Why C-Suite Job Specs Need to Get Specific

A study shows that many executive job descriptions are overly vague. For the sake of retention and organizational culture, leaders should demand clarity.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for C-suite execs entering the job market at this moment. On the one hand, the Great Resignation has made it somewhat easier for leaders to write their own ticket. But leaders are asked to do more than ever: Improve the bottom line while demonstrating empathetic leadership throughout the organization, navigating a remote-work environment, an unsettled economy, and shifts in meetings, DEI, and more. 

All the more reason for leaders to have a clear picture of what’s expected of them before they arrive at the corner office. But too often, they may not be presented with one. 

In “Set Up to Fail,” a recent article at the MIT Sloan Management Review, a trio of business experts argue that many C-suite tenures go badly or are needlessly truncated because the jobs weren’t well-structured and the goals weren’t clarified. “Individuals wind up stepping into a role that is poorly designed, and ultimately they either become frustrated and leave or disappoint the CEO and are asked to leave,” they wrote.

Individuals either become frustrated and leave—or are asked to leave.

That has all sorts of knock-on consequences, they explain: The time and expense of hiring, a destabilized organizational culture, and more. To get ahead of that, they say, those doing the hiring need clarity about what the exec’s goals are: “In a well-designed role, expectations for how a new C-level leader will impact the company should match the responsibilities given to the leader as well as the desired experience that the ideal candidate should possess.” 

But when the authors studied the job specifications for 185 C-suite roles, they found a dispiriting lack of specificity. Leaders are asked to “drive growth” or “drive transformation,” but wind up on the outs when they fail to be transformation-y enough. (And though the article doesn’t get into it, it’s well-known that women and people of color in the C-suite are more susceptible to this treatment, especially because they’re often put into leadership roles during a crisis.)

In response to this challenge, the authors suggest that organizations focus on making two key adjustments. One is to make sure that the responsibilities of the leadership role are aligned with the candidate’s skill set, and what the candidate is allowed to do; there’s a problem if a COO is expected to handle certain financial responsibilities, but those same responsibilities still run past the CFO’s desk. Second is to lay out meaningful and specific metrics for success. “Drive growth” is one thing; “drive membership growth by X percent in the next year” is another.

For the association CEO who isn’t going anywhere, hiring for direct reports offers a good opportunity to work on this alignment—what do they really want a new hire to accomplish in the role, and have they clearly defined what skills are necessary to accomplish them? For association professionals who are testing the job market, thinking about these alignment gaps is a good way to spot some red flags at a potential new employer. Has the hiring committee or executive thought through what roadblocks there are for a candidate’s success?

Back in 2020, Leaders Haven Founder Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, told me that the pandemic has prompted both employers and candidates to get more detail-oriented when it comes to hiring. Fewer ceremonial positions on hiring committees; more hard questions from candidates. “We’re just not in a ‘trust us’ space,” she told me then. And we’re still in a time of instability. So it’s best for leaders—whether they’re hiring or job-hunting—to be clear about what they need. 

Has your association adjusted the way it handles job specifications? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Feodora Chiosea/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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