Underqualified or Overqualified – Why the former gets the hiring nod

December 6, 2019 at 9:54 AM


 

Most job postings follow a predictable format in which the hiring organization specifies certain levels of education and experience, a portfolio of skills, a track record of accomplishments, and a basket of personal attributes deemed important for the role. The requirements usually appear well considered, even precise in their granularity of detail. In reality, many are guesses, laced with biases, and only tenuously tied to who will get hired and what will determine success on the job.

Consider the issue of ‘requisite experience’. When organizations calculate how much experience is necessary for an executive role, they consider factors such as context, where the role fits in, its complexities and constraints, the quality and quantity of people around it, target compensation etc. etc. In some cases, it may be altogether acceptable, even prudent, to hire someone for whom the role in question is a step up in responsibility and scope. In other cases, the role may demand demonstrable competency in the exact role which can be applied to the situation at hand.  It yet other situations a more seasoned individual who has gone beyond the role, bringing a broader range of experience and wisdom might not only be best but also a major bonus in other ways.

Of course companies don’t consider experience alone when making hiring decisions. They look at ‘fit’ and they look at motivation. If experience speaks to whether someone ‘can’ do a specific job, ‘fit’ examines ‘how’ someone is likely to do it, while motivation asks whether they ‘will’ or are likely to do the job. Motivation is a modifying variable. It is the engine that powers someone to expend the effort and the energy need to meet or exceed their goals. Motivation is part of a bucket of attributes companies refer to when they use terms such as ‘hunger’, ‘fire in the belly’, ‘drive’, ‘hustle’, ‘bias for action’ or even ‘passion’. Motivation is considered by some an innately hard-wired construct while others see it as an intensity setting, one modulated by factors such as life stage, age or health.

When hiring, companies often look for individuals who have undertaken and successfully completed similar mandates in the past. In fact, the more times they have been successful, the more impressive and reassuring the credentials. However, when such candidates are found, questions invariably arise about motivation and whether that executive will have the hunger and drive to do it again. Will that executive, having achieved success, invest the time and effort, persevere, go the extra mile, in order to overcome whatever obstacles come their way? And how can one tell? A board member once asked me, ‘How will this candidate’s newfound F-U success and money play out if we hire him?’ The question went right to the heart of motivation level, commitment and, in all likelihood, the ability of the board to control the individual in question.

Though one would consider it unlikely that a proven, highly credentialed executive could be passed over due to perceptions relating to motivation, it happens more often than you think. This is essentially why organizations skew to the less rather than the over qualified. It is why organizations look for unmet needs, unfinished business, even failure that will serve as fuel for the journey. This is also why more ‘seasoned’ (ok older) candidates, for whom companies question both the quantity and quality of motivational fuel in the tank, are disadvantaged rather than advantaged. While the links between credentials, motivation and commitment are complex, even nuanced, they are critical and merit the investment of time and tools to probe and understand.  In our experience however, interviewers instead will wing it and eliminate candidates because, as they tell us, the candidates seemed in their interview to have ‘low energy’, ‘lack passion’, appeared ‘tired’, ‘low energy’ or, my favorite simply ‘did not wow me’.

It bears noting that while companies will make hiring decisions based on their gut reading of motivation and drive, they will invariably couch their decisions on the grounds of ‘fit’.


About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements. 

Contact Bob by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 Ext. 777