What is a rock star hire?

I write all of readMedia’s job postings, and I read a lot of others to see how other people describe jobs and the people they want to hire. I’m more than happy to steal good ideas and crib from people who write better than I do. I stole the “smart and gets things done” formula from Joel Spolsky, a guy whose writing about business and technology I have followed for years, and whose hiring advice I really admire.

A good job listing should do a few things well:

  • Describe the job and the requirements for it as clearly and explicitly as possible;
  • Be specific about what we want the person to do;
  • Be honest about the real “need to haves” and “nice to haves” in a candidate;
  • Talk about the company, why it’s a good place to work, and why someone should want to work with us;
  • Convey some of the personality of the company in the way you communicate all of this;
  • …MOST IMPORTANT, do all of this well enough to make the best candidates excited about working for you.

There are basically two types of job descriptions: corporate and everything else. It’s not even worth talking about the standard corporate job post. Written by some HR drone, approved by a legal department charged with minimizing risk, dictated by hiring managers who believe buzzwords and acronyms are the same as qualifications, these postings are all different versions of the same bad formula. They’re written by companies looking to fill a position, and attract applicants who are looking to get a job.

The “everything else” runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. I think that the “everything else” writers at least share my last bullet point in common. They’re writing a non-standard job posting because they believe it’s the way to attract non-standard (and presumably better) applicants. But in all of the job postings I read there is still a surprising amount of conformity in the tropes and formulas they use to describe what they want.

The most annoying of these cliches is the “rock star” qualification. Leave aside whether any CEO or manager really wants to hire rock stars. (I’d rather hire awesome session musicians.) The problem with the rock star description is that no one bothers to define what it means to be a rock star OVER AND ABOVE the job requirements. Without that definition–without both the candidate and the hiring manager knowing what the “rock star” qualification means–it doesn’t advance the goals of the job description and it’s useless as a requirement for hiring.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of the applicant. Undefined, asking someone if they’re a “rock star” is like asking them if they’re “good looking,” “in shape” or “funny” in a personal ad. Who’s going to say no? Everybody thinks they’re above average. So unlike a job listing that says, “A record of carrying—and beating—a quota” (which can be proven or disproven objectively), asking for a rock star  asks people to misidentify their qualifications.

It’s worse for the hiring manager who is looking for the “rock star” in a pile of applicants. Why? Because an applicant who is a dream come true is pretty obvious to everyone. You know a rock star when he or she walks in the door and then your job switches from finding a great hire to convincing that person to come on board.

Usually the challenge for hiring managers and CEOs is picking among a few applicants who are good–they’ve got everything the job description asked for–but are great in different ways. (Or someone is good but not great, and you need the discipline not to hire someone simply adequate.) How do you decide?

At readMedia, we finally sat down and defined what a rock star is. The first thing we did was throw out the term “rock star,” because it’s a stupid way to describe a hire. We prefer “superstar” 😉

What is a superstar? It’s someone who meets all of our needs for a position while delivering at least some of our wants.

Needs are determined by the requirements in the job description. That’s why it’s so important to write clear and specific requirements at the front end–you want to attract people who fit the real requirements of the job and then screen and interview for those qualifications during the hiring process.  Any potential superstar must fit all of the needs or you’ve either 1) written a bad job description or 2) decided you don’t care about hiring adequate people, much less superstars.

Wants are more generic and should reflect your own company philosophies and culture. True superstars aren’t simply qualified to do a job–or even super-qualified. For readMedia, they’re people who make the whole company better than someone who meets the same needs. What we want is:

  • Knowledge, experience or perspective we lack: Given the choice between two equally qualified software developers, we would choose one who worked in a very different company or organization, a different part of the country, or in a different industry (though on similar problems to ones we face).
  • Different friends, contacts, former colleagues or other outside connections that we don’t have: We don’t want to live in an echo chamber, and we want to continually expand our network for future hires, business contacts, and ideas.
  • “Interestingly” and valuably brilliant: We don’t want Mensa members, but it’s great to work with people who are really smart in a way that makes all the work they do–and the way they think about our business–better than we can do ourselves.

Defining what a superstar is has helped us because we can screen and interview for those qualities, and then we can all talk together about whether the candidates possess them. What used to be a gut feeling is now a rigorous process. It lets us find the superstars who don’t necessarily interview like rock stars or who catch an interviewer on a bad day. And so far it has allowed us to bring on some great team members who I wouldn’t want to do without.

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