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So you hate job descriptions, how about personas?

I was torn. One of the biggest debate I had encountered when presenting in agile tours was the concept of job descriptions and competences. In an auto-organised world of agile, why do we need job descriptions? Isn’t that too limiting and will be outdated? While I agree that HR tools are traditional and lack innovation, I stand by the need for a point of reference. But I had left the conferences with a heavy heart.

How can we not do something for the sake of doing it? And how can we look past it’s ugly form today to see it and use it for what it is?

Let’s take a step back. A job description has 2 main functions, 1) for recruiting 2) for a summary of the job. If we take away job description, then we had to assume that a job title says what it does. So when we recruit a scrum master, we would assume that all scrum masters are the same and does the same thing. Hardly. Otherwise, all scrum masters would be cookie cut and replaceable by another seamlessly.

How do I hate you, let me count the ways.

So what do we hate about job descriptions? There are so many things to hate about it. The endless list of requirements that only a superman can fulfil and maybe not. Some of the qualifications are so ridiculous, I would have to cross breed spiderman’s ability to climb walls, superman’s ability to fly and then that wouldn’t be enough, because we would want that person to be resistant to kryptonite too. Then, the description of the job itself would either be too general that it seems anyone can do it or so specific that no one could have done all that and then be immune to kryptonite. And after all this, the person may still not be suitable because there are cultural and environmental factors not considered.

Different as night and day

Let’s look at the scrum master role (non-cookie cut version). In broad sense, the scrum master is the person that helps to identify and removes obstacles for the team to achieve a release in the time and budget allocated repeatedly. The success of this person will depend on his / her ability to resolve issues and motivate team forward. The difference is, every company has different issues and different team dynamics. Some simple, some complex. Some stable in agility, some still adopting agile.


In agile, personas are used to address a segment of users / customers. It is a fictional character / profile who has needs and wants and display characteristics and behavioural. We often give this person a name, age and income and we describe the problems we want to solve for this persona. We can create several personas who would be potential customers for a product.

Personas as Job Descriptions

In recruitment, the best recruiters and head hunters will usually as the hiring manager, “what kind of person are you looking for?”. And here’s where a persona began to make more sense. Some job descriptions already look like this but let’s take this a step ahead and call it a persona.

3 types of information

Scott the Scrum Master

We are looking to hire “Scott the Scrum Master”. He doesn’t have to be called Scott or be a man, but let’s call him Scott first. He should be in x age group with about x years of work experience. (Let’s tackle legal issues later, e.g. age gender etc). In this area, we use only basic information.

Scott’s personal traits and behaviour

Here, let’s describe this person in terms of behaviour and characteristics according to the demands of the environment. It would also include what the person must know. Here, we would include competencies that will help to describe Scott as the kind of person to succeed in the environment presented.

Scott’s goals

This area describes Scott’s critical success factor, what he is expected to do in the role. We can include a vision of success, what Scott would have done to be considered successful in the role.

A rose by any other name? 

So am I just changing the name of job description to persona to please the agile community or sound innovative? In my mind, a job description has always been a point of reference to hire and induct the person into their job, even if it is for internal hire. The purpose and use is the same.

But in working and debating with agile teams, I think a Persona takes on a very different form than a job description. In a persona, the cultural aspects and critical behavioural traits are emphasised whilst skills and specific knowledge are added as required. The significance is that even if we have 2 rocket scientists considered for the same job, we will be able to know what kind of person we want and choose the person who most mirrors the behavioural traits. And more importantly, we can also consider a non-rocket scientist for that job as they as they can achieve the goals described.

What then?

Persona in itself will not be enough. If we do so, we fall into the same trap of a job description, using it as a form of checklist to hire. When it comes to hiring, there is a  simple law of 3.

– creating the persona to describe the person desired and what success means in the job. Be clear but keep it simple. Remember, the person shouldn’t have to climb walls, fly and still be immune to weaknesses.

– creating a list of competences that make sense to include in the persona. Eg. if spiderman is to climb walls, then he wouldn’t need to fly like superman. Or maybe we don’t care about flying or climbing, what we want is to get to the highest or lowest place in the fastest way possible.

– creating a list of questions to qualify the person. If we want a person who can work in a complex political environment, we must know what it takes and ask the person to describe how they had worked in previous similar environments or how they would act in this situation.

There is much to be done in the way we look at HR tools. But let’s start here. Let’s recognise that a job is more than a job title and a person is more than his collection of job titles and certifications.

Multi Business Lines = Multi Conflicts?

As companies grow, a natural evolution is expansion in different geographies and/or business lines. For recruitment companies, this can also be governed with changes in the way people work and how companies engage people. In the 50s, we see a build up of temporary work, in the 80s, outsourcing became a new cost reduction trend and that also included recruitment services. While a company like Nestle can differentiate their products by packaging. Differentiation in a service industry is subtle and lack of it has more detrimental impacts on conflicts of interest.

Consider a common example and a true story. A company is confronted with 2 separate businesses of the same company, one in providing recruitment services, another in providing recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) services. The first team offered recruitment services at X% of salary with potential volume discounts. The second, not knowing their colleagues had pitched recruitment, now offers on-site recruitment services charged with a margin and salary of recruiters on board.

As the company considers both offers, they are left with wondering: if 2 on-site recruiters can handle the recruitment, why bother using recruitment services from team 1? And why is the same company offering me completely different services? At some point, the company will also wonder: if I need 2 on-site recruiters over a period of time, why not just hire them?

The example is simplified but the reality is not far. This happens when there are no clear rules of engagement and differentiation. While the dynamics of a services work best at being flexible, differentiation will be important to give room for each business line to grow without them choking each other’s growth. Sending a clear message also allows the sales team to better communicate the services.

Create differences by considering the following for each business lines. Ideally, when there is no cross over, it will be able to stand on its own and even create hybrid partnerships for their client.

Defining rules of engagement

The business rules should be clear for each business. This will allow them to pursue business within the areas where they should engage and avoid potential conflict with another team. The following can be considered when defining the rules:

  • What is the level and type of candidates recruited by the team? This can mean level of experience, seniority, functional levels, salary ranges, contract or permanent hires.
  • What is the service delivery model? This can mean individual delivery, volume, and geographical coverage.
  • What is the pricing model? Is this by margin, salary of candidates, one-time fees?

Defining rewards and penalties system

Once the rules are defined, it needs to be followed. And each team will need to know the rewards and penalties for following or working outside the rules. They should be aware of:

  • When should a business opportunity be passed over to the other team?
  • What is the reward for passing on an opportunity and/or helping the other team to follow through for win?
  • Who are the authorities to arbitrage a conflict?
  • What kind of penalties are involved for working against the rules?
  • When are these penalties waved or exceptions?

Building a business sharing environment

While rules are established to avoid misbehavior, a positive growth environment is important to create a counter balance to the restrictive nature of rules. This can also be a platform to create hybrids and partnerships. Business sharing is about communication. And communication can be encouraged but without a structured approach, daily activities will choke agendas and communication will be left till the last moment and often too late for any collaborative work.

  • Organize periodic cross team meetings for business sharing of latest wins and losses. This can be organized at the highest level as management meetings and at lower levels with subject matter experts.
  • Make use of intranet to post wins and loses. This can be a form add on to in-house CRM or an extract of CRM information. It can include key accounts, contracts, and potential leads.

Celebrate success and publish case studies

Celebrate cases where teamwork from various teams contributed to success. Creating case studies of hybrid models that worked for clients will also be a form example for future cases. Some times, studying losses are just as important to understand what worked and what does not. This may also provide information for changes in rules where it has not worked.

The above are process changes. In almost all situations, the people aspect is key and needs to be the first to be addressed. An analysis of the different business and existing situation and creating open communication with management to create the desire for change will build strong foundations for future changes.

Expanding in Asia – People Matter

Coming from Asia and working in Europe, I’ve had the occasional discussions where companies look to expand in the east. Most of them are companies doing well in UK with a portfolio of international clients also looking to expand in Asia. Some are opportunistic especially when the recruitment market in Europe has slowed and others find it necessary to retain an international brand.

Whatever the reasons, the growth of China is a great carrot stick even at a slower annual GDP growth of 8.2%. Other than that, there is ease of doing business in Singapore and Hong Kong, English as a widely spoken 1st or 2nd language and relaxed labour laws that promotes mobility and thus recruitment. Other positive indicators include the persistent trend of offshoring and outsourcing to Asia.

The basic questions of expansion are “where” and “how”? Yet the answers are not so straightforward. After much analysis (see below for additional considerations), I am still convinced that finding the right person comes first before any other considerations.

Finding the right person is difficult
While globalisation is a continuous trend, recruitment is largely local with senior level recruitment less sensitive to geography. The fact remains that you serve a local market in recruitment and thus local knowledge and network is important.

In a service industry where profits rise and fall is tied entirely to the productivity of the people, finding the right person to launch your business in Asia is key. With the right person, he/she can also bring in a team that can start up quickly.

Pairing Sales & Operations
If you try to find someone who is strong in business development and tenacious in setting up a new business, you’ll hit a brick wall very quickly and setting yourself up for disappointment while time flies past. It is rare to find a good operator who is also a good sales person and vice versa. Working on combinations can be a workable solution.

With a strong base of clients who have operations in Asia, you can prepare an existing hire to relocate to Asia. Pair this person with a local person who is familiar with set up to split up the work. Typically, a finance or legal person is a great choice although not evident. A finance manager with business acumen will have the tenacity to work with administration not to mention the knowledge in keeping finances in check and prudence in risk taking.

Alternatively, a local strong sales person with established clients can be paired with an operator who is already familiar with your system and processes. A good consultant with desire to move can be a good choice.

Buying may not be the best option
For companies with cash (a rarity in this economy), buying may be on the table. The logic is, a profitable company will bring immediate returns while keeping the efforts of starting in a new market minimal. It may be true for other industries; this is a potential trap for service industries where human capital is key. Most boutique firms up for sale are made up of free agents. A cultural change mismanaged can mean huge turnover and worse, people leaving to set up on their own with the client base you had bought.

Unless there is strong legal binding and strong leadership and conviction to the new management and parent company, you can see your investment walk straight out the door before your logo is on the wall.

To pick the right place to start looking for the right person, a quick list of considerations.

Work from strengths
Without over simplifying the matter with generalisation, there are key characteristics in each market. For example, Hong Kong is a big financial center while Philippines is home to contract manufacturing; Singapore is an international hub with a small local market while Malaysia has a large local market next door.

If you already have strong expertise in a sector or function, you can choose the geographies to enter based on your expertise and potential for knowledge transfer and clients cross selling.

Each market can also be rated based on the following:
• Ease of entry – cost of entering and administration required.
• Licensing – complexity of labour laws and the types of licences required.
• Strength of currency – while cost of hire is low in some geography, it also meant that their profits when converted are lower. Contrary to product industry, in service industry there is no cost advantage.
• Availability of talents – in tight talent markets, training and mentoring will be required.
• Professionalism – there is a wide range in the level of professional ethics in Asia.
• Saturation of market – eg. In Hong Kong, while financial services is dominant, there is also highly competitive.

Sometimes, the most obvious choice may not be the best choice. To avoid entering into a red sea of competition, pair your top strength with secondary markets and your secondary strength in primary markets for example.

Build on your leverage
If you are already in business, you have leverage – your clients. While your clients may or may not have strong influence or ties with their Asian operations, they are still connected. They can point you to the right person and make introductions.

Your clients’ presence in Asia also meant that they had already tested the market. Based on their industries, their presence can also give you immediate business intelligence on the viability of a certain market based on your own expertise. Note: It will not however, tell you the saturation of the market in terms of competitors.

Partnering with a client
Some of your clients may also be considering entering into a new market. You can sound out your clients with your intentions and smoke out potential partners. A large recruitment project is the best way to enter a market with some assurance while allowing you to build up a database of candidates.

For an analysis of the criteria by country, write to me.

The Death of a Recruiter

I had a flash thought the other day that recruitment is a dying profession. Or maybe it is not the profession but the professionals themselves. I have a doubt.The world has gone through many changes. From the industrial revolution to the technological revolution, these changes have affected all industries including the recruitment industry.

Recruitment started in an era where people were employing people they knew through their family and connections. Recruitment companies offered a greater range of people and skills to feel the roles, especially for female employees who had started entering the work force when the men we’re still at war.

With the Internet, it changes the way people look for jobs. Recruitment companies could gather more candidates in their database and forward relevant resumes to employers. Companies no longer need to rely on distant relations and connections to hire. It also meant that recruiters spend more time managing resumes and responses.

It is this transformation that I thought recruiters had succumbed to the temptation of “mass attack”. Instead of careful selection and hand picking the right candidate, it may seem easier to just send a mass of suitable resumes to the hiring party or send a good resume to a mass of companies who may recruit. It seemed to have worked for a while particularly for more junior positions. The art of client and candidate intimacy was lost in the passage of time that transformed the practice.

However, the complexities of work has also increased. A rose by any other name is no longer a rose. The variety of jobs has changed to such an extent that few professions are homogenous even if they are called the same. 2 accountants in the same company could be performing very different tasks. So can an accountant in 2 different companies. In addition, education may not have evolved at the same paced of work place transformation. Both trends meant that the likelihood of finding someone with the exact fit to the job is low. In such a climate, it is even more important for recruiters to understand the requirements and demands of the job and find the person most likely to succeed by extrapolating their competences and knowledge into the future.

Does this mean that sourcing is dead? I imagine it is more alive than ever with heightened selection. It can no longer satisfy a client with extensive databases and extravagant sourcing methodologies. The client expects that. What may blow them away is the knowledge in the field and communicating a convincing argument why a talent whilst not having the exact profile can do the job and be very good at it. And on top of it, they don’t have to pay a higher salary to attract them from a close competitor and risk losing them a few months later to another competitor.

It is a dying breed of recruiters who would spend time with job seekers, understanding them and advising them. The whole candidate experience is very different when he/she is talking to a recruiter who knows what they are talking about and add value to them to another who is just a “cv pusher”. The correlation of loyalty to time invested is a linear one. Many of my friends who had been introduced to good recruiters will always return to them for their job change or when they are in the position to hire.

It will be a mistake to say that recruiters do not understand this concept. Many do. Then why are there so few doing it or seem to do it well? We need to look no further than the people in-charge. If the performance indicators and reward systems do not encourage it, the the message is “do what you can to get money”. A crude but understandably common message in times of crisis.
Contrary to belief that crunch time is doom time, it is rather the best time to save the death of recruiters. When clients and candidates become more and more selective as they prowl over every decision that has a monetary impact, it is survival of the fittest. In hay times, the mediocre can ride on the wave of growth. In a tempest, recruiters will have to review their profession and be better at what they do. There is incentive to be more knowledgeable, hold on to a lead stronger and be more resourceful.

Every good recruiter I know has said this, nothing rewards more than the thrill of finding the right person for a difficult role and have both the candidate and client congratulate them for a great match.

That is also why recruitment will always run in my blood. Let us not be the dying race.

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