There was a recent blog post in Harvard Business Review in which Vikram Mansharamani urges us to “All Hail the Generalist”! Oh, how I wish. The author suggests that expertise is no longer the greatest competitive advantage and that candidates should prepare themselves to contribute as generalists. While I believe Mansharamani undervalues the continuing role for expertise in the knowledge economy I agree with him that companies need more people who can synthesize and adapt. The velocity of change today is intense and we need more integrators on the bus.
However, there is one barrier right at the beginning of the hiring process that prevents generalists from entering the pipeline. While the interviewing process itself will need to evolve (more on that some other time), changes there matter less until a new solution to filtering applicants is in place.
All Hail the Algorithm
Before generalists enter the interview room they go through an algorithm. Companies of all sizes now routinely use third-party software to evaluate applications that candidates submit online. The software evaluates each resume (usually only by keywords) and ranks each applicant by the degree of “fit” they have with a particular job. The software’s success depends on the robustness of the criteria it’s given and unfortunately that’s where everything falls apart.
When managers create a job description they have a sense of what they want. They usually want a combination of:
- Who the last person in the role was;
- What they would bring if they did the role themselves; and
- Their dream qualifications
- They include some mix of these qualities in the job description under “Requirements” and out it goes.
By creating that job description managers implicitly assume that they already know the absolute best kind of person to fulfill a role. Right here, at the beginning, managers create barriers to generalists. By thinking they know what they need, managers block themselves from thinking creatively about a candidate’s background—backgrounds that are likely different than their own. By unconsciously relying on past experience, managers affect the evaluation process from the resume submission all the way to the offer. If generalists haven’t done the exact role before, can’t point to a title, or merely showcase the diversity of experience and skills that make them valuable, the algorithm sends them a pleasantly impolite “thank you for your application.”
I believe managers create these types of job descriptions for two reasons. First, as most people do, it’s what they know and therefore seems like the best possible way to do it. Second, there is pressure either from HR, or their own self-interest, to make it hard for applicants to qualify. After all, who wants to read 50 resumes? Let alone 500. You wouldn’t and neither does the HR specialist. Facing that need, there are few better ways to shorten a stack of resumes than to lengthen the list of required qualifications. But while adding requirements successfully reduces the number of “qualified” applicants the approach often backfires. And not just for hiring high-potential generalists, but for hiring anyone.
Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs told NPR a remarkable example that demonstrates the downside. In his research, Cappelli reports that one company posted a standard engineering job for which almost anyone with a good engineering degree would be qualified. The company unsurprisingly received 25,000 applications–an overwhelming number to be sure. But after the software analyzed the resumes, it reported to HR that NO candidate was qualified!
And if one applicant were to squeak through, do you think it would have been a generalist?
The Post-Qualification World
Operating from the current hiring paradigm, organizations will continue to treat the large volume of applications as the first problem to solve. Choosing to define volume as the primary problem means longer lists of qualifications will continue to be the best solution. Organizations should not expect this solution to result in hiring the kind of generalists Mansharamani believes will be so impactful to growth and innovation.
Organizations must redefine the hiring problem to improve their performance. How companies design the hiring process determines the types of people who get interviewed which in turn creates the initial incentives for a pipeline of generalists. Organizations that rely on long lists of mostly superfluous qualifications will struggle to hire the adaptive talent needed to compete.
While it is unfortunate for candidates, the intense competition in the job market provides a remarkable opportunity for organizations. Having an abundance of a resource, after all, is a great time to experiment. This is the moment to create a new hiring paradigm to take advantage of it.
The redefinition that is needed isn’t so unlike how Steve Jobs redefined the Post-PC world at the introduction of the iPad. In Steve’s observation, the precise specifications of a consumer device now are irrelevant; it’s the total package that matters. Consumers who make their choices based on a long list of specifications—a device’s resume—miss the point. It’s what it can do to solve your problems.
Organizations and managers must likewise shed the legacy hiring paradigm that relies on long lists of specifications. The legacy paradigm is ill-suited to help organizations attract and hire generalists. If we are to All Hail the Generalist, managers and HR reps must accept that we are now in a Post-Qualification World.