from aviation support in the Marine Corps to journalism. I started at a community college newspaper. My pay was initially zero. My background was minimal. But I got experience and worked up to one of the country’s larger and better newspapers.

    * Pay attention and build links from where you are and have been, to where you want to be. My first job at a real newspaper came about because of an article I read in the local weekly paper. The editor was saying goodbye to a couple of people who worked there. I applied for one of those jobs the next day, and I got it.

    * Address any perceived holes in your background. You might directly tell the employer, “I know you’re looking for x, but …”

    * I’ve also been on the other side of this, where candidates had loose experience relating to the job and what I was looking for. But made little or no effort to target their materials to the position.
    If they had revised their resumes to be relevant, I likely would have given them some consideration and kept them in mind for anything more appropriate in the future. But instead, they got “minus points” for not being smart enough to do something fairly basic.

  17. This last article you wrote is right on the money and very insightful. I have been on several interviews for positions I could easily handle, yet each interviewer was focused on the fact that I had not done ‘exactly’ what the position entailed. When I pointed out that I had touched just about every aspect of a corporate travel program, from negotiations to implementations, and could easily apply my skills and knowledge to an Account Management position on the agency side as I know what the ‘clent’ wants in a managed program, I ususally got blank looks.

    I too find that hiring managers are looking for the ‘perfect’ candidate – perfect in having done the exact things they are looking to do when filling a position, rather than focusing on the abilities, knowledge base, skill set and can-do attitude of a candidate.

    It is very frustrating and I thank you for bringing this to light!

  18. @Mark: My favorite ads (resembling the one you quoted) are those where HR insists on X years of experience with Technology A, while A has been AROUND only X-2 years.

    @Chris: Ooops. You already nailed that problem! Nice touch on the cost of competition… which is kicking butt while “the manager” is waiting for Perfection to walk in the door.

    @Allan: Points well taken. But if I’m on the operating table with an unknown critical problem and there’s no surgeon available because the head of the hospital is waiting for Dr. Perfect, I’d be glad to have any GOOD surgeon check me out before I expire. There are clearly situations where “having done the exact job before” matters. But even surgeries are all different because the surgeon encounters different circumstances each time. And what if the experienced Chief Investment Officer were Bernie Madoff? I don’t mean to trivialize or beat the point to death.

  19. @John Zabrenski: Imagine if the personnel jockey who modified that list of requirements were “fixing” the gates in a design for a medical device. OR, AND, what’s the diff???

    @Ray Saunders: **intelligence, integrity and desire**. Good list! The one I learned was “smarts, enthusiasm, persistence.”

    @Ray Saunders: **The perfect fit today may well be a misfit tomorrow ** Narrow hiring often results in having to hire again – when the work changes, and it always does.

  20. @Janet: You’re a perfect example of what I tried to put into “How to Change Careers.” A method for showing how a person can do what an employer needs, again and again and again, no matter “what” is. My compliments.

  21. >>>By Maurreen Skowran
    December 8, 2009 at 10:45 am
    And while wishing for a boatload of experience, some employers want to pay thousands of dollars less than what the combination is worth.

    Maurreen . . . I have a boatload of wishes that experience counted for more in today’s environment. The decision to pay thousands of dollars less than what the experience is worth has completely removed the value of years of experience. Positions that should be hiring boatloads of experience such as senior level and above are currently discarding applications for those who they know will accept the low(est) salary offered and simply adjusting their performance criteria down to the level of a non-experienced individual. It’s a sad day.

  22. I have had this problem and it is why I no longer work for companies. (I work for myself.) I used to be a chemist / salesperson. I had an interview with an employer who only wanted to hire people who previously sold “weighing paper” or “plastic weighing boats.” I sold something related and did quite well at it. Their sales position went unfilled for at least a year. Their company lost market share. Probably not because of this alone, as this was a rather large company, but rather the ridiculous underlying attitude. Skills are transferable. A widget is a widget. Even if they found someone sooner who sold the exact widget, would they necessary succeed in the new company? There are so many other factors… fit, personality, drive, brains, attitude, motivation, location, ability to learn quickly, but none of that mattered. Go figure!

  23. Nick,

    To your point, unfortunately many people blindly invested with Madoff and what was discovered by some savvy investors during the due diligence process that did not invest with him was that there was no way that he could have honestly achieved the year after year returns that he was posting.

    He claimed to have legitimately “been there and done that” as a successful money manager, however the facts prove otherwise.

    Hiring manager need to be savvy as well otherwise they might get taken in by people who don’t know what they’re doing.

  24. I read your article quoted below with interest because I went through a job interview process that was singularly different and ended up working for the company for several years experiencing a very different company orientation toward decision making.
    Briefly the process was as follows. The company plant manager sorted through candidates selecting the top 6 or so candidates he/she thought were appropriate. He then passed those likely candidates to a team of employees made up of departments that would have direct contact with the position being filled (in my case it was department manager level)
    Any employees who wanted to be part of this were encouraged to do so up to a maximum of 9 people (in case of deadlock). These employees put together a list of relevant questions and rated the questions based in their importance. So when I walked in I faced 9 people all of whom had a desire to select whom they believed to be the best candidate for the position.
    Having interviewed the potential candidates the hiring team presented their findings to the plant manager who, unless there were some dire circumstances, hired the selected candidate.
    I walked into a position of employment the first day knowing the employees had ‘hired’ me and here was Judy and there was Robert and again Pete etc all of whom had a vested interest in my being there.
    This process takes slightly longer but it also removes any favouritism and skewed hiring of a candidate. (That never happens right?!) It also requires full commitment to the decision making process by upper management and redefines the job description of a manager/supervisor to one who …”gives as much information as is needed to an employee to allow that employee to make a decision one way or the other”.

  25. Hi Nick,

    You just hit the nails with your response to this question of a Hiring Manager.

    The employers are searching for that perfect candidate, but forgot about the experience the person will bring in to the Company. Sometime they are asking that the person need experience with specific Software applications design for the company. In this new tech world, all ERP work in the same way with different flavor, just give the applicant the opportunity to look into it. Some examples are SAP, Oracle, Peoplesoft all of them follow the same design with different languages, if matter of understand how was configure for that specific company, you need to understand the business needs to improve the applications. A good program manager could follow the same rules for any ERP and will due a great job. This is just an example in where the Hiring manager look only for candidates with some experience in an specific applications or job types.

    Hope that all Hiring Managers read your article, is just perfect solution.


    Jose Chevere

  26. Three points:
    1)The hiring manager is looking for an exact replica of the employee who left even if some of Mr. Wonderful’s skills were not related to the job at hand.. He has also forgotten that Mr. W. had a learning curve.
    2)The hiring manager has juiced up the requirements but not the compensation (“well, a CPA and fluent Mandarin Chinese would be nice.”)
    3)On the HR end; there is person that is screening resumes who has no idea what the particular job does or which technical skill is very close, in fact, almost identical to other technical skills…they just look for specific terms & titles they were told are important.

  27. For the rank and file employees responding to ads and job postings these conditions aren’t going to change. There’s just too much that’s out of one’s control.

    The change needs to come from within.

    What can be controlled are:

    1. Getting a strong grasp of the events and business drivers relevant to your candidacy that potential employers HAVE to deal with.

    2. Crystallizing the workflow issues stemming from those business drivers and events.

    3. Identifying the people impacted by the workflow issues that you can address your candidacy towards.

    4. Making the financial implications clear as to how if you enter the picture this is going to be an economic win for all parties involved.

    If you can do that forget about the ads and job postings. Contact the board of directors, CEO or hiring manager of the firm that you want to work for and make your case. The worst that they can say is no.

  28. Nick, you are my man! Hiring managers who expect a guinea fowl to fall already roasted on their plate and on-time, too, then act pissed off and blame the talent pool when it doesn’t are such a pox on mankind. Your putdown was very adroitly worded: you hit every nail there was to hit (et pan sur le museau!) but managed to remain respectful. As a specimen of writing it was very instructive and, as I just said, its content made my day.

  29. Diana Ost over at The Agile Technical Writer packages it all up into one sentence (managers please take note):

    **The Agile Manifesto says: ”Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support that they need, and trust them to get the job done.”**

    **It’s about the work, not the title**


  30. When I see a long and conflicting (or long and duplicitous) list of requirements, I assume they are trying to replace the guy who left. This automatically begs the question: If this position/company is so great, why did the last guy leave? Was he underpaid for what he did, or was he tired of supporting FoxPro on Windows NT and wanted to work with newer technologies?

    The “requirement” for a college degree for everything is another issue altogether. Not every job in IT needs a bachelors degree or MBA. In fact, precious few likely do. I tend to think that this “requirement” is put in by college educated HR drones who think themselves better than the unwashed, non-degreed masses or simple laziness because they would rather point to college degrees rather than truly find out what experience matters.

  31. What do I think about the article?

    It hits the nail squarely on the head.

    In many years working, managing and hiring I often found myself at odds with the “conventional” wisdom of hiring someone who has demonstrated the ability to do the exact same work as the position being filled or the person being replaced.

    The best people were always the best people.

    The trick was in (if necessary) adapting the job requirements to fit the individual super powers presented.

    Just because the former incumbent was a whiz at data base creation and marketing doesn’t necessarily mean you need an exact fit replacement. Say a great person appears (they will be loyal, dedicated, insightful, productive), but they happen to have a background more tuned to being able to get any group or set of people to stop fighting and pull in the same direction, whatever the reason. Very cool.

    Maybe I have a couple of other folks who have been itching to get into data bases, but were never able to really shine in the shadow of our now-ex data maven. Terrific. Challenges that involve stretching make folks grow. Growth builds and expands the abilities of the team. Did I mention there is someone on the radar who happens to be terrific at the team thing? Shuffle the deck. Reapply the available resources. Define a target. Let your folks fly.

    After all, what is the role of a manager but to make the best use of the available legs of the eternal triangle at any managers command: time, money, labor. Any shortfall in one leg can be made up through the other two. It’s the same with folks on your team.

    Stop looking for that perfect fit and see the diamonds all around you. All they need is a bit of polish and the good sense to give them tasks best suited to what they do that aligns with what you and your organization need.

  32. Many companies tout the fact that their CEO came from another industry. They even peruse them for that very reason. Often, they see things from a different perspective and turn the company around. Ford is an example of this.

    However, they don’t carry this to their workers. Seems short sighted – it works for the top. Just like the military prepare for the last war, companies hire to the past. Or phrased differently – forward into the past.

    No job stays static. You need problem solvers and managers that can train new workers. Hopefully, this changes soon and hiring managers see the light, so we can maintain our competitive edge.

  33. As usual you hit the nail on the head, as did the guest writer.

    Here’s another way of presenting the call for a perfect fit to a hiring manager/HR rep

    I had a boss who summarized it in a conversation she had with a client/hiring manager who had outlined a job with X requirements, ALL of which HAD to be met.

    She said “So you are advertising for, and want me to find, someone to take a job from which they will learn absolutely nothing. Is that the kind of person you want to build an organization with?”

  34. Alan,

    You write “[p]lenty of CEO’s of major companies started lower down in the organization when they were originally hired.”

    I’m not sure I understand your point. Earlier, you seem to be saying that it’s important that people be perfect fits, and that employers shouldn’t expect to have to wait for employees to ride the learning curve.

    Here, you seem to be saying that it’s OK for CEO’s to ride the learning curve.

    Why is it OK, in fact considered normal, for a CEO to have no experience as a CEO, or even experience in the same industry, when hired, but every other opening in the company requires a mininum of three to five years of exactly matching experience to even be considered?

    (I see Dan’s posting, at 5:14PM Dec 8, 2009, is largely anticipating my comment.)

  35. Dan,

    My response was to the following earlier post:

    “No job is static. If your needs are so specific that only a 100% match will work, that’s what consultants are for.

    The perfect fit today may well be a misfit tomorrow and your critical need of today will pass – and you’ll be left with a solution to yesterday’s problem.”

    My point here is that there are plenty of CEO’s that were originally hired as CFO’s, General Counsel, Engineers, Sales Executives etc. AT THE TIME THEY WERE HIRED (let’s say as a head of sales for example) if they were hired for a critical role they would have ideally been a perfect fit FOR THAT ROLE.

    As to the comment:

    “The perfect fit today may well be a misfit tomorrow and your critical need of today will pass – and you’ll be left with a solution to yesterday’s problem.”

    My point is that being the perfect fit today (will get you in the door) and may possibly result in your being promoted to the CEO tomorrow instead of being a solution to yesterday’s problem.

    Once in the door you get experience and that’s the learning curve.

    Let’s look at a hiring announcement of what appears to be an ideal hire:

    “Cuttone & Company, a full-service institutional broker offering a complete range of execution services and prime brokerage solutions, has named Blake Nunley as Senior Vice President of Institutional Sales. He will be based in Dallas, Texas.

    With more than 12 years of experience in the sales, marketing and delivery of electronic trading solutions to both buy- and sell-side clients, Mr. Nunley will oversee the strategic growth of Cuttone & Company’s electronic trading solutions in the region, including the firm’s industry leading Direct Market Access Platform offering low-latency, smart-routing and algorithmic trade executions to all U.S. equities and listed options markets and 58 international equities markets.

    Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Nunley consulted or managed technology projects at several major global financial firms, including UBS, Merrill Lynch, Knight Capital Group, CIBC and Instinet. Mr. Nunley was a founding Principal of Banc of America Securities’ Electronic Trading Services Group and was responsible for the rollout of integrated solutions including execution management systems (EMS), order management systems (OMS) and algorithmic trading to institutional clients and prime brokers.

    “As the changes in market structure unfold, driven by the shake-out from the financial crisis, we have seen increasing buy-side demand for prime brokerage services and electronic trading solutions,” says Keith Bliss, Senior Vice President and Director of Sales and Marketing for Cuttone & Company. “Blake’s deep knowledge of electronic trading technology and his vast relational network in the industry will play a critical role in positioning our firm for significant operational and customer growth in the region.”

    As to CEO’s not coming from the same industry in particular I heard Jim Barksdale speak in a televised interview. Barksdale at the time was the CEO of Netscape. Prior to that he was the CEO of McCaw Cellular/AT&T Wireless and Fedex. When asked how he could be successful at Netscape without a high-tech background, I was impressed with his answer. He said that McCaw Cellular/AT&T,Fedex and Netscaape were all based on a network business model which made sense to me. Fedex is a network, AT&T is a network and Netscape is a network.

    The next time you see a CEO move across industry lines if you look beyond the obvious you might find that there’s some solid rationale that exists for them coming on board.

  36. For those who want a humorous, but illuminating, take on the “perfect match”, I suggest you search for Weird Al Yankovic’s song “Close, But No Cigar.”

    In it, he dumps a woman who’s a “world famous billionaire bikini supermodel astrophysicist” because one of her earlobes is “just a little tiny bit too big.”

    Kind of puts looking for that “perfect job candidate” in perspective.

  37. Qualifications and credentials are only there to cover the behind of the manager if things go pear shaped. I say a good manager will have the guts to hire somebody without the proper credentials, but still demonstrates all the necessary skills.

    My latest post: What everybody ought to know about LinkedIn http://www.theundercoverrecruiter.com/content/what-everybody-ought-know-about-linkedin

  38. Talk about a relevant development: I just got an offer to be deputy director of a work source center (workforce development), and plan to take it eagerly.

    I do not have the exact skill set that was initially outlined in the original job announcement, but my future boss recognized my intrinsic talents, my leadership capacity and transferable skills, and saw my ability learn the technical issues and to do the job.

    It helped to have a network of friends, colleagues and associates who could vouch for my qualifications and assure my new employer that I would be a good investment in their future.

    This ends a three month quest to land on my feet after losing my job around Labor Day. A lot of it I owe to the advice from Nick and others on this website—focus on what I wanted to do, go out and find people who could connect me with that, and constructively network by exploiting my relationships.

    Thanks guys!

  39. The perfect candidate will not be looking for a job. He or she will already have a job/multiple job offers and you will have to top every other opportunity with extra pay and benefits.

    If the employer has the resources to hire top talent away from other companies, by all means they should do so. If not, they should expect to have to nurture their own employees through ongoing training and development.

  40. The real problem is employers focus too much on what you have done. They need to instead concentrate on what you can do.

    ATH readily demonstrates and lets one evaluate the “can do.” Problem is many employers don’t know what “can do” means.

    Let’s also realize this. When changing jobs, how many people want to keep doing the same thing? A frequent explanation for job change is the desire to learn new things. (Or as some put it “increase your employability.”)

    Nevertheless, you can understand why employers demand such perfect people today. In the past, you could indeed grow with an employer and expand your skill set with them. With today’s shortened product cycles, however, employers have this big pressure to produce results fast. They are petrified to take a chance on an “unproven” person because if they fail, the hiring manager worries both he and the person he hired will be downsized in the next round of layoff. (Conversely, if the experienced person doesn’t work out, the hiring manager can say, “At least he looked good on paper.”)

    What can a person do? Well, experience is really useless in an age when everything changes so fast. I usually encourage people to ask the hiring manager how they cope with this rampant rate of change. Ask if they’ve been in situations where what they knew yesterday doesn’t apply today. Then ask questions that relate to how they can grow together, especially in terms of the business.

    After that, if they don’t want to roll along with you for tomorrow, in good times and bad times, consider it their loss.

  41. Beware the false choice! Interviewers love to ask apparently either/or questions that really aren’t (Do you prefer a supervisor who delegates or one that gives close supervision? I prefer the one who knows when each is appropriate).

    In the ability vs. experience arguement, the key is to remember that it is the candidate’s job, not the hiring manager’s, to demonstrate how both their ablity and experience will contribute to the bottom line. You can’t expect the managers to take the time to figure it out; they won’t. You can’t say ‘Here I am, now you figure out what to do with me’. Every resume must be customized to the position applied for. Every cover letter must build a bridge from the candidate to the job.

    Before my current position, I never had a job with the words ‘trainer’ or ‘training’ in the title, though every job I’ve had involved training. My cover letter for this position uses those two words 6 times. You have to draw the picture, spell it out for them if you want to get their attention.

  42. RE: The perfect fit today may well be a misfit tomorrow

    One book I have has as its subtitle “The Secrets of hiring a Superstar.” Originally, I bought it because from the first page it sets out an image of what a superstar looks like — Tiger Woods!

    Copyright of that book? 2000.
    Is Tiger Woods still perfect in 2009?

    Good loving gone bad!

  43. Thanks for the link in your latest ATH to the article “The Perfect Fit, Isn’t” by engineer David Hunt. The advice is right on. The last thing I would ever want to do would be to take a new job that was exactly like my old job. You and David are absolutely right in your analysis that employees who do so will likely not stay for long. I have noticed that employers make the same hiring mistakes over and over and never learn from their experiences. I doubt the hiring manager you responded to will heed your advice.

  44. Great article on the Perfect Fit.

    I was most intrigued by the following observation: While hiring a perfect fit is a good tactical move, it can be a
    strategic error in an economy that is increasingly dependent on rapid
    innovation and revolutionary, not evolutionary, thinking.

    That got me thinking about what Nick constantly drives home: HR Managers and recruiters may have quite an influence on this process,
    as they are afraid to stick their necks out to hire a “risky” candidate that may not find the work challenging, or worse, find the
    culture lacking in some way so as to leave the job. Get these people out of the process and who knows how the company will benefit.

    I think any good business person (once candidates actually get to speak with them) would realize what a good candidate they have in front of them when we’ve proven our performance the way Nick suggests
    — solve a business problem.

    Thank you for stimulating my thought and prompting me to write.

  45. @Larry Kaplan: Hey Larry! When you start that workforce job, remember to order copies of “How to Change Careers” for all your new clients! ;-) And call for a quantity discount!

    @Glenn: **why employers demand such perfect people today** I think it’s simple: Databases. Managers have been taught to believe “it’s in there!” Personnel jockeys and job boards have taught managers to believe that with millions and millions of resumes in The Database, you can find exactly what you need. If you’ll just wait long enough. Kooky.

  46. I’d like to take the Cardiac Surgeon example to make a point. Having stood in on such surgeries, I can say from experience and observation that such surgery is not that complicated for a surgeon with good surgical “hands” and knowledge of the essential components of the surgery. However, each patient is different and unexpected things happen; anatomy anomalies, weak/ruputured or nicked vessel walls, etc. It is the great surgeon who knows how to think his way out of the situation and have the skills to do what he has never actually performed that gets to tell the family that their loved one will recover and not the surgeon that turned and ran when things didn’t work out exactly as planned so he couldn’t be expected to do any more!

  47. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book “Outliers The Story of Success” to become an expert in any field you need to put in 10,000 hours of focused labor. I’ll take the 10,000 hours of cardiac surgery experience with a great track record of success over the surgeon with good surgical “hands” and knowledge of the essential components of the surgery whose only put in 5,000 hours who claims that he knows how to think his way out of the situation and has the skills to do what he’s never actually performed.

    As a a recruiter my clients expect me to deliver candidates with a proven competence and a track record of accomplishment in their specific disciplines. That’s the starting point.

    I’m sorry, I like to debate as much as the next guy, however when it comes to my professional livelihood I have to deal with my clients’ mental models. All day my candidates tell me why THEY THINK that they’re right for certain positions. That’s great except for one thing. THEY’RE not making the hiring decision. The most important factor is to discover what the person with the need is thinking and start from there.

    In the Star Trek movies Kirk was faced with the Kobayashi Maru, a no-win situation. He didn’t sit around and complain about the unfairness of it all. He dealt with the mental models of the creators of the simulation and took action from there and beat them at their own game.

    Reverting to the original point of this forum, ability or credentials it appears that most companies for key roles stress the importance of credentials. That’s what we have to deal with. Instead of debating among ourselves let’s debate with the companies. Let’s prove to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 10,000 hours don’t count. That someone with 2,000 hours with great soft skills minus the perfect credentials deserves the job.

    Will someone please take a real mission critical job such as flying a commercial airliner, managing a $10 billion plus hedge fund or performinmg cardiac surgery, list the requirements of an actual real-world employer for the job and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt why the employer actually hired someone for their perceived ability vs. credentials. Transparency is the name of the game here so please include information that can be validated in an annual report, in a news article, a research report or any other type of publically available documentation.

  48. Alan Geller:

    After nearly 50 years in the business world, working for several companies and working with dozens more – major corporations in banking, brokerage and manufacturing – watching many managment styles and polices, I can tell you that 90% of ‘credentials’ are BS. I have known literally dozens of incompetent idiots with ‘credentials’ as long as your arm. Any need for ultra-specific in-depth skills will be temporary and best handled by consultants. For hire, find brains and the right attitude.

    1) Do you (or Corporate America) believe
    someone is born with 10000 hours of experience? Those who have it obviously once had fewer credentials.

    2)”Mission Critical”- we all hear of airline pilots with credentials but still incompetent; this is not a good time to talk about the expertise of hedge fund managers, is it?; and highly ‘credentialed’ surgeons have been known to operate on the wrong patient, wrong organ, etc.

    3) I have been responsible for major computer systems – designing, programming, maintaining, operating – where the customers’ financial exposure ran into tens of millions of dollars for an hour downtime. On paper, I had no credentials – no degree in IT, etc, yet my track record was about 40 seconds downtime over 7 years (due to complete computer failure). How? My employer trusted my intelligence and commitment and gave me the tools and freedom to do the job.

    4) I have seen companies hire based on credentials an most of the time it was a disaster. I have seen companies hire based on intelligence, integrity and commitment and in all cases it was successful.

    5) I view most businesses as what I call ‘corporate welfare’. 10-20% of the people do 90% of the work.

  49. Alan (and all others),

    when debating any ample subject, as we are doing here, it is important to ensure we make clear whether we are referring to a specific case or to the generic one.

    I agree with what you some of what you say in your last post, and I guess most of the rest of the people debating will do also. There are certain cases )what you call mission critical) when specific skills and experience are mandatory. To make surgery on Einstein brain to remove a very spread tumour you will want some one who has done it first, many times. No arguing here.

    But I think you´ll agree with me that most positions today require a broad range of skills and abilities. Among them, certainly, the ability to learn, grow, face whatever comes tomorrow. Experience, credentials, need to refer to many areas. A successful worker will be good in many, excellent in some.

    What I was trying to say above (signing as Manuel) and I read from many others is that many companies and hiring managers have got the balance wrong and are failing to make the best choice by focusing the filtering in a specific set of criteria. Experience in a particular technology, technique, whatever, may be a must for certain roles. But even your brain surgeon will have many other responsibilities out of the operation table (training, administration, diagnostics). Maybe your best candidate needs to improve in his-her brain surgery skills or experience but will compensate in a different way. And as a department manager may be able to bring in a great technician to complement his-her own.

    It is true that certain areas of work are very specific, but it is also true that those are usually the ones that evolve fastest. Experience will only take you so long. In six months everything may have changed again.

    I tell you something else. I put my money where my mouth is. When hiring I look for the best overall candidate. Sometimes I look for specific experience but I also look for transferable skills and experience. In this world, hiring a candidate is an expensive process and many times speed is a key factor.

    I believe, and I have seen it happen, that often whoever is managing the hiring process assigns the wrong weight to the different factors. Too much emphasis is put in many cases in very particular experience.

    Merry Xmas

  50. In God we trust. All others bring data please.

    Will someone please take a real mission critical job such as flying a commercial airliner for a major airline, managing a $10 billion plus hedge fund or performinmg cardiac surgery at a world-class hospital, list the requirements of an actual real-world employer for the job and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt why the employer actually hired or will consider someone for their perceived ability vs. credentials. Transparency is the name of the game here so please include information that can be validated via an annual report, in a news article, a research report, a press release or any other type of publically available documentation. I’m looking for the mental models of the people doing the hiring because as I’ve said before, that’s what we need to deal with.

    C’mon guys. Instead of throwing out a lot of opinions, let’s see if we can do something constructive and present an actual case providing rock solid rationale for hiring on ability vs. credentials for a high-profile mission critical position. I can’t do it. Can any of you?

  51. “I’ll take the 10,000 hours of cardiac surgery experience with a great track record of success”

    Somebody had to be the first patient.

    And sure, there are jobs that absolutely have minimum requirements (an M.D perhaps), but many, perhaps most, don’t work that way. “I’m sorry Mr. Glenn, but your credentials as an astronaut don’t count for much here in the real world of politics.”

    “…an actual case providing rock solid rationale for hiring on ability vs. credentials”

    It’s not an either/or question.

  52. @Chris Walker: **the key is to remember that it is the candidate’s job, not the hiring manager’s, to demonstrate how both their ablity and experience will contribute to the bottom line.**

    Amen! I think sometimes we blame the manager doing the interviewing, when the failure might be the candidate’s. While the manager, as the buyer, is making the decision, it’s partly up to the candidate to define “the product.”

    @Alan Geller: You offer a good reminder. When a headhunter is involved, the headhunter has an obligation to focus on his client’s demands. Though an argument can be made that part of what the hh is paid for is to guide the client…

  53. @Ray: **My employer trusted my intelligence and commitment and gave me the tools and freedom to do the job.**

    Maybe you’ve just defined the REAL “perfect candidate”… ;-)

    I’ll offer a couple of general comments. I don’t think any employer really knows exactly what they need. Every company likes to say, “We want out of the box thinking!” Then they formulate an exact definition of who they want. That means they miss the out of the box candidate who might bring a new worldview that takes the company to new heights. So, what does that mean? Should you not define your needs? No, but maybe it suggests companies should define their needs, then go find very smart, capable people — and use the meeting experience to learn something new about how they might fill the position and manage their business.

    Related to this…

    @Alan: While I understand your points completely, too often the employer is unwilling to learn something new from the candidate. I think that’s a huge mistake.

    My other point is that precious few companies can claim to be doing very well as a result of whom they hired to run the organization. Management failures are commonplace. Does that mean that the profile used to hire the CEO, good as they thought it was, was not so good? What I’m saying is, I don’t think there is anything sacred about a company’s definition of what it thinks it wants. And part of a good headhunter’s job is to … here it comes … use his or her gut to bring great talent into the room TO BE ASSESSED and LEARNED FROM… not just judged vis a vis the job description.

    We could go on forever. If we could figure this one out, we’d all get rich…! Great ideas here. Please don’t stop!

    (If someone would like to pose a related question/topic for another blog thread, I’d love to hear it and would consider it to start a new dialogue…)

  54. @Nick Corcodilos: Agreed. The headhunter has to acknowledge the client’s mental model and then lead from there if there’s a good reason to do so.

  55. “The Man With The Money”

    Bruce Lee, the first Chinese American superstar had obstacles and limitations that he faced, however he accepted and worked on them and ultimately went on to succeed. Here’s what he said in an interview priot to making it big:

    Have people come up in the industry and said ‘well, we don’t know how the audience are going to take a non-American'”? asked a Canadian tv interviewer. Lee responds “Well, such question has been raised, in fact, it is being discussed. That is why “The Warrior” is probably not going to be on.” Lee adds, “They think that business wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there.”

    Despite being at odds with “the man with the money” Lee went to Asia where he was more readily accepted and after making it big there the break in America came.

    I think that there’s a lesson in here somewhere.

  56. I would just like to take some time too thank the posters for doing what you do and making the community what it is im a long time reader and first time poster so i just wanted to say thanks.

  57. The finest surgeon in the world performed his first surgery sometime. Aside from that, 99% of the jobs out there don’t require years of experience. If the hedge fund manager were as smart and talented as his customers think, he wouldn’t be spending 40 hours a week giving advice – he’d already be retired.

    I’ve seen many people with all the credentials – on paper, by job titles – who were disasters as employees. I suspect 90% of the managers out there wouldn’t recognize competence because they themselves got where they are simply because the more talented people left, so they were promoted for longevity.

    I hire without paying much attention to credentials because I know there are damn few jobs that can’t be learned. I hire based on intelligence, integrity and attitude. I have NEVER made a bad hire using those criteria.
    And if a manager can’t judge those three qualities, he/she shouldn’t be managing.

  58. These laundry list ads are absolutely hilarious. Now they routinely request senior level skill sets for junior level positions! Or someone took several unrelated job descriptions, threw it in a blender, then posted it as one position. Its truly bizarre how as jobs become ever more fluid, hiring criteria become ever more rigid.