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  • Paul Hobin

"You Think Too Broadly" - Getting More Value With Every Hire

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Boxes falling off the end of a conveyor belt - is this people falling off your recruiting process?

Are people not hired for the RIGHT reasons? Illustration by

The premise of this article: There’s no question what the hiring manager wants when interviewing candidates: someone to make the pain of a vacancy go away NOW. The perfect match of job tasks to the candidate’s experience with those same tasks is everything because it’s the easiest, quickest way to restore productivity.

It’s also the worst way to hire.

“Perfect” hires with narrowly focused attention and ability are the right choice with a decreasing frequency – that’s heading straight to zero. To a great extent they’re already the wrong choice, and companies that continue hiring on this basis will be pushed aside by a smarter approach.


To set up my premise and simultaneously disclose a potential bias in this matter, I hereby declare 16 months of unemployment during which I have submitted 270 applications – and no job. What's up with that?

Let's start with two little events. Allegorical, yes, but illustrative.

The title of this piece is one of those events: the interviewer who concluded our discussion by telling me I "think too broadly" to be one of her buyers.

On another occasion I'm presenting my qualifications to a temp agency recruiter. My last 21 years of employment have begun with two short, fixed-term temp assignments, as a receptionist that blossomed into a senior buyer role with a quadrupling of my salary and as a data entry clerk that evolved to IT analyst with a tripling of my salary. I therefore emphasized my willingness to consider any administrative position. Sure I’d be someone's receptionist – it has worked out exceptionally well before! Here's how the conversation unfolded.

"Oh no, you couldn't do that."

"Why not?"

"Well your resume doesn't indicate that you've done reception before."

"Are you telling me that because my last job wasn't answering the phone, I'm not qualified to answer the phone?"

"That's right. If our clients need a receptionist they want someone with that experience."

I've been in administration all my life, I was a receptionist for three years, and the last 21 years have been in service to internal clients, responding to their calls and emails, solving their problems and fulfilling their needs. And none of this is applicable experience for answering someone else's phones? I’ll let you conclude how I felt about that.

What these two fun little stories illustrate is a fixation on the wrong things in hiring. To plagiarize a paragraph from my article on encouraging engagement in the workplace:

Most of my interviews have been a “closed box” based on a fixed set of tasks in a job description. Can you do these 10 tasks? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, you're hired. (Or if you don't get all the ticks, you're not). Not one question about anything outside the box. Employers want broad thinking, problem solving and interest in the direction of the enterprise, they want real vision and enthusiasm and not just a bucket of technical skills, but they don't interview and hire for it. They hire for narrowly focused people and then wonder why they're only interested in one thing. They hire for "right now" support without a thought to what this person might – or might not – contribute in two to five years.

Choosing someone who can execute the tasks of the job is of course important. But if the focus on the tasks and specifically related skills is so narrow that it excludes all else – that’s a problem.

Let's go back to the last two things I was hired to do: receptionist and data entry clerk. I was excellent at both, so the employers got the results they needed. But the bulk of the value I quickly delivered had nothing to do with reception or data entry.

Two months into being a receptionist the employer was implementing SAP with the attendant, unavoidable problems. (It is possibly the most complex and therefore the most difficult commercial software in the world to implement.) Accounts payable was severely impacted and I was tasked with finessing our unpaid vendors and figuring out the procurement and accounts payable modules of SAP to get the money flowing again.

Six weeks into being a data entry clerk I wrote a program that automated the task, eliminating the bulk of my assignment and an equal amount of work being performed by the permanent staff. 18 months later the function was centralized across the enterprise, I adapted the code and it saved 2,300 labor hours valued at $180,000 per year.

In my last two positions what the employer needed most was not what they hired me for. In fact in my entire career I have never been exactly, or sometimes even remotely, what the employer hired me to be, because their biggest concern after I arrived was not a good phone voice or getting another thousand lines of data entered. All my employers had bigger issues than the one I was intended to address that weren’t getting solved by anyone else.

It’s important to recognize that I didn’t ignore the tasks for which I was hired, nor did I strike out in some unexpected direction purely to satisfy my own desires. This is important because, as JT O’Donnell of the job search service Work It Daily emphasizes, “Companies want specialists. They want to hire somebody to do a specific thing.” We cannot fail to excel at the “specific thing” we’ve been hired for.

But receptionist turned into buyer because management threw a problem on my desk that no one else had time for and said, “Make it go away.” And I did. Data entry turned into IT analyst because the employer had to shell out extra cash for temp labor due to workload peaks they couldn’t handle with permanent staff. So I eliminated the entire category of workload, and the need for temp labor with it.

While I really enjoyed doing these things, they were not done because I enjoyed them. They were done because they were what the employers most needed to have done.

That’s called adaptability. It’s also called observation, engagement, problem solving and solutions delivery. It’s called thinking broadly – exactly the quality one of my interviewers felt there was no place for in her organization.

OK…so I’ve created a case that on occasion someone who can think outside the job description for which they were hired can be useful. Does this have any wider applicability? Does it apply to hiring in general?

Yes – the ability to think broadly, observe, adapt and step up to any problem, related or not to the job for which one was hired, is a critical ability. Not for the employee – for the employer. If you’re not hiring people who “think broadly” for all your positions, you’ll be blown away by your competition that is hiring these active problem solvers and solution creators.

Why won't the old paradigm of “just do the job you were hired for” work any more? Two reasons.

First, managers and staff have traditionally also assumed the fixed roles of leaders and followers. Staff didn’t make decisions that materially changed things or thought about much but getting the work done. They followed. Vision, strategy, change, innovation – capacities and activities propelling the enterprise forward were reserved, sometimes exclusively, to management.

With a typical 10-to-1 ratio of staff to managers, having only 10% of your employees actively driving change in the programs and projects that advance strategy is clearly less desirable than having the majority of your staff contributing energy to that forward motion. This would have been true 100 years ago, let alone today.

Second, rate of change. The accelerating pace of change has necessitated changes in the administrative environment already, pushing authority and decision making down from management to staff. In the coming years more responsibilities must be pushed down the ranks. It’s a necessity – management alone can’t be responsible for amending every step of every process for every change flowing through the organization. To an increasing extent staff have to be responsible for changing increasingly significant portions of their own jobs.

Are your staff up to it? Have you sought out and hired people who look for issues and jump on them with enthusiasm, or have you concerned yourself only with JT O’Donnell’s “specific thing” for each hire? Have you looked for people interested in advancing the organization as a whole and what is required to do that, or did you not want anyone “thinking too broadly”? Have you hired people who can conceive a solution that eliminates 25%, 50% or 100% of their own work if that’s what’s right for the enterprise?

Hiring managers in the “specific thing” camp may be better at choosing robots than the change agents they need. But that might be unfair to robots! Robots are at least adaptable. When task “A” is no longer useful a robot can be reprogrammed to perform task “B”. Try getting a human to give up one job and do another…when they were specifically hired for their narrow, doesn’t-think-broadly focus.

What’s one of the biggest challenges management and corporations face? Implementing change. Why? Because people hate it. Why? Because they were hired to be that way.

Hire differently. The future depends on it.

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