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5 Mistakes Leaders Make With Job Descriptions

Advanced tactics for better hiring and performance coaching.

Key points

  • Job descriptions can be too vague, only focused on actions or results, not time-stamped, or have too many expectations.
  • A “scorecard” is a more effective tool for hiring and performance coaching, because it answers why, what, how, and by when.
  • The scorecard approach improves hiring success rates and enhances impact and enjoyment at work helping colleagues achieve meaningful results.
Source: fizkes/iStock

Leaders make common mistakes with job descriptions when they are hiring and when they are reviewing performance. The consequence is an increased probability of making a hiring mistake or providing someone performance feedback that is useless or even irritating.

There are five mistakes that are entirely preventable.

One reason leaders make these mistakes is often because they do not want to be held accountable for a poor outcome. It is normal to want to avoid embarrassment. Or they have not done the hard thinking to examine cause-and-effect relationships between various actions and results. Or perhaps they are indecisive and unwilling to “put a line in the sand” and commit to a performance expectation out of fear that it will be judged to be too easy or too difficult to achieve.

The ghSMART CEO Genome research of more than 20,000 leaders suggests that “decisiveness” is a rare but desirable leadership behavior whose absence makes a team’s success much less likely. Deciding what is someone’s performance expectation is one of the most important ways in which a leader can show decisiveness, since the way to turn a “strategy” into “reality” is through coaching and guiding the behaviors and performance of teammates.

Mistake 1: Describing a Job in Vague Terms

“Supporting the marketing team in promoting our products” is too vague. What does that mean? What level of performance is considered poor, good, or great? Watch out for “-ing” verb tenses—they are often too vague.

Instead, consider a more specific statement of the job, such as “To help our customers modernize their inventory management systems by increasing sales of existing customers by 20 percent per year through new product introduction.” We would consider that an essential statement of the mission of the role, which is a high-level but specific explanation of why the job exists.

Mistake 2: Focusing Only on Actions, Not on Results

Some leaders make the mistake of wording their expectations in terms of only actions, not results. “Contact at least 20 existing customers per week and conduct an account review with at least five per week.” That is a perfectly good expectation of an “input” or an “action,” but it is insufficient if all of the expectations are just actions, with no eye for the results they are expected to achieve. The risk is that people go through the motions of doing prescribed actions without feeling the urge to deliver a specific result. And your organization succeeds or fails based on results in key areas, not actions.

Mistake 3: Focusing Only on Results, Not on Actions

Other leaders make the mistake of wording their expectations in terms of big-picture results, without regard to the actions that are likely to achieve them. “Grow revenue at least 15 percent per year” is a very specific “what.” But to make that expectation more achievable, it is helpful to also list several of the actions that are expected to achieve that result—the “how.”

Mistake 4: Not Saying When Something Is Expected to Be Completed

Similar to, and just as bad as, being vague (mistake #1) is not being time-bound in your performance expectations. “Support,” “Liaise,” “Communicate with,” “Manage,” or “Improve” somebody, a group, or a set of things with an unspecified time period is not easy to achieve. It is better to write “Create a business plan for the XYZ product group, to be approved or rejected by December 31 of this year.” Or “Hire 10 new consultants into the Latin America region by July 1 of next year.” Or “Raise $5m in new private funding within 2 years to complete the renovation of the community athletic center.”

Mistake 5: Having Too Many Expectations

While doing research for our Power Score book, we examined the performance of more than 15,000 leaders and their teams. We discovered that only 24 percent of leaders are good at prioritizing. And when a leader is not good at prioritizing, 90 percent of the time it is because they have too many priorities, not too few. So when you are hiring somebody or are performance-coaching them, try not to have more than seven things you expect them to achieve. We have seen hiring or performance expectation documents from some leaders that list more than 50 expectations or success criteria. That is too many! People perform best when there are five to seven outcomes you expect at any given time.

Bringing It All Together

A job description, by definition, merely describes a job, often in vague terms. You can’t “score” a job description for either a candidate you are considering hiring or a colleague whose performance you have the responsibility to evaluate and coach. Therefore, it is an insufficiently useful tool for hiring or performance coaching.

In contrast, we encourage colleagues and clients to follow a practice called writing a “scorecard.” A scorecard has a clear mission for the role. It identifies five to seven outcomes you expect a person to achieve by a certain date. The outcomes are a mixture of actions you want the person to take and the results you expect them to achieve. And you can easily “score” whether someone achieved the outcomes.

You may choose to add other bells and whistles to a scorecard, such as your company’s purpose and values. Perhaps that advice is for another article.

Using a scorecard, you will improve your ability as a leader to hire and performance-coach people to live the organization’s purpose and values and to take actions that achieve results. The why, what, how, and when are all important elements of a well-written scorecard. And once you shift from the vague and dull content of a job description to the sharp and powerful design of a scorecard, you will see your hiring success rate go up and your impact and enjoyment improve as you help your colleagues achieve meaningful results and career success.

More from Geoff Smart, Ph.D.
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