Thursday, August 5, 2010

Let's Not Overdo This Qualifications Thing...

A recent post over at Steve's HR Technology about jobs that require degrees got me thinking.

I believe that how well someone will do at a job has more to do with who they are than what sort of degree or experience they have.

There are exceptions: If you're going to perform surgery on my brain or represent me in a court of law, I want to see a degree or two after your name and I don't want to be your first client after graduation.

But for a lot of the jobs out there, an understanding of the basics is enough to be going on with.

Let me tell you a story about a time when I talked my way into a job I wasn't qualified to do.

It was while I was in graduate school getting my MA in international management with an emphasis on Japan studies. There was a paid summer marketing internship in Tokyo that I wanted. Paid. Marketing. Tokyo.

I knew it must be mine.

Unfortunately, half the students in my class also knew it must be theirs. Most of them weren't a big threat to me - my grades were good, my Japanese was adequate, I'd already lived and worked in Japan and I'd taken a marketing class.

So, I had what you might call the basic minimum profile.

Only one person was a real threat to me. His grades weren't quite as good as mine, but no one actually cares about grades and his Japanese was friggin' amazing.

I plotted his downfall. Just kidding - he's still a good friend of mine - but I did plan to get that job.

Fortunately, the application required a self-introduction video. I wasn't so arrogant as to think I had the job in the bag when I heard this - because not everyone warms to an overconfident ham - but I knew this was my chance to stand out.

Let's face it, a video is almost always better than a resume with dubious credentials like 'ESL Teacher', 'Graduate Study Body President', 'Senior Aerobics Instructor', 'Writing Skills Tutor' and 'Assistant Financial Aid Clerk.'

I enlisted my teacher for help crafting a modest-yet-compelling introduction. I practiced the heck out of it. I wore my one suit and used copious amounts of product in my hair.

I shined. I exuded reliability. I appeared to speak fluent Japanese. I smelled good (just in case).

And I got the job. That was the first hurdle. The second hurdle was doing the job.

Despite my fluent introduction, my Japanese wasn't good enough to sit in on Japanese focus groups and take notes. We employed some note takers who would turn in their handwritten comments at the end of each focus group but that didn't help me much. I could decipher typed kanji characters with the help of a dictionary but the hand-written notes were way beyond me.

So, that first week I made stuff up. I told Coca-Cola executives their new Fanta drink was too pink (well, it was!). I told the Zegna management team that people found their suits elegant but expensive. I told... well, never mind, it was for the best.

I wasn't flying totally blind, you understand. I'd lived in Japan for 2 years and could read facial expressions and body language and I also understood some of what was said.

But in that first week or so, the guy I beat out for the job would have been a better fit.

Then something changed. In the focus groups, the same sorts of phrases were used over and over. I started being able to recognize and decipher the hand-written kanji characters. My brain adapted and began accepting new types of information.

After 6 weeks, I could fly through 10 hand-written pages of notes, pluck out the salient points and write up a killer executive presentation outlining product and marketing recommdations.

At the end of the summer, after several of my executive presentations had been favorably received by key clients, they offered me a permanent position after graduation. Which I politely declined.

It was a great learning experience but the job just wasn't challenging enough.


  1. Great story! I agree that arbitrary "qualifications" can be talent killers. I think that assessing "potential" is a neglected part of the hiring process. Too often we see employers looking for "plug-n-play" new hires, which is a mistake because down the road you never know what that employee may end up doing for the company. On a side note, it's cool that you can speak Japanese. Do you happen to still use it?

  2. Thanks for commenting. Sadly, 10 years in Munich has driven Japanese a bit out of my head, although I think I could pick it up again quickly if someone would pay me to work in Tokyo again. But my German is pretty darn good.

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