Stop Using Requirements!

I’m going to tell you the story of Jane the Hiring Manager.

Jane is in charge of hiring a new Account Executive for her company. The head of the sales team that this AE will work for has certain goals for his team, and has communicated those goals to Jane, and then put Jane in charge of finding someone to fill the role. Jane does her research, comparing the resumes of the existing Account Executives on the team to their performance levels, and then factoring in things like industry average experience levels and backgrounds. Based on that, she puts together a list of requirements for the role that includes a minimum of 5 years as a Sales Development Representative and a Bachelor’s Degree or better.

Jane posts the job ad listing these requirements and starts to filter through the results. She automatically eliminates any application that doesn’t meet her requirements, since she doesn’t want to waste her time on unqualified applicants. But all the remaining resumes that she gets are unexciting and don’t seem to be good matches; the head of the sales department wants to know why the process hasn’t produced results yet, and Jane can feel the pressure on her.

Deciding that she needs more qualified applicants since the current crop isn’t meeting her company’s needs, Jane decides to add more requirements in order to improve the quality of her pool. She adds a requirement of 2 years as an Account Executive in the same industry and prior knowledge of the company’s specific CRM. The pool of new respondents to this job ad is even worse than before – no one has what she’s looking for.

Then she receives an email, not an application. The email is from Amanda, and it’s addressed to Jane directly. It reads:

“Hello Jane! I was speaking with a mutual contact of ours, John Doe who works as an Account Executive in your company’s sales department. He and I have known each other professionally for several years, and he mentioned that you were looking for a new Account Executive to handle new West Coast accounts. I just moved back from the West Coast myself, where I ran my own sales team for a startup in an industry with very similar sales challenges as yours, and my account executives closed accounts regularly under my direction that John says are very comparable to ones in your firm. I’m looking for a non-managerial role myself so I can focus on the sales process; I moved into sales leadership from operations (startup life!), so I really want to focus on being a contributing member of a team and generate revenue for the company and myself!

“I’ve attached my sales numbers for the last two years so you can see what kinds of accounts my team was working with as well as the improvements over the time I led the team. I’ve also attached a few articles I’ve written on the unique sales challenges of the West Coast, and a sample training doc I worked up for your company, converting those tips to your industry. Let’s talk soon and see how I can help contribute to your team!”

Jane very politely replies:

“Thank you Amanda, but we are looking for someone with 5 years’ experience as an SDR and 2 years’ experience as an AE in our industry, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree. Best of luck in your future career search.”

Here’s your challenge: Can you pinpoint the exact moment where Jane massively messed up?

It shouldn’t be hard!

It was the moment when Jane forgot that her “requirements” were totally not requirements at all.

You see, there’s no cosmic law that says that great Account Executives have to have five years’ experience as a Sales Development Rep. They don’t need to have been Account Executives in the same industry. They don’t need to have Bachelor’s Degrees or prior knowledge of specific software. Those things are all just clues. Indicators. Proxies for knowledge you don’t have as a hiring manager.

Imagine you wanted an apple, but the store you went to stores all their fruit in opaque boxes. They know what’s in them, but they won’t tell you. And they won’t respond if you ask for an ‘apple.’ You have to describe it. So you say you only want fruit that’s red (so no blueberries), and round (no bananas), and roughly fist-sized (no cherries). Then someone offers you a granny smith and you say, “No, it’s not red, and I asked for red only,” totally forgetting that what you actually wanted was an apple, not a “round, red, fist-sized fruit.”

That’s what Jane did. She forgot that what she actually wanted was a great Account Executive, not someone with those requirements.

Those requirements were just proxies for knowledge she didn’t have. Jane doesn’t have a super power that lets her look at people and know if they’ll be a great AE. She can’t just ask directly, because, well, people lie. Or exaggerate, or fluff, whatever. And hiring mistakes are costly. So she has to come up with reasonable filters that give her a good idea of what a good AE might look like.

She started off well! She used the current Account Executives as a baseline. She incorporated their performance. She looked at industry standards. She wasn’t wrong in the beginning.

Where she went wrong was turning her list of clues into a hard-coded list of requirements that she’d never deviate from. Your requirements are educated guesses, so you should always leave room to be wrong – especially if you’re not an industry expert yourself, as in this case. And more importantly, you need to leave room to actually consider the corner cases and exceptions.

If someone meets none of your requirements and applies anyway, it’s probably a smart move statistically to discard them – your time isn’t infinite. But that’s only if they don’t offer you alternative proof! Amanda had tons of evidence that she would be excellent at the role despite not meeting the specific “requirements,” but Jane didn’t consider it.

I know why Jane rejected it. Jane did her initial homework well – she gathered her data, knowing what backgrounds her existing Account Executives had. But she didn’t analyze the data. She knew facts about her successful AEs, but she didn’t have an understanding of why those facts correlated with their success. That deeper knowledge is what held her back.

If you pinned Jane down and said “Can you explain to me exactly why your list of requirements adds up to a great AE, but Amanda’s qualifications wouldn’t?” She wouldn’t know. She doesn’t know what makes a great AE, she only knows what the great AEs have. That’s not the same. That’s why, when she didn’t find anyone the first time, Jane went back and added more requirements, instead of realizing she was taking the completely wrong approach.

I wish this was an apocryphal tale; that I was using this as a hypothetical. But sadly, not only have I actually seen this exact scenario play out multiple times, but usually when I hear about it, I’m hearing about it from the hiring manager, who is complaining about how there are “no good candidates,” and they “can’t believe who had the nerve to apply, as if the requirements aren’t listed on the job ad.”

Fortunately, lots of hiring managers post job ads using the “requirements” language, but then are open to unique pitches. They’re smart, and know a good thing when they spot it. But even then, you may be chasing away amazing talent simply because they’re sure they’ll get rejected even though they would be great because they’re intimidated by the phrasing!

So here’s my challenge to everyone in position to write a job ad or execute a search based on one:

STOP USING THE WORD “REQUIREMENTS!”

Instead, phrase it like this:

“We have a team of amazing Account Executives, and we want to add to it! On average, our existing, successful AEs have:

  • 5 years’ experience as a Sales Development Rep before becoming an Account Executive.
  • 2 years’ experience handling accounts in the industry before joining our elite team.
  • A Bachelor’s degree in communications, marketing, or a similar field.

So if you have those things, we’d love to talk to you! But we’d equally love to talk to you if you can demonstrate you’d make a great Account Executive in some other way. The burden is on you to prove it to us, but we’re all ears!”

Then, work with your department heads! You don’t have to be an expert on the role or industry yourself to be a great recruiter or hiring manager. You just have to be humble about the limits of your own knowledge and be an amazing collaborator! I’ve built incredible teams in areas I had little to no prior knowledge in because I was able to leverage the knowledge of my department heads and combine it with my skill at managing this process. You can do it too. When you get those unique pitches for the role, gather more info and then take that report to your department heads. Watch them light up like a kid at Christmas!

If you do this, I guarantee you’ll have better results in every way. A better candidate experience, better hires, more satisfied department heads and clients, and more personal satisfaction in your work.

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