When it’s time for your startup or small business to grow, one of the first challenges you’ll face is writing a job description. We’ve all had to read job descriptions, but how in the world do you write one?

Were you part of a large corporation, this isn’t a question you’d have to answer. Hiring managers at the Amazons and Microsofts of the world don’t produce job descriptions so much as they procure them; simply download your requirements to HR and await delivery of your legally-approved, boilerplate job description.

But in the boot-strappy world of startups and small businesses, lacking HR and its many boiler plates, chances are that the (likely urgent!) task of creating a job description will fall to someone untrained in the task.

Beware of Internet Advice

So what to do? Well, Google it, of course! But while “how do you you write a job description” will yield more checklists than you have time to read, few will be worth your while. Most, in fact, are just re-hashing the same unhelpful information in exchange for your email address. Beware of opting in to endless drip marketing!

Of course, there is some good content mixed in with all the marketing ploys. Some of the guidance on the nuts and bolts of structure and language is indeed helpful, such as this downloadable checklist from re:Work, which, incidentally, doesn’t require you to trade your email address to the devil in exchange for a little knowledge.

But to my mind, the most important steps in writing a great job description — one that attracts the kind of qualified candidates that will help your organization grow — occur before the pen is ever set to paper. And these steps are rarely covered in the unending checklists one finds online.

Step 1: Know What You Actually Need

The first step is to identify what your hiring needs actually are. Admittedly, this sounds simplistic, and, well, duh. But job descriptions are often riddled with skills and experience requirements that sound good in theory but, in actuality, are unnecessary for the job at hand. The potential results of a misstep at this juncture range from bad to much, much worse: weeding out the wrong people before ever getting to talk with them, prolonging an already expensive and time-consuming search process, or even hiring the wrong person for the job!

Avoiding such pitfalls is not difficult, but it does take a degree of introspection and diligence. Sure, you’re busy and you need help ASAP, but (very, very) specifically, what help do you need? What will this new hire do on a day-to-day basis for the next three months, six months, and year? Will the job the new engineer does really require 8-10 years of experience, or would an exceptional developer with five years of experience be able to succeed? What does exceptional even mean in your context? (And, importantly, how will you know how to spot it when you see it? Which is a topic for another conversation…)

Step 2: Think about Success Now

A second step is closely related to the first: having identified your for-real hiring needs, how will you define success for this position? It’s all too easy to be vague here, but be warned that doing so may well lead to a vague (read: uninteresting) job description and, once again, a costly hiring failure.

So before you write a word of the job description, draft what hiring guru Lou Adler calls a performance profile, that is a list of objectives that collectively represent top performance for the position. In other words, figure out now how you plan to evaluate performance six or twelve months from now. What metrics will you use to determine whether your new team member has succeeded or failed?

Now Write by Working Backwards

Having clearly, specifically identified what your actual hiring needs are (step one) and how you’ll evaluate your new hire (step two), you’re ready to start crafting.

How?

By working backwards, translating your performance profile into a handful of performance objectives that together will comprise the bulk of your job description.

Say, for example, that you need someone to quickly launch three features that management has identified as mission-critical. A traditional job description might say something like: “experience launching multiple features required.” Aside from being uninteresting and unmotivating, the problem here is that you’ve effectively disinvited a key demographic from even applying: namely, take-charge up-and-comers brimming with leadership and potential but perhaps lacking in experience actually launching multiple features.

Depending upon your real needs, and in light of the performance criteria you’ve laid out, it would be better to say something like: “You will spend the next six months using your engineering talent and people skills to lead the charge to launch three mission-critical features on our award-winning app.”

Rather than weeding out, the primary emphasis here is on inviting, specifically, on inviting talented developers who self-identify as leaders and who are motivated by a challenge. This, presumably, is the just the kind of employee who will help get your startup or small business to the next stage — even if to this point they’ve only launched one feature instead of three.

Compile 5-6 such performance objectives, add an inviting company description, make sure you’ve used action-oriented, legally-sound language (ala the re:Work checklist linked above), and you have your job description — one that will stand out from the dry, unhelpful list of requirements your competition will no doubt be publishing.

My hope is that paying attention to these two preliminary tasks will result in candidates and employees who can help your small business thrive. If you have feedback, or if you’d like some free advice on a job description you’re working on, feel free to email me!

Research & Insights