Reading Between the Lines of a C-Suite Job Description

Executive recruiters write lengthy job descriptions when filling C-suite roles. Candidates need to recognize that these are marketing documents, aimed at getting them excited about the job, and they aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of the responsibilities and performance measures they will encounter if they accept the position. To overcome the mismatch between the written description and the actual reality of the role, candidates need to start from scratch, using interviews as an opportunity to understand the real parameters of the work, writing their own understanding of the job, and getting executive buy-in to that understanding before accepting an offer.

A CEO decides to hire a new C-level executive. To manage the search process, including defining the role and finding and vetting candidates, the company retains an executive recruiting firm. The recruiter crafts a lengthy, written job specification, which becomes the blueprint for the qualifications and skills the company desires in candidates, and the expected job responsibilities.

This recruitment process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, take months to fill a single position, and require meaningful time commitments by the CEO and potentially the board. It’s significantly more costly and resource intensive than recruiting entry or mid-level employees. Isn’t it reasonable, then, to expect that the higher investment in the C-suitesearch would yield significantly better odds of success?

Strikingly, it doesn’t. The average tenures of chief financial officers (4.7 years) and chief information officers (4.6 years) are only slightly higher than the tenure of an average employee (4.3 years for men and 3.8 years for women) — and the tenures of chief human resource officers (3.7 years) and chief marketing officers (3.5 years) are even lower.

There are complex reasons for such short tenure, butI’ve identified one that candidates can benefit from understanding: the lack of accuracy and alignment in job specifications.

Alignment occurs when there is consistency between three key elements of role design — the expectations, the responsibilities allocated, and the skills required. For example, if a CMO is given the responsibility of research and development, then alignment would occur if under the skills section, the job spec indicated that the ideal candidate had previous R&D experience. Misalignment would be apparent if the job spec indicated that a CFO role was expected to lead M&A activity and yet it didn’t require that the ideal candidate had previous M&A activity. In an aligned world, the people hired into roles have experience doing the tasks required, and are given responsibility required to achieve expectations. Although this seems simple, the evidence suggests that many companies fail to achieve it.

Out of 185 job specs I analyzed across CFO, CIO, and CMO roles, the degree of misalignment between different aspects of the job (e.g., expectations, responsibilities, and skills) ranged from 33% to 41% depending on the specific job attribute.

For example, one out of three job specs (33%) had misaligned expectations and responsibilities, often indicating that the authority given the role was less than the impact the individual was expected to have on the firm. Such misalignment can thwart new hires from being able to convert role responsibilities into expected outcomes. In addition, it can create friction as the new hire tries to quickly influence peers who have responsibility over activities the new C-level hire is expected to impact.

How can candidates navigate misaligned or poorly defined jobs? Based on my experience working with leaders, here are eight key steps C-level candidates can take to increase the likelihood the role they take will be a good fit.

Throw away the job spec.

For high-level roles, recruiters craft highly detailed job specifications that often run a dozen pages or more.

There are two key problems that can negatively impact job specs. First, companies want to make jobs seem as attractive as possible, especially in a tight job market, and to do so, they may embellish the description. Second, writing a cohesive, internally consistent job spec is not easy.

The consequence of these job-design problems is that the job spec may not be an accurate reflection of the actual job. Unfortunately, this requires the candidate to throw away the job spec and suss out the actual job on their own.

Identify the “real” job.

To understand the real attributes of a job, you need to ask questions throughout the interview process with skill and diplomacy. While it’s helpful to triangulate and get perspective from peers, your potential boss’ perspective (presumably the CEO) is the most important.

You should investigate five key areas:

  1. Expectations (e.g., what defines success at different time intervals?)
  2. Responsibilities (e.g., what are the specific, tangible duties and tasks assigned?)
  3. Resources allocated (e.g., which departments and positions are assigned to the role? What is the budget?)
  4. Primary contingent peers (e.g., who are the primary peers that will impact success in the position, and how are objectives/incentives aligned to ensure cooperation?)
  5. Desired candidate experience (e.g., what are the primary skills and experience required in the ideal candidate?)

This process seems simpler than it is. In some cases, interviewers may become defensive when they don’t know the answers. In other cases, three different people will provide different answers, signaling a lack of clarity and/or communication regarding the role. All of this gives you important information about culture, alignment, and C-suite communication.

Draft your own job spec.

Based on your research, write a short version of your understanding of the job. Using the five categories above, summarize your understanding, being as specific as possible. The objective is to crystallize the key job attributes into a simple document that can then become the basis for discussion and negotiation.

Confirm understanding.

Using your draft job summary, verify your understanding of the job with your prospective boss via an email. Verbal discussions can be misinterpreted and recalled incorrectly. Having a written and aligned basis of understanding is important before accepting a job and especially afterwards as issues may arise regarding expectations or responsibilities.

For example, one C-level leader I spoke withexpressed surprise when a critical function that typically reported to the role was moved to another C-level leader after they interviewed but before they started at the company. A written summary would be the basis for the candidate to discuss revised expectations based on the shifted organizational structure.

Assess how “doable” the job is.

Once you understand the actual role, the next step is the most important: determining whether you are being set up to succeed or not. At this point, you should assess the degree to which the job aspects (e.g., responsibilities, authority, expectations) cohere or match.

If a CMO is expected to lead growth, but they only have responsibility for advertising, media, and communication (i.e., other C-suite leaders own innovation, data and analysis, corporate strategy, strategic partnerships, pricing, selling, distribution, and so forth), and the CEO is unaware of these critical peer contingencies, then there is misalignment that can make fulfilling the job difficult at best. If a CIO is responsible for digital transformation but has neither the budget nor the staff assigned, there is a gap that can lead to challenges on day one. In my research, this step is a significant “aha” as C-level leaders typically fail to assess whether the role is designed to achieve success.

Assess your fit.

The final assessment is difficult and requires honesty. How well do your skills and experiences prepare you for the job? What makes this challenging to determine is that candidates rarely have all of the required skills. However, the worse the fit, the greater the risk. And while it may be attractive to reach for a stretch role, it can set you (and the firm) up for heartache if not addressed.

Negotiate the job parameters.

The best time to fix any design issues is prior to accepting a new job. Your written summary can become the basis for negotiations as it should help highlight key gaps in alignment between expectations, responsibilities, resources, contingencies, and experiences.

Your discussions with the CEO should start by addressing role design misalignment. You want to make sure that any key peer contingencies are identified, addressed, and aligned before you start the job.

You should also have an honest discussion about your skills gap and potential development opportunities. While it’s rare that a candidate will have all the desired skills, your risk increases if, for example, your primary responsibility is to lead digital transformation and you have never been through a digital transformation. Prior to accepting the job you could recommend critical resources that could address the skill gap and reduce the risk — for example, a direct report who will own digital transformation and be responsible for identifying best practices and helping get you and the organization up to speed.

Document and share the final job description.

Once the job is renegotiated (if necessary), update and finalize your job summary. This written document can then be used as the basis for renegotiation in the future should job elements change. It can also be used in discussions with key peers to ensure understanding before accepting a role or in orientation meetings after onboarding. A significant source of conflict in the C-suite can be jobs that are poorly designed and create conflict across the enterprise. Using the summary to drive alignment and understanding can help make sure that key peers are in synch.

. . .

Job descriptions are supposed to be accurate reflections of positions. They are the basis upon which C-level candidates determine interest in a potential role and agree to interview and thus, are an important factor in whether a candidate considers and accepts an offered job.

Yet, today something is amiss as the investment in time and money is not yielding more successful recruiting outcomes for C-level leaders (versus more junior employees). The greater the degree of misalignment and internal conflict in the job design, the greater the risk for the candidate as they struggle to navigate a poorly designed role.

By taking ownership of this process — through understanding, assessment, and negotiation — C-level executives have the power to exert greater control over their careers in a way that can reduce risk and influence success.

Read More