Do I Need to Draft a Job Description?
Several years ago while helping to grow a mid-stage VC-backed start-up, we had budget for only one additional full-time hire in a critical operating team. Experience dictated we needed at least three humans to cover all of the skills and background we wanted to add with just one hire, so we spent extra time crafting a very long and very detailed job description. We were specific about degrees required (undergrad and specific doctorate), years out of school (not too junior or too senior), start-up and public company experience (preferably with an IPO in the mix), substantive areas of mastery (drafting, tech, communications), location (near one of our two main US offices), credentials with more than two national licensing bodies, and more. Though we didn’t put it in the job description, we also wanted to hire a male as our team was entirely female at that point.
As the hiring manager, I recall reviewing over a hundred resumes over three weeks. It was a tiresome process, but I took it on myself as even our head of recruiting was overwhelmed by our level of specificity. I kept my checklist nearby and refused to discount any of the requirements. This person had to be out there, and we were going to do our very best to find them.
Sure enough, after almost a month of painstaking resume reviews, an applicant jumped out at me. He fulfilled all of the requirements, and even a couple we hadn’t specified in the in job description. Elated, we invited him in for a day of interviews.
During our interview, I remember feeling like I was in sales mode not the other way around, having to consciously adjust my tone and posture accordingly (we all want to be wanted, but not too wanted). We had found our unicorn and it was our job to convince him to join us. I honestly felt like the purpose of the interview was just to be sure he was real (“just want to be sure he has a pulse!” I remember an interviewer saying, entering the conference room). We were convinced we wanted to hire him before he even walked in the door. And, we did.
As our team started to work together, we were quick to notice there was trouble in our newfound paradise. Our new hire, let’s call him Max, was contrarian about almost everything. In meetings he spoke up to interrupt and slow down otherwise unanimous decisions about policy, communications, internal matters, and more. In email threads he’d reply-all, often breaching useless, implied hierarchy guidelines, pausing our work to give very well articulated and fact-backed reasons why we should consider an alternative approach. Many times I bit my tongue, tempted to say “I hear you, but I am the team lead, and this is the way we are going to do it.” (I’m ashamed to admit this naive positioning, but what use is a mistake if we can’t learn from it.)
What were previously harmonious team operations became strained and inefficient, occasionally even combative. Even worse, Max was quick to leverage his technical training (not required for his current role) and befriend the engineering team, often elusive and difficult for the business folks to get to know. With these allies throughout the organization, his positions had strong backing, often forcing the business leads to bend previously firm policy and guidance in ways that meant less efficiency for us, but better product and ecosystem outcomes for our customers and partners.
Months passed. I berated myself for not using “the airport test” in screening Max. For those who don’t know, this is an off the record practice often used to assess culture fit: “Would I be ok being stuck in the airport with this hire for hours?” If the answer is no, don’t hire them. The rationale is that we need to be able to get along with our team members, drink a beer, have something to talk about other than work, or it won’t be “a good fit.” In this case, Max would have never passed this test. He didn’t have anything in common with the rest of the team, but for perhaps some training, and our social and family circles couldn’t have been more different. Candidly, I found him really difficult to be around, not because he wasn’t likable (he was), he was just very difficult for me to communicate with, relate to. I imagine it was even more difficult for him.
Then something peculiar happened.
About nine months into our working together I noticed something. Our little team was helping the company improve by making changes that ran upstream from prior practices and policies. These changes, often based on decisions coming out of our disagreements in drawn out meetings, helped the company be more bold, more innovative, more adept and meeting the market moment whether that be with patent strategy, hiring policies, or stock option plans. Perhaps most importantly, the engineers, by far the most important asset to our success, were now able to influence the business in new and critical ways through collaborations and engagements with Max. We were disrupting the status quo in a way that was resulting in noticeable company improvements. His disruptive presence, different way of seeing and doing things, was helping us be a stronger, more valuable company overall.
Sadly, it was just a few months later when Max gave notice, moving to another big tech company where he could have a more significant product role. I regret that the challenges he had working with our team, particularly in those first nine months, likely had a lot to do with his decision to leave. Though I’d come to really value him as an important member of our team, it was too little too late.
I’ve reflected on this hire and what went right and what went wrong since then. I’ve come to see that Max was one of the best hires I’ve ever made. We chose him as the successful applicant based on objective review of his capabilities, not our biased perspectives on “cultural fit.” Our differences disrupted our status quo and helped us become a stronger, more valuable team — and as a result, the company benefitted from our diversity. Max came to us with a different perspective and fresh way of doing things. While it was often difficult to accommodate his different working and communication styles, and endure more debate than I often thought appropriate, our collective diversity strengthened us in more ways than one.
We found and hired Max because we considered what we wanted and needed in a hire before we started meeting with candidates. We did not let familiarity or likability drive our decision. We hired based on capability and talent and as a result, we added exactly what we needed to the team.
When people ask me how to diversify their teams, the first suggestion I make is to spend the time crafting strong job descriptions (some good tips here and here for tackling gender bias) and then abide by them in the hiring process. Leads will often want to hire their friends, former colleagues, people they know and like. Too often, this practice results in homogeneous teams that tend to agree on items with ease, inadequately challenging a status quo or considering the dynamic landscape in which they are operating and building — hampering innovation and value generation. Every great company is built by a strong team and the best teams are diverse.