For Organizations, Professional Identity

Irish Dancing and Chinese Calligraphy


No you can’t, you probably shouldn’t try, and it almost certainly won’t work.

“I tried and therefore no one should criticize me.”

Students who have gone through the University of Chicago probably wouldn’t risk such blasphemy. Nor have they enjoyed a criticism-free education. In reality, most of us have gotten to the point where, secretly, we kind of like it. And that’s a good thing. Because when I speak with employers–and even in the hiring I’ve done–there are in fact enough people with this attitude to make it less funny. Unless an employer is desperate, or incompetent, a candidate with this attitude and sensitivity goes in the “No” bucket.

Last week I attended an event about identifying, recruiting and hiring A-players. It emphasized the tech industry, but applies just as well to other industries and missions. The best employees know clearly what they are good at—what they can contribute at an expert level to a team—as well as what they cannot do well. While University of Chicago students don’t mind criticism they sometimes have a hard time acknowledging they cannot do something well. Our students tend to be very bright. They’ve excelled in multiple disciplines and proved they can learn quickly. As a consequence they kind of think, in fact, they can do anything. And perhaps when considering what’s possible in a few months or years they may be right. However, they cannot do everything well today.

“I’m full of unearned confidence.”

For even the Core doesn’t cover everything. And when managers are looking to hire someone, the best managers (those who know what they’re doing and with whom you want to work) are looking for specific capabilities and attitudes–embodied in individuals–that contribute to a larger team. In order to contribute effectively, team members must know what their current role is, that they can trust others to perform at a high level and that the manager is coordinating everyone toward the team’s objective.

When it comes to working on a team you can’t play every role at a high level the first day you start. A-players know this. A-level managers do too. A-players also know what they don’t do well and don’t mind being told so.

Nevertheless, some industries ask workers to navigate a contrary employment situation. They hire employees to play one role for one project and then switch to another. (As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the burden of getting into a career and staying in it lies with the candidate.) Perhaps the most maddening part of that burden is that employers want both specific skills while simultaneously saying they want employees who can learn and adapt. Such dueling requirements are rarely thought through and make it hard on candidates. Figuring out the relative emphasis between those two requirements and the true valuation of each is why networking is so crucial. What employers want in truth is often different than what their job description and website proclaims. As a candidate you have to dig deeper—via networking and even during the interview—to understand their true needs. If you neglect this step you’re gambling on luck.

Employers are Party Responsible

Employers bear some responsibility and should consider the opportunity in thinking differently about hiring. If they wake up a bit they’ll waste less time and money on recruiting. In fact, one of the main arguments of the event’s presenter (a recruiter specializing in technical placements) is that employers should get away from hiring with job descriptions and should instead use profiles (that focus on experience plus attitude, motivation and ambition). The presenter told stories of how client companies would routinely cut potential candidates from an interview list because they didn’t happen to include 1 or 2 of the 30 qualifications from the job description on their resume. When employers behave this way they’re being lazy. They are hiring narrowly for a role on a specific project without thinking about the hire as a long-term investment (which it is). This kind of Whack-a-Mole hiring is inefficient and at best shortsighted. The presenter cited these inefficiencies as the reason he was hired to fill the same positions every year or two. Once the project ran its course, neither the employee nor the organization knew what to do with the employee. Predictably, the employee became frustrated and left. This happened over and over again. Good for commission-based recruiters as the presenter noted, but not for organizations and candidates. When you get in an interview be mindful of the interviewer focusing on this kind of shortsighted alignment. They’ll always need to hire for experience and expertise, but nitpicky requirements may signal a soon-to-be frustrating shortsightedness regarding your career there.