In this hyper-competitive world, you already have plenty of problems to contend with, so you certainly don’t have time for self-inflicted wounds.  One of the most expensive self-inflicted wounds is trying to fill a position without first deeply understanding it.   Smaller nonprofit organizations are filled with one-of-a-kind jobs – departments are often small, responsibilities large, and often only a few people in the company truly understand each job.

I can certainly understand why a busy, understaffed hiring manager might want to rush the hiring process, but the consequencess of this particular mistake are astounding.

When a hiring manager does not deeply understand the open position, they have almost no chance of filling the job with someone competent.  They will turn away (or turn off) competent people who the manager does not recognize as competent, or they will hire people with nice credentials who are utterly incompetent … and …. because they don’t understand how to manage the new hire’s performance, they will not realize their error for a very long time.

Not good.  Understandable, and really commonplace … but really, seriously … not good.

At the start of a new search we can always tell when a hiring manager has no idea about the job.  Here  is how we know when the hiring manger is faking it:

  • They rely on vague generalities in describing the job, hiding behind consulting-speak or jargon instead of giving tangible examples of the work in plain language. Real experts can always give examples that illustrate their points.  Pretenders often just sound like bad consultants – spouting nice important sounding words that do not clarify a thing.
  • They have no hard metrics of what success looks like if the job is done well.  There is no way to gauge job performance, no dashboard, no checkpoints, no indicators.
  • They cannot give concrete examples of the typical challenges someone in the job will face – they cannot describe what is difficult about the job, or what is intrinsically rewarding about the job.
  • They rely on the credentials someone must have (i.e. “10 years of industry experience and an MBA”) instead of the capabilities someone needs (i.e. “the ability to analyze and find solutions to this type of problem”)

So how can you avoid shooting yourself in the foot?  Simple.

If you are the hiring manager, do the job yourself for a few weeks.   I am always delighted when I encounter a manager who has done this.  It dramatically, profoundly, reduces the risk of them making a hiring mistake.

Why is doing the job yourself so helpful?  There are many reasons, but here are a few:

  • You’ll be able to quickly identify and clean up the big messes (there is always something ugly lurking under the rocks you pick up – and why saddle the new person with cleaning it up?  You have more authority to fix problems faster than they will).  You’ll learn a lot, and probably improve a few outdated processes along the way.
  • You will get a much, much clearer picture of the capabilities of the other team members.
  • You’ll understand the day to day challenges of the job, and what it takes to do the job well – this will help you avoid “under-hiring” someone not quite good enough to handle it.
  • You’ll appreciate the value of having the job done, and done well, but you will not be tempted to “overhire” for it, because again, you’ll actually understand what the job is, and what it is not.
  • You will be able to establish sensible performance metrics for the job, and be far more comfortable holding your new hire accountable to those standards.
  • You’ll be far more credible describing the job in the interview and far more able to have a substantial conversation about it.

I fully realize that as a busy, understaffed hiring manager, it is hard to make time to do this, but when you are faced with a job you do not deeply understand you really have no choice.   Seriously, when your own gun is pointed at your own foot, for heaven’s sake please don’t pull the trigger.


Ultimately, very little of what is written in either the job description or the resume helps either party understand each other, or helps to predict who will be successful on the job. In this very first step of the hiring process — posting a job ad and reviewing resumes — there is already a frustrating breakdown in communication. 

To learn how to write more effective job postings, read How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Top Performers. Or, if you prefer your research and information to be more attractively formatted, just download the document below. 


Disclaimer: This advice is primarily for professional hiring in a large metropolitan area. Our perspective is shaped by our work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We’ve completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, but not all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.