A CEO decides to hire a new C-level executive. To manage the search process, including defining the role and finding and vetting candidates, the company remains an executive recruiting firm. The recruiter creates a long, written job description, which becomes the blueprint for the qualifications and skills the company wants in candidates, and the expected job responsibilities.
This recruiting process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, take months to fill a position, and require significant time commitments by the CEO and possibly the board. It is much more expensive and resource intensive than recruiting entry or mid-level employees. Isn’t it reasonable, then, to expect higher investment in the C-suite Does the search give a better chance of success?
Remarkably, no. the average terms of chief financial officers (4.7 years) and chief information officers (4.6 years) was slightly higher than tenure of an average employee (4.3 years for men and 3.8 years for women) — and the tenures of chief human resource officers (3.7 years) and chief marketing officers (3.5 years) even less.
There are complex reasons for such a short time, however I’ve identified one that candidates would benefit from understanding: the lack of precision and alignment in job specifications.
Alignment occurs when there is consistency between the three key elements of role design – the expectations, the responsibilities assigned, and the skills required. For example, if a CMO is given responsibility for research and development, then alignment occurs if under the skills section, the job spec indicates that the ideal candidate has prior experience in R&D. Misalignment becomes apparent when the job specification indicates that a CFO role is expected to lead M&A activity and yet it does not require that the ideal candidate have prior M&A activity. In an aligned world, people hired into roles have the experience to perform the tasks required, and are given the responsibility necessary to meet expectations. Although this sounds simple, evidence suggests that many companies fail to achieve this.
From the 185 job specs I analyzed across CFO, CIO, and CMO roles, the degree of misalignment between different aspects of the job (eg, expectations, responsibilities, and skills) ranged from 33 % to 41% depending on the specific job attribute.
For example, one out of three job specifications (33%) has incorrect expectations and responsibilities, which often indicates that the authority given to the role is less than the impact expected by the individual in the company. Such misalignment can prevent new employees from converting role responsibilities into expected results. Additionally, it can create friction as the new hire tries to quickly influence colleagues who have responsibility for activities expected to be affected by the new C-level hire.
How can candidates navigate inaccurate or poorly defined jobs? Based on my experience working with leaders, here are eight key steps C-level candidates can take to increase the likelihood that the role they land will be a good fit.
Throw out the job spec.
For high-level roles, recruiters create extremely detailed job descriptions that often run a dozen pages or more.
There are two main problems that can negatively affect job specs. First, companies want to make jobs as attractive as possible, especially in a tight job market, and to do this, they can embellish the description. Second, writing a cohesive, internally consistent job spec is not easy.
The consequence of these job design problems is that the job spec may not be an accurate reflection of the actual job. Unfortunately, this requires the candidate to throw away the job specification and suspend the actual work themselves.
Identify “real” work.
To understand the true qualities of a job, you must ask questions throughout the interview process with skill and diplomacy. While it helps to triangulate and get perspective from peers, the perspective of your potential boss (perhaps the CEO) is most important.
You should investigate five key areas:
- Expectations (eg, what defines success at different time intervals?)
- Responsibilities (eg, what are the specific, tangible duties and tasks assigned?)
- Resources allocated (eg, what departments and positions are assigned to the task? What is the budget?)
- Primary contingent peers (eg, who are the primary peers who affect success in the position, and how are goals/incentives aligned to ensure cooperation?)
- Desired candidate experience (eg, what are the key skills and experiences required of the ideal candidate?)
This process may seem simpler than it is. In some cases, interviewers can be defensive if they don’t know the answers. In other cases, three different people will give different answers, indicating a lack of clarity and/or communication about the role. All of this gives you important information about culture, alignment, and C-suite communication.
Draft your own job spec.
Based on your research, write a short version of your understanding of the job. Using the five categories above, summarize your understanding, as specifically as possible. The goal is to crystallize the essential attributes of the work into a simple document that can then be the basis for discussion and negotiation.
Using your draft job summary, confirm your understanding of the job with your prospective employer via email. Verbal discussions can be misunderstood and remembered incorrectly. Having a written and appropriate basic understanding is important before accepting a job and especially after as issues may arise regarding expectations or responsibilities.
For example, a C-level leader I spoke with expressed surprise when a critical function that usually reports to the paper was transferred to another C-level leader after they interviewed but before they started at the company. A written summary can be the basis for the candidate to discuss the changed expectations based on the transferred organizational structure.
Check how “doable” the job is.
Once you understand the actual role, the next step is the most important: determining whether or not you are set up to succeed. At this point, you should assess the degree to which aspects of the job (eg, responsibilities, authority, expectations) are aligned or matched.
If a CMO is expected to lead growth, but they only have responsibility for advertising, media, and communications (ie, other C-suite leaders have their own innovation, data and analytics, corporate strategy, strategic partnerships, pricing, sales, distribution, etc. forth), and the CEO is not aware of these critical peer contingencies, then there is misalignment that can make accomplishing work difficult at best. If a CIO is responsible for digital transformation but does not have a budget or staff assigned, there is a gap that can lead to challenges on the first day. In my research, this step is an important “aha” because C-level leaders often fail to evaluate whether the role is designed to achieve success.
Check your eligibility.
The final assessment is difficult and requires honesty. How well prepared are your skills and experience for the job? What makes this determination challenging is that candidates rarely have all the necessary skills. However, the more severe the fit, the greater the risk. And while it may be tempting to reach out for a senior role, you (and the company) could be in for heartache if not met.
Negotiating work parameters.
The best time to fix any design issues is before accepting a new job. Your written summary will be the basis for negotiations as it will help highlight key gaps in alignment between expectations, responsibilities, resources, contingencies, and experiences.
Your discussions with the CEO should begin by addressing the role design flaw. You want to make sure that any significant partner contingencies are identified, addressed, and aligned before you start work.
You should also have an honest discussion about your skills gap and potential development opportunities. While it is rare that a candidate will have all the desired skills, your risk increases if, for example, your main responsibility is to lead digital transformation and you have not yet undergone digital transformation. Before accepting the job you can recommend critical resources that can address the skills gap and reduce risk – for example, a direct report with a digital transformation owner and be responsible for identifying on best practices and help you and the organization go faster.
Document and share the final job description.
Once the job is renegotiated (if necessary), update and finalize your job summary. This written document can then be used as a basis for renegotiation in the future if elements of the work change. It can also be used in discussions with key peers to ensure understanding before accepting a role or in orientation meetings after onboarding. A major source of conflict in the C-suite can be jobs that are poorly designed and create conflict throughout the business. Using the summary to drive alignment and understanding helps ensure that key peers are in sync.
. . .
Job descriptions should accurately reflect the positions. It is the basis on which C-level candidates determine interest in a potential role and agree to interview and as such, is an important factor when a candidate considers and accepts a job offer.
However, now something is wrong because the investment of time and money does not yield more successful recruitment results for C-level leaders (compared to many junior employees). The greater the level of misalignment and internal conflict in the job design, the greater the risk for the candidate as they struggle to navigate a poorly designed role.
By owning this process — through understanding, assessment, and negotiation — C-level executives are empowered to exercise greater control over their careers in a way that reduces risk and influences success.