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How to write a job spec for cultural fit

Use this process to write a job advert that attracts the right people for your team

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What makes a good job specification?Clarify the role's job to be done (JTBD)Identify personality traits that 'fill the gaps' of the teamIdentify important shared values

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What do job specs have to do with mental wellbeing?

Unfortunately it's a familiar story. A new hire, seemingly a great fit on paper and super enthusiastic during their first week of onboarding, starts to have second thoughts about the nature of the work and their place in the team.

It turns out a lot of the problems they were excited about solving have been partially solved in the last couple months, and that this is — for now at least — a more executional and less strategic role. They thought that being able to do UX research was a primary strength of theirs, one to which they attach a big part of their work identity, but it turns out that someone on their immediate team is also amazing at UX research, and wants to do even more of it going forward. They understood the role to be fairly autonomous, but actually there's a lot of managing up and stakeholder interaction that's required to get anything done in practice.

In situations like these, what tends to happen next? Usually, a whole heap of negative emotions start to manifest, broadly following the trajectory of the Kubler-Ross change curve (which shows how people tend to respond to an exogenous shock):

  • Anxiousness, that the role was the wrong decision on their part.
  • Frustration, as the person's skills and traits aren't being fully utilised and valued.
  • Resentment, for the role being misrepresented on the company's part.
  • Low morale and mood, as the person starts to feel stuck in this situation.

Without solving the fundamental person-role mismatch, these negative emotions — left unaddressed — can spiral into really difficult interpersonal problems that can tear a functioning team apart. These emotions manifest in myriad ways, consciously or not: passive-aggressiveness, unnecessary pushbacks, emotional outbursts, or withdrawal from the role and the work.

And not only is it emotionally painful for the team, but it's emotionally painful for the person too. In fact, mismatch between the person and the role is one of the biggest causes of burnout. The reverse is true as well: if people feel that their skills are needed and their differentiated traits are valued, it's one of the best predictors for being energised and happy in the job. Some studies even show that it trumps salary.

What makes a good job specification?

So what went wrong in the fictional situation described above? Essentially, expectations of the skills and traits required in the role were not made clear enough from the get-go, and so a mismatch became significantly more likely to happen. The objective of hiring is not to find the best person for the job. It's to find the person who is the best fit for the job.

This is where the importance of the job spec comes in. A job spec is different from a job description: it includes not just the standard information about the job (responsibilities, experience required, salary, benefits, etc.), but also goes into transparent and honest detail about the specific skills and traits a person needs in order to be a good fit for the role. And, just as importantly, the specific skills and traits that aren't a good fit for this role and therefore might be red flags.

A job spec is different from a job description because it goes into transparent and honest detail about the specific skills and traits a person needs in order to be a good fit for the role — and, just as importantly, the specific skills and traits that aren't a good fit for this role.

As Maria Campbell — a people leader in high-growth startups — puts it in a blog post on the topic, "so often, we pick a job title and start hiring for that because it might solve a problem that we haven’t articulated, and we copy-paste requirements from other job ads, instead of cutting back to first principles to understand the problem and do the work to build up to the job spec."

So how do you build a job spec that's as true and transparent as possible? The key is to do a few practical exercises to help clarify five things before you start writing:

  1. The job to be done for that role (stemming out of the immediate team's objective)
  2. The skills and experience that are most needed in the role to achieve the team's objective
  3. The differentiated personality traits that will 'fill the gaps' of the immediate team
  4. The shared values needed to get things done and enjoy working at this company
  5. Any red flags that indicate a mismatch will be more likely

We'll go through each in turn, using real examples from a real life job spec for a role we're hiring for right now at Spill: Content Marketing Lead.

Clarify the role's job to be done (JTBD)

This is best done by working backwards from the immediate team's (medium- to long-term) objective. By immediate team, we mean the group of people that the new hire will interact and work with on a daily basis. By medium- to long-term, we mean for the year or longer. (Full-time hires shouldn't be solving short-term problems).

Then the next question is: what (really) triggered the decision to hire for this role?

The job to be done framework is a neat way of articulating what a customer is really hoping to accomplish when they 'hire' a product or service to 'do a job' for them. This has implications for which attributes of the product or service are focused on. The classic example shows how the 'real' job to be done of a McDonald's milkshake bought from a drive-thru restaurant is to give the driver something to do for the majority of their commute duration. It takes a long time to drink, and keeps them busy. Focusing on the milkshake's thickness — not its flavour or ability to cool you down — then starts to make more sense for McDonald's.

Maria Campbell gives a few overarching examples of why we might (really) decide to hire:

  • To address an increase in workload within a team
  • To fill a skills or experience gap within a team
  • To start doing something new

We could add a few other potential examples to the mix:

  • To bring in new processes and ways of working
  • To manage junior employees
  • To prepare the company for an upcoming funding round or sale

Putting the team objective together with the reason for hiring gives you a transparent description of the role's job to be done, which tells the prospective hire (a) what success looks like for the team, and (b) what their individual contribution to team success needs to be (broadly speaking).

The typical structure for articulating any job to be done goes like this: situation > motivation > expected outcome. For example, "When I go running (situation), I want to distract myself with music (motivation) so that I can run faster (expected outcome)".

This should be the first sentence at the top of any job spec, because it frames it with a 'why' — and in doing so helps avoid a potential misunderstanding over the purpose of the role. Imagine if you started a new role thinking that you were being brought in for your domain experience, but actually you were being brought in primarily to manage junior people: it's not setting this up to be a successful hire on either side. Far better to make the job to be done explicit, right from the beginning.

🎯 Focus on essential skills and experience

These should be the skills and experience that are most needed to reach the team objective. Instead of copy and pasting the most common skills usually associated with the role, it's worth doing a quick exercise to identify which skills are specifically needed in order to achieve the objective, and given the existing skills already in the current team.

In order for the new joiner to feel innately valued, the skills and experience they bring need to be underserved in some respect by the current team, and need to be central to the achieving the team objective.

To bring a bit of rigour to the process, we use something we call the 'Benton box' (named after Calvin Benton, the Founder of Spill, who we think came up with the concept — but it's highly likely that he didn't, in which case, our apologies to the unknown originator.) It's essentially a way of prioritising problems, and we used it in a few areas of the business, with hiring being a big one.

For hiring, we'll write the team objective on the left, and then list all the skills (or inputs or workstream areas — whatever you want to call them) required to achieve it. More is more: list everything you can think of, even if including it is a bit of a stretch. The aim is to go wide first before narrowing down.

Then, rank each skill out of ten according to certain criteria. You can sub in or add in different criteria if you like — sometimes different teams or different roles require it (for example, an a customer success role you might replace 'ability to be done with freelancers' with 'ability to be automated') — but we find these four criteria to be a good foundation. You can flip the ordering round (10 can be either high or low) to make sure that you can sum the scores into one easily comparable number and rank them.

  • Importance to achieving team objective (10 = high, 1 = low)
  • Current in-house capability on the team (1 = high, 10 = low)
  • Ability to be done with freelancers (1 = high, 10 = low)
  • Necessity of domain experience (10 = high, 1 = low)

Summing the scores gives you a more concrete view of which skills are non-negotiable: they're crucial to achieving the team objective, not a strong part of the current team's skillset, harder to contract out to freelancers, and require domain experience (i.e. they can't be learned on the job quickly).

Rather than listing all the possible relevant skills you can think of on the job spec, choose to be specific: focus on the top three or four skills that really are crucial. For the Content Marketing Lead role, we picked the four skills that had the highest summed scores in the Benton box above, and then expanded on them by adding as many specifics — and making them as outcome-focused — as possible.

Identify personality traits that 'fill the gaps' of the team

To work well together, teams need a mix of different personality traits that complement each other. Having too many people with similar personality traits — and indexing low on other traits — can hugely hold a team back, even if the skills and experience within the team are impressive. This is because personality traits (here we use the widely-accepted Big 5 types) are a big predictor of the psychological role a person will play in a team, as showed by a Harvard Business Review study, and a team needs a variety of psychological roles to be filled in order to function well.

How can getting an uneven mix of psychological roles (and related personality traits) derail a team? Say that a team has too many people who are relationship-focused (i.e. they index high in agreeableness), then there'll be too much time spent ensuring harmony and too little time focused on results and accountability. They'll get on, but they won't get ahead.

The best way to find the gaps in the current team is to get everyone on that team to do the Big 5 personality test (~10min, free) and then sum the results. Here's how the two other people currently working in the Spill marketing team scored, and what the gaps were when we summed the scores together:

A person who can fill these trait/role gaps is more likely to (a) feel uniquely valued in the team, and (b) improve the functionality of the team

An aside: certain personality traits might tend to naturally accompany certain skills. For example, a role requiring a high degree of competence in tracking and analytics is likely to attract someone who is a process and rule follower (high in conscientiousness). It might be more difficult to find a person with the required skills that indexes very low in conscientiousness. What we're aiming to do here is find the right mix between personality traits that  correlate with the required skills, and personality traits that fill in the current team's gaps.

Identify important shared values

In short, a new hire needs to be:

(a) distinct enough (in terms of personality traits) to fill the 'psychological roles gap' of the immediate team;

(b) similar enough (in terms of shared values) to fit into and be able to succeed within the company's culture.

We've spoken about the need to be distinct within the immediate team in the previous section. This section looks at the need to be similar; to subscribe to certain shared values.

Here we draw from optimal distinctiveness theory in the field of sociology, which looks at how — in any kind of social group — people feel most valued and loyal when they are the right mix of distinct within a group and connected to it. However, this is not the part in the job spec where you simply copy and paste your company values word-for-word.

The key is to focus on the values that are to do with the way work gets done at the company, and make them more directive by phrasing them as 'over' statements (we do x over y). If you don't give your values a trade-off like this (by explaining what those traits come at the expense of), they risk becoming universal (values like 'human', 'diligent', 'helping others') and therefore don't help select for people that are a better fit for the role.

One of Spill's values, a reference to the computer game 'Rollercoaster Tycoon', which describes a preference for big plays over tidiness

🚩 Find (and then explicitly state) any red flags

Here, we're looking for any common skills, traits or preferences that could suggest that the person will not feel uniquely valued in the role, and therefore interpersonal problems become more likely to arise.

There are three sources of insight that we mine for red flags at Spill:

  • Exit interview notes from previous employees who've left the company. Is there anything that can be learned or extrapolated here? What about the company was misrepresented in a job spec previously, that we can rectify and make extra clear on this one?
  • Informal calls with mentors, investors or senior leaders in other companies. Talk to people who've done a lot of hiring before — ideally in the same field you're hiring for — and ask them what mistakes they made or what they wish they'd looked out for in the hiring process.
  • Discussions with the internal team and founder. Sometimes the best source of insight is just an honest discussion with the people who are already doing some of the work, day in day out. What would make it harder for the new hire to succeed in the role? What would disrupt the team?

By putting in the time and effort to write a thoughtful job spect, we can be clearer about expectations, ensure a better person-role fit — and therefore make interpersonal problems in teams less likely to happen.

A reminder of the 5 steps to writing a great job spec:

  1. Start by getting super clear about the role's job to be done (JTBD)
  2. Zone in on the skills and experience that are most needed to reach the team objective
  3. Identify the differentiated personality traits that will 'fill the gaps' of the immediate team
  4. Identify the shared values needed to get things done and enjoy working at the company
  5. Find (and then explicitly state) any red flags that might make a person-role mismatch more likely
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