The Superman/Wonder Woman Trap

By Mark Burden

Most people agree that one of the keys to success in business is having the right people doing the right things. Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame), taught us the importance of getting the right people on the bus and then getting them into the right seats. It sounds simple, but this task has proven to be the bane of many a hiring manager’s existence.

In a former life I consulted with organisations in helping them to attract and identify top talent. I was constantly amazed at the misconceptions surrounding the question, “what does our ideal candidate look like?” On the surface you would think this is an easy inventory to construct. We know what the job entails, we know the skills involved and we can compile a roster of attributes that would be suitable. And yet inevitably, when I presented this question, the client would produce a mammoth list of qualifications, skills, abilities, attributes and experiences that Clark Kent himself could not live up to. I call this phenomenon The Superman/Wonder Woman Trap.

Who hired this guy?

The Trap is really about reaching for a 20 lb. sledge hammer when a when a 12 oz. ball peen will do the trick. We try to find a CEO to sit in the receptionist’s chair. There are several factors that lead to this:

Passion – One of the great challenges of managing a staff of people is getting them to have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment that you (the manager) have. “I’m working late, why can’t Bob put in a few extra minutes once in a while?” Since most businesses have some kind of seasonality to them we often find that the day runs out before the work does at certain times of the year. As managers we just expect that people will want to finish the work before they go home. Managers often think about their work outside of normal business hours; even working out ideas and solving problems on our own time. Sometimes we just assume that our staff will do the same. But are we asking for too much passion?

Excellence – All businesses have a certain quality standard that must be met. Consequently we need people who are enthusiastic about measuring up. Diligence, attention to detail, timely follow-up and a quality orientation are all things we need in our team members. But there are times (and roles) where excellence is over-kill and “good enough” actually is! Sometimes a CSR who inputs 50 orders a day with a 2% error rate, is better than one who does 5 perfect orders every day. It is possible to be too careful, and perfection is sometimes more than we need.

Ambition – “Succession planning” is a buzz phrase these days. Everyone knows of somebody who got passed over for promotion because there was no one in the wings to take their job. We therefore seek out ambitious people who will work hard to be ready to step up to our job one day (although, many managers dread having this kind of person nipping at their heels). We ask people in job interviews, “where do you see yourself in 3 years”, and the “correct” answer (we think) is, “well, I’d like your job”. But can I honestly tell them my job will available then? I’ve seen it many times where an ambitious person won’t wait for their boss to get moved up, before they’re ready to move on.

There are other things as well, but you get the idea. The real question we need to ask is, “which things do we actually need for this role?” I’m not suggesting that you want to compromise on the quality of the work they will produce, but what I am saying is that we want to match the person to THIS role, not to a job in the C-Suite.

Looking for Mr/Ms Good Enough

So should we be settling for mediocrity? Well, no. And yes. I once had a colleague who filled a clerical role in our company. Claire (not her real name) was generally pleasant and cheerful, moderately intelligent, reasonably thorough … and not the least bit ambitious. In a meeting one time, someone quipped that Claire was the worst type of employee because of her lack of ambition. Claire’s manager jumped in immediately to suggest that perhaps she was the absolute BEST employee for the role. An ambitious person would have tired of the job years ago and moved on. Claire was steady and reliable and quite likely there until she retired. Not a bad problem to have, really.

So, is it okay to be looking for Mr/Ms Good-Enough? There have been times when I’ve had to stop a client mid-sentence and ask, “Do you really need all that? And do you honestly expect to get all that for the type of work and the pay you’re offering?” People don’t like to hear that, but I like to put the cookies down on the bottom shelf, where everyone can reach them. An army is nothing if everyone is a five-star general. A hockey team doesn’t win if every player is a superstar (Team Canada aside, of course). We need role players, foot soldiers and those steady, reliable, consistent worker bees that will simply do the work the way we need it done.

Profiling the job

Instead of falling into The Trap, why not start by taking stock of the real needs of the job? The ideal candidate is the one that best fits the job profile, not the candidate with an “S” on their chest. Profiling the job involves listing all the functions of the role, and their corresponding behavioural, motivational and cognitive attributes. And this has to be a realistic list; not the list for the CEO!

Your list becomes a benchmark for the qualifications you need. If you have the luxury of having several of these jobs in your company, you can profile the most successful people and use that as your benchmark (as long as you have a good sample size).

Benchmarking can be done in one of two ways. You can form a committee of people familiar with the role and brainstorm the qualities and characteristics you’re looking for, or you can hire a professional to do it through psychometric instruments (and, likely, some brainstorming with the committee as well). Either way, the goal is to paint a realistic picture of the job and what it entails.

The best candidate for the job is ALWAYS the one who best fits this job, not the highest qualified, most experienced, best educated, over-qualified super hero.

Square peg in a square hole

If you have a square hole to fill, the best peg will always be square as well. Finding people who exactly match the role improves job satisfaction, lowers turn-over rates, and ultimately makes your life a whole lot easier. Sometimes this means backing off a bit on the ability to fly and see through walls; it means getting a realistic grasp on who this person needs to be.

Most of us, when looking in the mirror of honesty, will admit that we are not super heroes ourselves. So why do we think we need one working for us?

“Going too far is half the pleasure of not getting anywhere”

It can be exhilarating and invigorating to think we have managed to hire someone who is second to none. It can boost our egos and make us think that we too can fly. But in the long run, we end up back where we started, because Clark Kent has moved on (“I think my work here is done!”).

Leave Superman and Wonder Woman for someone else. Find the person you really need, and everyone wins.

Mark Burden is a Certified Behavioural Analyst and career sales leader currently working as Sales Manager, Canada Direct Sales at UniFirst Canada Ltd. in Mississauga. Burden has a diverse background working in business consulting, advertising sales, lighting and uniform supply.

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