Fishing For Job Descriptions

Father and Son FishingWe often miss the mark when we write job descriptions. We’d be much better suited to understand the job vision before we list qualifications for a candidate.

Today’s post is by Bill Munn, author of Why Make Eagles Swim? (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Dave is thirty-eight and manages a team of HR professionals. But he still remembers a peaceful day over thirty years ago when his father took him fishing for the first time.

For two weeks, Dave and his father had talked about the day they had planned. Dave’s dad described all the details of the sport – how to choose a lure, cast, tie a fisherman’s knot, and so on. Dave never tired of these descriptive details, which began to define fishing in his mind.

When the day of the outing finally arrived, they stayed on the lake from morning to dusk, covering all Dad’s favorite spots. Dave got to practice everything he had learned on shore.

But in the end, they caught nothing.

Dave was crestfallen. But later, he forgot his disappointment in the face of a big shock.

“How was it?” Dave’s mom asked when they walked in the back door.

“Fabulous,” his dad replied.

What? Dave thought. How can he think that when we caught nothing?

Later that evening, Dave shared his confusion with his father. The man smiled.

“Son,” he said, “they call the sport ‘fishing,’ not ‘catching.’”

You see, Dave’s dad had done a good job of describing the details of fishing – tools, tasks, techniques. But he hadn’t set a vision for the fishing trip – for the real value and goals of their outing, which may have included father-son camaraderie, quiet time in the natural world, the anticipation of a strike, and other big-picture things.

In the end, it was in fact that vision that superseded all the details in importance. So in Dad’s eyes, the outing was a “fabulous” success.

Thoreau has been quoted as saying “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” It’s likely that Dave’s father would have recognized the meaning of this wisdom.

But here’s where it gets weird: this is a truth that Dave can apply to his team’s hiring practices as well.

Fishing for the Right Candidate

If you’re involved in the hiring process, you might spend a lot of time “fishing” for the right candidate, without truly knowing what you’re after – what the real vision for the role is.

When a client asks me about filling an open position, interviewing, or selecting a new candidate, they usually start by sharing a neatly typed job description and saying, “here’s what I’m looking for.”

I give it a quick glance but never end up reading it before I ask my own question – the same question every time. Because I rarely see a job description that addresses the most important factor: what is the job vision?

Jobs, like the sport of fishing, have descriptors – tasks, skills, and practices that are integral and necessary. But those descriptors are dwarfed in importance by the job’s vision. Because the means by which a person does something are usually less important than what gets done and how well it gets done.

Your administrative assistant makes your life more peaceful and organized. Why do you care whether he does this with fast or slow typing skills?

Since a vision-first approach to job descriptions isn’t the norm, it can be hard to know where to begin. So I’ll leave you with three steps you can take as you’re creating your first job vision:

Step 1: Hearts Not Brains

When you’re thinking about your vision for the role, check your heart – not your brain.

How does it feel in your life and work after you’ve brought this new person in? How is your day-to-day different? What has changed? What (ideally) has not changed?

Do things look different, e.g., is your desk less cluttered? Sound different, e.g., does your phone ring less? Don’t be afraid to include this type of specific, sensory detail as you make your notes.

Step 2: Think Team

Now, think about what the team will look like after the ideal new candidate is on board and up to speed.

How is the overall team enhanced by this person’s specific strengths? Will their unique attributes fill in some gaps? How will those attributes help the team achieve its goals? How will this person provide the needed balance of challenge, collaboration, perspective, etc.?

You might think of your team like a recipe, and think of this new person as a specific spice that can either help or hurt the finished product. Would your team be better helped by someone highly logical or highly creative? Accountant or cellist? Either one could be a perfect fit for your specific situation. It just depends on the vision you have for the outcome.

Step 3: Get Real

Now that you’ve outlined a vision for yourself and your team, list the 1 – 3 top attributes that you believe will best support a person in successfully living out your goals for the role.

Stop yourself from going down the same old roads without really assessing the why. Want to require a 4-year degree, at least 3 years’ experience, knowledge of X, familiarity with Y? If that’s where you end up, you’ve missed the mark.

Think about true success in a job. It’s not about degrees and experience. It has to do with the inherent attributes needed to be great in that role – not the skills and knowledge that may (or may not) sort of help.

Bill Gates dropped out of college. So, I guess you wouldn’t hire him to consult with your software development team?

Richard Branson didn’t work in the music business for 20 years before taking the helm of Virgin Records. He just started selling records and advertising them in small magazines. Inexperience didn’t seem to stop him.

What is it you really want? What’s your vision? What are the attributes that will help you achieve it? Build your job description from there. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Happy fishing!

Why Make Eagles Swim?– Bill Munn is a leadership coach, speaker, former Dow 30 top executive, former university teacher of finance and economics, and author of the new book Why Make Eagles Swim?:  Embracing Natural Strengths In Leadership & Life (CLICK HERE to get your copy). For more information visit

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