As the unemployment rate steadily declines — now at 9% — so too does the supply of talent from which to choose. It’s not only the job candidate that needs to tweak the model used for seeking employment; hiring authorities likewise need to adjust the way they give consideration to those candidates.
Leading into, and during the height of the economic downfall, when supply far outweighed demand, a Hiring Authority could afford to be extraordinarily picky. As a result, application of the pigeonhole principle became the method for finding a suitable candidate. In essence, a Hiring Authority created a very specific list of parameters and then went in search of the person who fit the bill. Any candidate who presented a resume’ that somehow deviated from the pigeonhole model was very unlikely to reach the level of an interview.
One thing that scientists and mathematicians know, but HR perhaps did not consider, is that the pigeonhole principle — regardless of how seemingly intuitive the expected outcome might be — often creates unexpected results. And that is what happened. Suddenly, HR department heads all over the world were faced with a conundrum: “How can it be so hard to find the right candidate when supply outweighs demand?”
As HR complained about being unable to find a qualified candidate, qualified candidates collectively cried loudly about the inability to find employment. And, the higher the level of the position to be filled, the more difficulties both sides of the equation encountered.
Even so, career advisers continued to push the niche resume’, collectively black-balling the generalist approach. “Your resume’ must meet each specific detail, point-for-point, as listed in the job description and qualifications,” we were told. An employer seeking a candidate with a master’s degree, for example, will not consider you if you have a doctorate. An employer seeking someone with 10 years experience leading a non-profit will not consider you if you have 8 years experience leading a non-profit and 12 years of public-sector leadership. “Exact means exact!”
Thus, great candidates have been passed over time and time again. And many of those “great” candidates are still searching for the right career opportunity. They are out there, diligently following the rules for finding a job in this market, patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for the all-important invitation to sit down for a face-to-face interview.
Now more than ever, Hiring Authorities need to get out of the pigeon coop.
Generalists vs. Specialists
A generalist is someone who presents with a wide array of knowledge and experience. They are typically broad thinkers, and broad thinking leads to broad and novel ideas. They may be an attorney-at-law, for example, yet also have experience in industries and positions for which their legal expertise is secondary or only indirectly relevant. Perhaps he spends a decade as a law partner and successful civil litigator, followed by a few years as a general contractor, followed by the founding of a program to foster community development while simultaneously acting as a corporate consultant.
A specialist, on the other hand, presents with a pigeonholed resume’ focused in one very specific area. This person may have a history which shows a steady progression of increasing responsibility as an administrative professional for a family focused non-profit, for example, and never does her experience deviate from that specialty. She started as a support staff member, and, over two decades, worked her way up to the position of HR Director.
It’s easier for a generalist to specialize than it is for a specialist to generalize.
If a Hiring Authority is looking for a CEO to lead a family focused non-profit, which candidate — the generalist or the specialist — is her best choice?
The higher up the ladder of corporate responsibility we travel, the less important a specialty becomes, in general. At the level of a CEO, what is needed is someone with the ability to lead, someone who exhibits courage, confidence, and the ability to create something from nothing. A CEO needs to be able to manage the big picture without overlooking the details. S/he needs to be strategic, innovative, and authoritative without being intimidated, controlling, or egotistical.
If a Hiring Authority uses the pigeonhole principle in search of her next C-level candidate, she will never learn that the generalist is very likely the ideal candidate for the position she seeks to fill.
Red Flags and the Problem with Reliance on Them
There are various red flags that a hiring authority typically looks for when reviewing a candidate’s credentials. One of those red flags is the lack of a steady progression in responsibility. Ideally, HR seeks the candidate who has climbed the corporate ladder in a traditional manner, starting in the mail room and working up to the head of a department. And when this steady progression is missing — or, worse — when it appears that a candidate has traveled backwards — the candidate will not be considered.
The problem with this approach is perhaps best illustrated by a real-life example (with various names and facts changed to protect identity).
Let’s talk about Carol.
Carol, an ambitious go-getter type woman, attended college just after high school. She was an above-average student, but didn’t make it to the top 5%. Unlike most of her fellow students, however –and what would never show on a resume — Carol balanced 3 jobs along with her heavy class schedule. She married in her senior year, and, by the time she attended law school, she was pregnant with her first child. When she took the bar exam, she was in active labor with her second child. And, yes, she passed the exam. On the day she left the hospital after giving birth, she went straight to her swearing-in ceremony, holding her newborn in her left arm as she raised her right hand to take the oath.
By this time, Carol was an associate attorney for a long-established law firm. But, rather than the steady progression expected, she rose through the ranks rapidly after astounding her employers with a record-breaking verdict in her first trial. Quickly obtaining partnership status, Carol — at the young age of 24 — found herself managing a law firm, running a case load 3 times as heavy as any senior litigator, and balancing her career responsibilities with the needs of a young family with two young children.
When her youngest child was thereafter diagnosed with a serious disability, and her oldest child was diagnosed with a special-need, Carol faced the difficult decision of whether to take an early retirement to care for her children, or to hire a surrogate mother to do the job. She chose to retire.
During that “retirement,” while dealing with the extraordinary challenges of two special-need children, Carol continued to pursue various career opportunities as she could. By the time the children were grown, Carol had founded and directed several programs, she’d made a significant difference in the lives of thousands of needy families, and she’d become a recognized expert in a given field — and more. None of her post-law “jobs” were paid positions; she did it for the love of being productive and for her passionate dedication to making a difference.
During those post-law years, Carol also faced personal challenges that, again, have no place on a resume’ or in a job interview discussion, but which unquestionably establish Carol’s level of tenacity and perseverance. Shortly after a devastating car wreck in which Carol was seriously injured, her husband filed for divorce and left Carol without a source of income, with two special children for which she needed to continue to care, and without any source of support as she struggled to recover from her injuries.
That she was able to not only overcome those challenges, but, at the same time, continue to provide the community service to countless families in need, speaks volumes.
Thus, when Carol attempted to re-enter the job market, she had an impressive history. There was no doubt that Carol’s characteristics and qualifications reached the C-level, that she would exceed expectations in whatever position she found, and that she was as unshakable as any human could possibly be. But, she was a generalist. She had not climbed the ladder in a traditional path. In fact, some might say that she “went backwards,” a perspective that fails to consider the unusual and exceptional challenges with which Carol dealt behind the scenes.
Will Carol Get the Job?
Carol applied for job after job, seeking to find a position which was commiserate with her abilities. She knew her abilities. She knew that regardless of the endeavor, she would succeed. She knew that there was no job too complex for her. It wasn’t an issue of being overly confident; it was an issue of realizing that if she could survive and thrive under the unbelievably difficult situations into which she’d been thrown in the past 15 years, she had more to offer a potential employer than did any other candidate with which she was competing.
But, the potential employers didn’t know this. The pigeonhole principle and its effects ruled Carol out almost immediately. The typical red flags, like a lack of steady progression, ruled Carol out.
A typical job description for which Carol applied looked something like this:
The position requires strong association management experience, exceptional leadership ability and a successful track record of leading organizations to success through strategic planning, revenue focused financial management, economic and financial challenges and evolving membership needs and interests.
That Carol lead a volunteer staff of 200 in a membership-focused organization, managed and directed the program so successfully that she increased membership by 1000%, and that she did so while lying flat on her back month-after-month while recovering from the car wreck, was information that would never be considered by the prospective employer.
Or, perhaps a job description looked like this:
Thorough knowledge of the current and future urban community environment, exemplary communication skills, and the ability to see opportunities instead of problems are skills that the CEO will need to be successful.
That Carol developed and single-handedly founded and directed a program guiding countless needy families from urban communities, providing them with the tools needed to be successful, and did so without a source of economic support while attending to the significant needs of a disabled child, certainly qualifies as “seeing opportunities instead of problems,” and unequivocally qualifies Carol as having “thorough knowledge of the … urban community,” but Carol’s qualifications would never reach the level of a one-on-one interview. The niche approach and HR’s fear of “red-flags” stood in the way.
A New Direction
So that Carol and candidates like her are no longer over-looked, in order for the Hiring Authorities to truly find the best candidates, there must be less of a reliance on pigeonholing and computer-generated key word searches, and more emphasis on logic and analysis — and common sense.
Carol is someone who is uniquely qualified, a term that is often over used but has actual application in her case. Carol is a proven leader. She unquestionably excels at overcoming obstacles, at turning a negative into a positive. She knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, and to do so without water. She adapts and overcomes. She communicates on a level that is effective with everyone from the homeless to the Chairman of the Board. She resolves conflict, thinks strategically, and takes innovation to a new level. In short, she has all of the makings for a great CEO.
I’ve seen Carol’s resume’. I know her story. And, I know that it will take a smart, wise, intuitive Hiring Authority to see beyond the red flags, to look at the big picture rather than getting caught up in the details. When Carol’s resume’ eventually reaches the desk of that wise and intuitive hiring authority, when someone finally sees the reality of this woman’s qualifications and abilities, Carol will get the job offer. And, whomever is lucky enough to offer Carol the job will find themselves saying, “Wow! This lady is unbelievable.”
If you are a Hiring Authority who has discovered your own “Carol,” I’d love to hear your story. Or, if you are a “Carol,” I’d likewise like to talk to you. Please send me an email and begin the dialogue with me so that I might enlighten others, as I’ve done with Carol.
~Lynda C. Watts
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