Last month I was speaking to a senior director of software engineering for a major high-tech company. With over 200 developers in his department and years of experience hiring top performers this observation was earth-shattering:

People don’t underperform due to their lack of technical expertise; they underperform because of everything else

Todd Rose, former professor at Harvard and now the CEO of, said something similar but in totally different ways when we first met eight years ago:

No one is average. The context of the job drives success.

Todd’s foreword to Hire with Your Head explains the concept in two minutes (audio sample) describing how anyone can be in the top 25% by matching the context of the job to the person’s motivators.

Over 30 years ago, during my full-time headhunter days, we began giving a one-year guarantee to those firms that used our Performance-based Hiring process. As part of this we tracked why people underperformed, quit or were terminated during the first year. Based on a 10-year period with close to one thousand placements those who quit or were terminated during the first year was ONLY eight percent. Most important though was that over 50% of these failures were due to clashes with the hiring manager and only a handful due to lack of technical expertise. The rest of the problems related to lack of team skills or an inability for the person to deal with the company culture.

One the other hand, over 60% of the one thousand either got promoted or were assigned to handle bigger projects. In these cases their successes were due to the person’s team, project management, decision-making and problem-solving skills.

This all boils down to this simple concept:

People don’t underperform due to their lack of technical expertise; they underperform because of everything else. 

The point of this is to contend that the circumstances of the job matter more than the list of skills, experiences and academic requirements lists on the job description. Yet in most cases these critical factors are only superficially considered. Soft skills are part of this assessment, but not the biggest part. The problem is that in the rush to hire people shortcuts are taken that have some statistical merit, like skills matching and assessment tests, but miss the core that drives success and satisfaction.

The solution starts with the obvious. Eliminate job descriptions that emphasize skills and must have requirements and replace them with a list of key performance objectives that define on-the-job success.

As part of this be sure to define the context of the job including the hiring manager’s style of leading and developing people, the pace and intensity of the company, how decisions are made and the underlying politics. These are the factors that will determine the new person’s success or failure.

To assess the factors properly, be sure to ask candidates to describe examples of doing comparable work and ask about the circumstances involved and the role the hiring manager played in their successes and failures. The key to an accurate assessment is to fully understand the circumstances involved in the person’s successes and the differences in their failures.

Bottomline, from now on, only hire people who have achieved somewhat similar results on a scope, scale and complexity measure in similar situations and who are still highly motivated to continue doing it. You’ll quickly discover these people have exactly the level of skills, experiences and education required to excel in the role. More important, when it comes to hiring the strongest and most diverse people their backgrounds and experiences won’t be the same as what you have listed on your outdated job description, since that’s what makes them outstanding rather than average.