In their landmark study – First Break All of the Rules: What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently – Gallup introduced their Q12 employee engagement survey. The Q12 describes in priority order what the best managers do and need to do to create high performing teams. Number one on the list is, “Clarify Expectations Up Front.” 

I’ve lived this idea for 40+ years as a recruiter and trainer. In my first search project for a plant manager, the president and I walked through the factory and identified the top six things the person needed to fix over the first 6-12 months to be considered successful. This list of performance objectives became the job description. 

More recently, I worked with a Board consisting of investors and founders for a $150 million food manufacturer getting ready to hire a new CEO. After a few hours of wrangling we finally agreed on these two critical performance objectives:

  • Build for the future. During the first year return the company to a 10% EBITDA while building the infrastructure to support rapid expansion into this fast-growing new food category. 
  • Understand before doing. Spend the first 30-60 days learning the business, meeting the team, meeting the customers and understanding the culture. Ensure all future changes preserve these critical relationships. 

Now I’m working with the founder of a recently funded startup looking for a head of engineering. I asked him what the biggest thing the person has to accomplish in the first year to be considered successful. This is what he came up with:

  • Build a working prototype. Within one year lead the design and development of fully functioning and scalable beta version. 

Last month I asked a team of hiring managers to define success for a customer success manager for a complex business process application. Here’s what they came up with as the major objective:

  • Grow the client. Within six months ensure all accounts are progressing towards full utilization of the system and are in a position to begin adding the optional feature set. The goal is for 80% of all accounts to be fully functioning within 120 days and 50% of these accounts will purchase at least two upgrades during the first year.

Every job can be fully defined by 6-8 performance objectives like the above describing the major objectives and their critical subtasks. Here’s why this is essential information for everyone involved in the hiring process including the candidate. 

Sourcers: You don’t need to be a Boolean expert to find people who meet the performance requirements of the job. By being creative it’s easy to find 15-20 highly qualified people who have the right titles, worked for comparable companies and who have progressed rapidly AND would see the job as a likely next step. These steps increase the likelihood the person will respond to your message AND the hiring manager will want to see the person. 

RecruitersPersistence is critical in order to engage with at least half of the 15-20 prequalified people the sourcer has found. Then during the first conversation figure out if you can make a strong case that one of your openings puts the person on a better career trajectory than other opportunities being considered. If not, get at least two prequalified referrals. None of this is possible without knowing the job.

Hiring Managers. Since hiring managers need to clarify job expectations after the person is hired, they might as well do this before the hire. 

Interviewers. When members of the hiring team don’t know the actual performance requirements of the job, they overvalue first impressions and assess people on factors that are too generic to make a difference. 

Candidates. The strongest people won’t waste time with recruiters or hiring managers who can’t answer the question, “What are some of the tasks and challenges involved in this role?” That’s why every candidate should ask it early in the interview to ensure they’ll be accurately assessed. 

It has been proven time and again, e.g., Google’s Project Oxygen, that clarifying expectations upfront is the key to successful management. What’s surprising is that it’s not a prerequisite for hiring. Unfortunately, too many people are still hired based on their depth of skills, first impressions and if their salaries are consistent with the budget. By following the Golden Rule of Hiring things will finally begin to change: Hire for the Anniversary Date, Not the Start Date.


  • Lou Adler

    CEO, Performance-based Hiring Learning Systems. Author, Hire with Your Head and The Essential Guide for Hiring.

    Performance-based Hiring Learning Systems, Inc