Thomas Brooke

Candidates… and Coatings: What’s the Formula for Success?

Following up on my initial post about how hiring is like coatings technology (and thanks to everyone who joined the idea generation with so many excellent examples) – today’s mental protein bar explores the connection between candidates’ experience, jobs, and chemical formulas.

What?? But yes, really. So move over #MotivationMonday, today is #FormulaFriday.

There are plenty of different ways of writing formulas for individual molecules, polymers, reactions… all have certain benefits, but also limitations. At the most basic level a molecular formula provides the number of each type of atom in a compound. The information is very limited; but it’s handy. While someone without chemistry education will not be able to “see” anything more than is written, a chemist knows that for example C4H10 (sorry, I can’t get LinkedIn publishing to let me do subscripts) is probably a molecule called butane; and they would have a mental 3D image of that molecule.

I am sure many of you anticipated where this is going, and it’s the heart of this article: let’s talk isomers – those different compounds with the same molecular formula but different structural formulas, like different candidates with apparently similar profiles.

Butane and isobutane both have the molecular formula C4H10 but they are different structurally. (Oh and isobutane is the same as methylpropane. So now you have the same molecular and structural formula, but different names. One more reason we need clarity!) You cannot distinguish the two using the molecular formula. To remove that ambiguity, you’d look for structural formula information to make sure you know exactly what molecule you’re dealing with. The reason that matters, of course, is because the two isomers have different properties (and may also react with other molecules differently). On the other hand, you can’t seriously do any amount of scientific writing if you have to keep drawing ball and stick models every time you want to represent a molecule or a reaction. So the “shorthand” of the molecular formula has its place as long as we all understand what is meant.

Now relating all this to hiring: assessing candidates on their resume or a basic LinkedIn profile is like trying to figure out an isomer from the molecular formula. You can’t.

The profile or resume contains some data but it’s superficial and limited relative to the entire person. So it’s a good starting point but not conclusive evidence of who the candidate really is, or if they can do what is needed.

Someone whose resume says they “led the company in sales last year” tells you a lot about them in some ways but zero in others. Did they do it in a territory that was already the biggest when they got there or did they come in and build it up from zero? Did they win one big account or a hundred small ones? How much was real new business versus expanding existing accounts? Was it a team sell that they are taking credit for individually, or did they really do the heavy lifting with minimal support? So many isomers! Recognize that superficial information contains inherent ambiguity and dig deeper in interviews.

Interviewing skills are really important – you need to ask questions to separate the “ candidate isomers” – the average Joe from the high performer, or the prima donna from the team player.

Relating that to your personal career, consider how and by whom your resume (or LinkedIn profile) may be read. Make sure to provide some of that “structural formula” information to make it easy for a gatekeeper with limited understanding of your role or past employers to see what your attributes are. Writing a resume or your LinkedIn profile like C4H10 is not helpful to you or anyone trying to understand your experience. One of the most obvious applications of this is putting your employer name on the resume without explaining what the company does. How much can someone understand about you without that “structural” context?

This analogy applies to job descriptions too. You know that “incumbent is responsible for…” job description I mentioned in the last post? Yup, that’s the C4H10 approach. Limited useful information missing a lot of important details! That’s why when we take the specs from a client on a new search, the very first thing we do is write a job description from scratch, to build out the “structural formula” and create a real 3D picture of the position in context, including description of company culture, why it’s a good move for someone, what they really need to accomplish and how that fits into the business plan, what success in the job looks like, what the person will actually do all day, and thus what requirements are really necessary. We do that before we start researching potential candidates to make sure we are all in agreement about which isomer we are looking for!

Taking this concept to a much more complex molecule – a polymer resin… That’s like the complexity of an entire organization. The same truths about the limitation of the molecular formula apply exponentially when you start thinking about polymer molecules and organizational culture and dynamics. Does C21H25ClO5 tell you a whole lot about an epoxy? In general we’re talking about structure-property relationships here, and you can’t know anything about the properties without a pretty darn good understanding of the structure. Really, it’s no coincidence that companies with an undeveloped view of their “human capital” (read “molecular formula” approach) generally have more problems with hiring and retention than companies that more fully embrace the holistic approach and get to the bottom of the unique keys to employee engagement in their organization.

To sum up: an individual’s personal attributes and prime motivators may in fact be a stronger or poorer match with a company’s culture than a list of skills compared with a list of requirements might indicate. As a candidate you need to keep your eyes and ears open and ask the “structural” questions in order to determine your ability to succeed there. As a hiring decisionmaker, you need to be able to recognize and then disambiguate the different candidate isomers who may have similar superficial profiles but in fact will perform entirely differently in your organization. That is the formula for success!

"Great partner on several international searches."David Wolf, Former VP International Sales, Carboline

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