Sunday, January 16, 2011

Deciphering the Lexicon of the Job Description

Good Morning

“And the beat goes on……………………………..”

Truth in Advertising:

Has anybody else noticed that job descriptions for positions in the arts all read remarkably the same. Whether the organization is looking for an Executive Director, or someone to head Development or Marketing, or any other open slot, everybody is looking for the exact same (unrealistic) qualities in candidates. It’s as though there is one job description that is a universal application for an iphone. Everyone uses a variation of the same description, and, if we’re honest, these job descriptions are themselves somewhat dishonest at worst, and at the least very misleading – full of tired, repetitive language that has ceased to have any real world meaning anymore. Everyone is looking for an ideal that very likely doesn’t exist.

Here is a typical advertisement:

The successful candidate will be a strong leader with excellent management and interpersonal skills. S/he will have the proven ability to build productive relationships with a broad range of internal and external constituencies, and have the demonstrated ability to work collaboratively with the various segments of the community. S/he will be an experienced supervisor with the ability and willingness to mentor staff and encourage staff development. S/he will foster an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration among staff and volunteers throughout the organization. S/he will have a strong working knowledge of programs, production, board relations and operations. S/he will have excellent financial management skills and a track record for achieving budget goals. The ideal candidate will be able to implement a strategic plan, and will have experience working as a senior manager. The successful candidate will bring new energy and ideas, and will have the ability to unite all stakeholders in embracing a shared vision for the future of the organization. The successful candidate will be knowledgeable and comfortable with using new technology to enhance presentations, communications, and operations whenever possible to help achieve the organization’s mission. Ten plus years of active leadership required. An advanced degree is preferable.

 Blah, Blah, Blah - some go on and on.  You get the idea.

Salary and benefits commensurate with experience.

Send resume and cover letter to:_________________

What all this mumbo jumbo babble speak says basically is this: We want a smart experienced person to run the organization (department) really well. The successful candidate will (hopefully) have a great resume. Without meaning to sound glib, we want someone who can boil the perfect three minute egg in two minutes. 

How refreshing it would be to see a more honest solicitation. Something like this (tongue in cheek):

We prefer not to take a chance on somebody on the way up. We’re not really risk takers. So we want somebody who has done it all before and done it really well for some other organization that everybody looks at and marvels at its success against all odds.  We'd like someone who shares our unrealistic expectations and can make us look good.  Basically we’re looking for someone who knows everything and everybody; someone who has raised all kinds of money before and has a huge list of contacts they can hit up on our behalf (it's all pretty much about fundraising here); someone who can raise money in an environment where no one has any money to give; someone with really good foundation and rich people connections - someone who can help us stay afloat (our business model is, to put it charitably - challenged).

We want someone smart enough to help us figure out a cool vision for our future (that one is stumping us); someone who will attract great talent to the staff (though we can’t pay the staff very much) and whom the staff (despite working conditions that are hardly ideal) will love and follow anyway (someone who will hopefully get them to perform above their potential, because actually we're understaffed by all reasonable criteria). We want someone who can make various factions of the board (currently somewhat dysfunctional and at each other’s throats) work harmoniously together and take on an ever greater workload (or in the alternative someone who will assume the board’s workload for them because it’s highly unlikely they will do much more than they are doing right now – which isn’t that much). We try not to micromanage, but we still do. We're looking for someone who can get the best out of us, but someone enough like us so we are comfortable with them; someone who will push themselves, but not necessarily push us too hard.  Did we mention that we want someone who can raise a lot of money?

We want someone who can create a workable and well thought out strategic plan (lord knows we have neither the time nor inclination to do that) and make everyone feel the main components were ‘their’ ideas. We want someone who can magically double our audience size over time (tomorrow would be good) and develop real stakeholder support (and hopefully explain to us exactly what "stakeholders" are - because we're still fuzzy on that concept). We want someone who understands all the new technologies (we don't) and can apply them for the benefit of the organization (read: make young people interested in us), fix their own computer when it dies, design and maintain a website (or get some smart nerd to do it for free) and it wouldn’t hurt if s/he could get a bunch of new computers donated. We want an effective advocate (but it's a given that we don't have the time or resources nor do we want to get involved in any of that political stuff).

We want someone who can speak publicly like Obama and write like Hemmingway. We want someone who is part Mayor Bloomberg, part Spielberg, part Bill Gates and part Oprah (or at least personally knows all those people). Did we mention that we want someone who can raise a lot of money?  What we really want is a Saint who will do it all for us - without complaint. Oh, s/he should be willing to work long hours for non market competitive compensation with minimal real benefits – and love it. We want someone with passion after all.

Though we won’t say so, we will settle for someone who is willing to take us on, has done it before with some success, has a pretty good reputation, and who everybody here likes personally (and that last one might just be the most important). Before we hire someone, we will likely make them jump through some unnecessary hoops, and we will probably make this process last longer than it need to. Don’t call. If you don’t hear back from us, we’re chasing somebody else. (If we have enough money we have hired a Search Firm to do all this for us.  It's a crap shoot we know, but at least we can hope some "pro" can beat the odds for us - and, more importantly, we won't have to deal with it ourselves.)

Now this is, of course, a gross exaggeration on all levels, but there is truth in the contention that our job descriptions as often as not have become meaningless.  We can probably all save some time if we just post the opening announcement.  Wanted: Executive Director for the XYZ organization.  We all know what they are looking for in their 'ideal' candidate.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit


  1. Barry! I must say I’m mildly shocked to read this post from you. I suspect many people read your blog to be challenged and inspired, and this post, while completely true, ignores the fact that unrealistic expectations are absolutely the reason many emerging leaders get executive director jobs. High-functioning EDs at healthy organizations don’t leave their current job for this position. The organization you describe (financial challenges, unclear path, disagreement among stakeholders about vision) chooses one of three people: a change agent, a fundraiser, or an emerging leader. The person who already identifies him/herself as a change agent or fundraiser may be happy sticking around for a couple of years and moving on to a bigger organization for a higher salary. The emerging leader will find their first job as executive director to be the ultimate career challenge. But you only have to look in the Bay Area to find amazing success stories: Deborah Cullinan and Jessica Robinson Love are two who spring to mind.

    There is so much talk about professional development … one thing your post makes me realize is that there is no workshop that takes emerging leaders through the process of applying for their first executive director job. Key elements should include: how to assess the financial trends of an organization, how to clarify division of responsibilities between management and board in an employment contract, determining physical plant and hr issues, assessing perception of the organization by key stakeholders. The job description is unlikely to change—but the way we approach it can. And any emerging leader who will be able to succeed as a first time director will face his/her first important test in the interview process ... working with the board and staff to gain a clear picture of priorities and challenges and make an honest case for why they would be a good choice. So what can be done to help them?

  2. Tongue in cheek Lex. Meant to be humor. My point was simply that the wording in job descriptions within the nonprofit arts sector has become so generic that it no longer describes accurately, or bears any real resemblance to, the challenges the prospective hiree will face at the organization that uses this common language, and thus the job descriptions themselves have become somewhat meaningless. Moreover, most job descriptions make no attempt to honestly describe the situation at their organization. Virtually every job description I have seen in the past five years, lists the exact same qualities the ideal candidate will have and, of course makes no mention whatsoever of the organization's shortcomings. I doubt any job description ever will point out the problems the organization really faces, and I understand why, but it would be refreshing. There is really no need for any advertisement to list the qualities they are looking for anymore. It would be simpler just to post the one universal job description of the qualities sought and everyone could simply go to that posting. That frankly doesn't help prospective applicants know anything about the job and whether or not they would be a good fit, and it doesn't really help the organization looking for someone to fill the position to necessarily find the right candidate either. That was my whole and only point.

  3. I found your article right on. I'm an HR Director in what is largely a blue collar operation. I would be laughed out of the company if I wrote the typical Valley recruiting mark up. However, I have responded to many ads with all of the semantic spinach and had to endure endless interviews. I like your short hand version!

    Hal Anjo
    Boulder Creek, CA

  4. Oh, I was being a little tongue in cheek myself when I said I was shocked. I agree with you wholeheartedly. And at the same time, I could list five emerging leaders I know personally who have accepted this "generic" job only to discover some very serious undisclosed challenges that contributed to their leaving a new job within 6 months to 2 years ... by choice or not. It's painful to see that happen and you are right to wish it would change.