How to recruit the wrong marketers?

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: February 17, 2017

What’s the best tool for recruiting the wrong people? A long competency list. If you want too much, you may simply not spot the best marketing leaders. Cut to the chase and ask yourself a simple question: “What distinctive skills do we need?” (from my column).

People often tell me: “finding the right team members is difficult”. When I ask to see their job descriptions, they invariably show me needlessly complex documents.

For example, one leader gave me a list of the traits for a new marketing manager in her customer retention group. It had nine personality traits (agility, creativity, entrepreneurship, flexibility, innovation, openness, self motivation, tenacity, tolerance) and seven functional skills (below the line marketing, customer profiling, content creation, campaign tracking, data mining, retention pricing, retention promotion management). When I questioned the long list, she admitted what really mattered were data mining skills and entrepreneurship. The rest were just standard competencies of their HR framework. No wonder her team could never agree on a candidate!

Don’t get me wrong: Most competency lists are well intended. But for marketing leaders, long lists create two big problems. First, you and your team will have a hard time picking candidates because you have too many variables. Second, such long lists often produce average hires who “tick all the boxes” instead of bringing distinctive skills.

For building a winning team, focus matters. As a McKinsey Partner, I’ve interviewed and hired with my team hundreds of the brightest future marketing leaders. Finding the best people was hard—but never difficult. For each candidate, our team conducted separate interviews. We then compared notes on three to five criteria. A winning candidate had to be above the bar on all criteria—and distinctive in one. In 90% of cases we agreed on a candidate within ten minutes. The McKinsey approach is still widely credited as one of the most successful.

“What distinctive skills do we need?” Answering this simple question helps you be clear on what you are really looking for in a candidate.

It’s All About Value Creation

Your marketing team exists to expand the Value Creation Zone (or “V-Zone” as Patrick Barwise and I call it for short)—the overlap between what customers want and what the company wants.

Your “V-Zone” determines the distinctive skills you are looking for. For example, a team that wants to increase margins by 55 percent through retaining the company’s best customers looks quite different from a team that aims to grow revenue by entering new regional markets.

Once you are crystal clear about your team’s Value Creation Zone, define three things:

1. The Distinctive Functional Skills

Don’t write a long list of basic skills (most decent marketers will have those skills anyway). Focus on the top one or two distinctive skills— the things the individual must truly excel at. PS: Make sure you’ve thought about both analytical and creative skills: most marketers focus on one of these, rather than both, reflecting their own personal preference and interest.

2. The Distinctive Personality Traits

For your team, which top one or two personality traits matter most? Do you mainly need people who are entrepreneurial? Or people with a lot of stamina who’ll never give up? Ideally, you’d have all of these, but which are the traits that will really make a difference?

3. The ‘No No’s’ (The ‘No Asshole’-Rule)

Find people you like to hang out with,” says Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Agree the one or two personality traits that are an absolute “no no” for your team.

If your list gets too long: cut it.

During the recruiting process, focus on the distinctive skills. It’s often sufficient if a person is distinctive in one of your key skills and traits and “above the bar” on the others.

More than once, people have called the one-question approach simplistic. But here’s the issue: the more complex your criteria become, the harder it is to see the forest for the trees. I’m convinced: more doesn’t mean better.

PS: Recruiting for distinctiveness is even compatible with sophisticated recruiting models. Some companies, for instance, use cognitive abilities tests, which predict career success. That’s no contradiction. Use standardized tests to screen candidates first. Then, during the interviews, look for distinctiveness that helps your expand the V-Zone.

As a marketing leader, you need the best talent you can get. Don’t get lost in recruiting. Go for distinctiveness!