Rethinking job-ads - Part 1
Sometimes I read through job ads and almost always they leave me a bit at a loss. They always ask in a checklist style for some traits and experiences that based on my experience are either rather pointless or not really essential. Or they ask for a very narrow hyper-specialized profile garnished with the usual “you should be team-minded” antidote which is even worse regarding today’s challenges.
They never ask for the traits and capabilities that from what I have seen really make a difference regarding how effective a person will be in that role they are looking for – and hopefully even beyond that role.
What do I mean with that?
Pointless traits and skills
Here is an incomplete list of the typical job ad checklist items and why I think they are either irrelevant or counterproductive:
- team-minded: Who would ever dare to say they are not team-minded? Hence, no significance. Also, what does “team-minded” mean? I have seen “teams” of people who worked alone next to each other, everyone just looking at their own work items. I have seen teams of people where everyone hid behind the “team”. I have seen everything good and bad between those extremes – all called “team-minded”. In the end, you need people who are able to do both, to work alone and in a team. More important, they need to know when to do what.
- assertive: So you are looking for a business bully? If you are, you foster a highly dysfunctional crawl-to-the-bigwigs-and-bully-the-underlings organization and your next bully will not solve the problems you experience. Or did you mean it in a “nice way”? In this case, do you really mean “assertive” because “assertive” always means imposing something on others, often against their conviction.
- persuasive: The little brother of “assertive”. Why shall you talk other people into something? Because that is what “persuasive” actually means: Convincing people to do something they would not have done otherwise. Also, who do you want to persuade and how are you doing it? Some people use arguments and that works well with people who respond to arguments. Other people do not respond to arguments but only to emotions. Other people only ask “What is in it for me?”. They neither respond to arguments nor emotions but only personal advantages. And so on. Are you persuasive? Well, the answer is as vague as the requirement. Hence, again no significance.
- leadership qualities: Following the endless debates and the hundreds, if not thousands of opinions and advices regarding leadership leads to the question: What do you mean with “leadership”? What is good leadership in your company? Do you even know what you mean with “leadership qualities” or is it just a vague wish?
- independent: Who would ever say they are not? And how does it correlate with “team-minded”? Do you want people to be focused on their teams or independent? To which degree? Again, no significance.
- X years of experience with Y: How big is the significance of this? I have seen people working more than 10 years with Y and still needing lots of guidance. I have also seen people starting from scratch with Y and being better after a few weeks than most people after several years. “But in average …”, you might say. Well, are you looking for the average or for the talents, for the frequently conjured “high performers”? You do not find high performers by looking for the average.
- And my personal favorite, burning for X: Seriously? We are talking about a job. You pay a person money for doing something in return. “Carefully”, “thoroughly”, “accurately”, “diligently”: We can talk about these properties regarding the work you expect from an applicant. That is perfectly fine. But “burning for”? It is a job. Thus, be honest. It can be fun. It should be fun – at least sometimes. But in the end it is still money for performance. Also, someone who brightly burns for something will eventually burn out – usually faster than someone who does not burn brightly for something. You do not want people to burn out? Then what do you want?
We could continue this list for quite a long time. But the problem becomes obvious. All these requirements are either of little relevance (if at all) or even lead the wrong direction.
Still, these applicant requirements are used by personnel departments as a first filter for hiring new employees. If you do not have “evidence” for these requirements in your resume, usually you will not get invited, no matter how valuable you would be for the company.
Finding better criteria
But what would be better criteria to watch for?
From what I see, there are some pointers that show the direction towards more meaningful job ads, including the following applicant selection process.
My first observation is based on many years working in IT. In those years, I have seen several people who stood out, who were largely responsible for the success of their projects or other efforts. When I looked at the traits and capabilities that were responsible for standing out it never were any of those demanded in the job ads (please be patient; I will name and discuss the traits in a bit).
This also matches a more personal observation: Every now and then over the course of my professional career, I got the feedback, I really made a difference in some specific situations. But this positive feedback also was never related to any of the checklist items of the job ads. It was always about different traits and capabilities of mine.
Another important pointer are the changed conditions of today’s markets and what it means for companies and their employees to thrive under such changed circumstances. Already in my first post of this blog, I wrote about post-industrial markets and how their success factors are very different from those of industrial markets.
Most companies today live in a post-industrial market, a highly competitive, consumer-driven market where those companies thrive that can adapt faster to the ever-changing consumer needs than their competitors.
In a subsequent blog post, I dug deeper into the characteristics of the different types of markets and what they mean for the companies that live in such a market. The industrial work model with its focus on efficiency was based on division-of-labor-type processes while the post-industrial model is based on strong collaboration to be able to tackle the market complexity. At the organizational level, this means we move from hierarchical to decentralized organizations with cross-functional autonomous teams.
In industrial organizations, the focus was on specialists (I-shaped people) that know how to fill their part in the processes that power the company. They do not need to interact a lot because the processes define their boundaries and interactions with other people. As long as they know how to receive and deliver work as defined by the processes and do their part as efficiently as possible, everything is fine.
In post-industrial organizations, this is not sufficient anymore. People need to interact all the times, often in unforeseeable ways to tackle the uncertainty and constant stream of smaller and bigger surprises due to the market dynamics. Successful collaboration in such a setting requires more than knowing your small area of expertise and offering very narrow communication channels, solely focused on your specialty.
In such a setting, the individuals require broader communication channels. They need to be able to collaborate tightly and continuously with colleagues that have very different backgrounds, knowledge and skills. This is not about being “assertive” or “persuasive”, about making other people do what you think is right. This is much more about understanding enough of your peers’ work and their language to be able to collaborate. Two persons who only know their trade and only speak their jargon cannot successfully collaborate.
People also need to understand the act of value creation more holistically. It is not sufficient anymore to act like a cog in a machine, not caring about how it feeds into the value creation process. If you do not take the bigger picture into account, you will optimize your work with respect to your local needs. If everybody does that, it is very unlikely the company as a whole will be able to respond swiftly to the ever-changing demands of the market.
Instead, the company will suffer from lots of friction between the different optimization zones that do not optimize with respect to the whole value creation process. Then you either lose the race with your competitors for the customers because you are too slow. Or you try to mitigate the problems by adding people who coordinate the activities of the other employees. But this is nothing but the return of hierarchy and management and you are back to an industrial working model – also losing the race.
Hence, the acting people in the company need to become T-shaped to be effective in a post-industrial setting. They need to change from specialist to generalist. This does not mean, they should not have one or more areas of deep expertise. But they also need to understand what is going on around them and they also need to speak “foreign” languages to be effective – to be valuable from the perspective of the company.
These were also the skills of the outstanding people, I have seen over my career: They understood the bigger picture. They knew what was important and when it was important. They were able to communicate effectively with their peers and other stakeholders (which is something very different than being “assertive” or “persuasive”). They understood the needs and pains of the people involved and how to support them.
They also were good (often excellent) in their own trade. But that was not what made them outstanding. That was not what made their projects successful. It were the other skills that differentiated them from the mere specialists. (To complete the picture: It were also these “generalist” skills, I usually got the positive feedback for.)
Mapping it to the typical job ad
If we go back to the typical job ads, they still look for highly specialized job profiles. Actually, the job profiles have become more and more specialized over the years, eventually turning into hyper-specialized jobs.
I already discussed this development as a side note in a former blog series about leaving the IT rat race. There I sketched the job ad development like this:
- 25+ years ago, companies looked for an ops expert
- 15+ years ago, companies looked for a virtualization expert
- 5+ years ago, companies looked for a Kubernetes expert
- Today, companies look for a Helm expert
So, most job ads are about “knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing” 1. This is industrial thinking par excellence – back to hierarchical, process-driven organizations 2. As I sketched in the beginning, some typical fig leaves like “team-minded” or “persuasive” are added. But as discussed, those fig leaves in the end are either meaningless, insignificant or both.
It is understandable why we still see many of those job ads: If something does not work properly, the usual reflex is to do more of the “proven”. It is much harder to start from first principles, to rethink the approach and come up with a different solution. And even if you come up with a better solution: This would mean change. Change means perceived risk. As a consequence, change means resistance. Your whole organization will fight back to avoid the change.
Still, splitting up everything into highly specialized job profiles in a world that requires continuous adaption to ever-changing demands from the outside world and the market is not a suitable solutions anymore. Predefined rigid organization structures and job profiles do not solve the challenges of today.
You rather need an organization that forms a feedback loop with the market and self-organizes using systemic and cybernetic principles. In such an organization, your employees need skills, traits and capabilities that are very different from those, the usual job ad is asking for.
This was the first part of this two-part blog post. I explained why I think most job ads today are rather pointless and are not particularly helpful in finding the people you need. Then I discussed some pointers that lead the way towards better criteria for job ads and mapped them against the typical job ad of today.
In the second post, we will look at how job ads that reflect the actual needs of today better could look like. We will also discuss what this means for the interview process because you cannot really separate the ads and the interview process.
Stay tuned … ;)
If anyone is tempted to counter “full-stack developer”: This popular job description is not a step in the direction needed as I describe it. “Full-stack developer” is not about caring about a more holistic perception of the problem and job at hand, about better and more effective collaboration or responding swiftly to the ever-changing needs of a highly dynamic market. “Full-stack developer” is about having “resources” at hand that can be easier assigned to different software development tasks. It is just about more efficiency, nothing else. ↩︎