“Over-qualified” or Too Old?

old man

It seems to be a common assumption today that if someone says “You’re overqualified” for a job, it’s merely code for “you’re too old.” In my experience, this is a possibility, however, don’t assume that is their true motivation in rejecting you for the position you’ve applied for. There are legitimate reasons for deeming a person “overqualified” for a position regardless of age. Yet, too often, people make this assumption and it can negatively impact their future prospects as they attribute false motives to anyone who might be younger than them.

I learned this the hard way early in my search career. While doing a search for a Regional Manager for an orthopedic company, I happened to be contacted by a former colleague who had been at the national level in sales management. He was gainfully employed, yet he wanted to have a smaller area of responsibility. He had a young family and felt he was missing too much his children’s lives while traveling up to 80% of the time and often cross country.  All of his reasons for demoting himself seemed reasonable, even honorable for this father of two young boys. Like many professionals,he was in his early 40’s and had experienced significant success early in his career and believed that this season of his life was more about his kids than his career and he was taking the initiative and making the professional sacrifice for his family. 

This all made perfect sense to me as a father of four kids who made the similar decision to have a local job with minimal travel so I could be a dad first. Here is what happened in this scenario that informed me about the legitimate argument for someone being overqualified.

I presented this talented sales leader to my client company. During the interview process, it was obvious to all parties that this was a considerable step back in his career. Since his situation was self-imposed and everyone felt that they adequately vetted him to be as sure as you can be that he really felt strongly enough to keep himself there long term. However, it didn’t take more than six months for him to begin to see that he was in fact a much better leader than his boss who was about his same age. After all, he had excelled to the national stage before, and his boss hadn’t. Once he began to sense his bosses comparative weaknesses, he became more and more frustrated with the way his boss would manage him and his leadership role. He began to see every flaw in strategy and execution that his boss had and it began to undermine their relationship.  At first, he was able to shrug it off and remind himself that he was in this role for a higher purpose than his own career and that seemed to work, briefly. 

Within nine months, he was no longer able to be gracious to his boss about his perceived “ineptness.” He had become aggressive and critical and it came down to which man would remain and which one would have to leave the company. My candidate didn’t go down without a fight, but he eventually lost the “war” and his job. As you might imagine, he realized that he was a much better leader than a follower, particularly of people who he felt more capable than and rightly so, perhaps.

I considered that placement as a missed opportunity to deliver the right solution to my client and through it I have learned that even when someone tells you that they want to take a “step back” with great passion and commitment, in a high percentage of the cases, they simply cannot sustain the transition. Their ego and high achievement drive cannot be constrained without great difficulty. To this day, I am reticent to ever place anyone in less a role than they previously enjoyed. There is great risk to the hiring company and managers.

In all reality, if you are applying for a job that is below your prior experience level, you ARE an increased flight risk. This doesn’t mean it you can’t do the job or that it never works, but search professionals are in the business of mitigating their client’s risk so if they won’t present you on a job that you really want, but is a step back, this is likely why. If this happens to you, you’ll likely hear that you’re “over qualified.”

The most common reason for calling someone “overqualified” is actually not based upon the candidate’s age in my experience. That is not to say that age is never a factor. I have had conversations with a hiring manager who essentially told me the approximate age of the “ideal candidate.” As an ethical search professional, you would dismiss that comment as it is irrelevant to one’s ability to execute the duties and it is “age discrimination,” which is frowned upon by certain people in the US Government. So, although age discrimination exists, don’t be too quick to assume this to be the case if you’re overlooked for a role. There are legitimate reasons one might be eliminated from consideration. Ultimately, those making the decision are going attempt to do what they think is in the best interests of their company. (Well, at least almost always.)


Why Can’t Your Company Hire Top Talent?

There have been many business books driving home the value of hiring top talent to create value and make companies successful. However, let’s face it, not every company CAN hire Top Talent. There are a variety of reasons for this, and sadly many companies struggle not knowing why they fail.  In over 26 years in business, both working in corporate America as well as consulting for corporations, I have distilled it down to three basic reasons that companies cannot hire an A Player. See if you agree with my assessment.

1. Value Proposition:  It is not always the fault of leadership as certain things are outside of their control. This may be a regulatory or reimbursement issue which undermines the potential of the opportunity and top talent may not see a “blue” enough sky for them to excel and do what they do best. It may also have to do with the company’s product line not being innovative enough. The best people want to be passionate about the projects they work on if your company has a lackluster product, that can certainly lack the power to draw the best people in. Lastly, the compensation in this company may be at a level that keeps A level talent away. There is a “bell curve” in the compensation range for a reason, and companies that recognize and reward high achievers will always have a greater chance of drawing the best people away from other companies.

2. Hiring Process: Some companies as they have gotten bigger have become overly process oriented and seem to have a policy for everything. These processes can be significant obstacles to bringing on the best talent.  The best people don’t want to treated like a number. One example would be HR’s policies on how a new candidate enters their “system.” It can also be something as seeminly benign as a screening call from an HR professional within the company. Too often  HR are conditioned to interview people as “applicants.” Applicants are people who have contacted the company in search of a job and as such are motivated to join the company for  myriad reasons.  “A players” are scarcely “applicants,” and if you treat them as one, you’ll decrease your chances of hiring them.  HR are conditioned to hire applicants and have built a process around this concept making it difficult for the best person for the job to get hired. Other policies or just big company process can also turn off the best people as the processes drone on and one and often become abiguous. To be successful,HR must treat A talent outside their organizations like customers! Unfortunately, HR isn’t used to interacting with customers and too often lack the soft skills to sell the opportunity and win the heart and mind of the most talented.

3. Weak Leadership:  Building lasting results is ALL About Talented Leadership. The most insidious reason that companies fail to hire great people has to do with the existing leadership in the company. The main reason for this is that people tend to hire in their own image. Talented leaders hire talented people because they are focused on developing people and getting results. Thus the more talented the leadership in the company, the more they will hire talented people under them and equip them for success. Conversely, the more dysfunctional a leader is, the more likely they are to hire people who do not possess the necessary talent to perform well in their role. I’ve witnessed this countless times and the results suffer terribly. Weak leaders are often afraid to, and usually unable to hire A Players. When a weak executive micromanages his team, or uses fear and intimidation to motivate he or she frustrates them to the point that the best people will ultimately quit and these leaders know this by now. This is because those “A Players” have the confidence to leverage their talent and experience to find another company where they can excel free from oppressive leadership.  Talented people are far more likely to leave  to get out from under the oppressive leadership of a poor manager.  Weak leaders are also fearful of someone more talented than themselves unseating them from their job. Steve Jobs said this of Apple’s CEO, John Scully, “I underestimated Scully’s survival instinct.” Scully was threatened by Jobs and when he feared losing control, he undermined Steve Jobs, arguably the most talented guy at Apple and ran him out of the company.  That is perhaps an extreme example, but unless you hire truly great at the top, you cannot expect to be able to hire the best people throughout the organization.

Great people want to be empowered to do great things. Weak or oppressive leadership undermines trust and creates a culture of fear such that people are less likely to take the kinds of risks that generate great rewards and make companies and the cultures within them great. I have had the occasion to work with all kinds of leaders both in my career in medical devices as well as in my search consultant practice.  The rule of thumb for me in my search practice is that you can’t hire better than the hirer. Or if you do, there will most certainly be problems. This is true for a number of reasons.  First the hirer generally fears the potential of the A Player and they’re concern of themself being replaced by this newly hired talent can cause them to constrain their hiring to people whom they feel they can control. I watched this happen while I was still at Stryker after we acquired Howmedica in 1999. The local Howmedica leadership team was a prime example of a bad leader hiring low performers to maintain his power. Fear and intimidation were the norm for this VP who surrounded himself with cronies that were so mediocre that it was astounding to all of us in the local branch. These corporate cronies were so vastly under-skilled that their very livelihoods depended upon the goodwill of their magnanimous leader. This was a dysfunctional team if I ever saw one.  The politics and shenanigans that went on were legendary. Subsequently, there was a lot of disruption to the business and it was an unhealthy workplace where people undermined each other to get ahead and there was no trust to be found.

In this example, many abrupt changes were made until eventually the fear mongering leader was removed from his position of leadership and placed in a non-influential role where he couldn’t do too much damage.  You have to give credit to Stryker values strong leadership talent and they purged a weak and ineffective leader that was incapable of hiring talented people or even keep the ones he inherited through the merger.  The puzzling part is that this fear mongering leader was at Howmedica for over 20 years even though he had a reputation for being like this. This proves that in some companies, bad leaders can survive and even thrive. Fortunately for Stryker, their culture would not tolerate his type of leadership through fear and intimidation so he was weeded out and eventually retired.

I share this story because under this type of leader, who by all appearances did fine, the company was filled with sub-par players under him, none of whom were capable of being groomed nor could any be promoted to any significant position of leadership. This VP was not the least bit concerned about developing his people or building a succession plan. He was only concerned with protecting his own turf and holding onto power.

We all know that corporate America can be cut-throat, but no one wants to work in that kind of environment.  Why do I drag this old story into this blog?  Because it is a great example of how poor leaders sometimes get into leadership positions that they shouldn’t.  And if you have the wrong leader in a position of power and influence, that could be the reason you can’t seem to hire great people. Hiring the “Best” must start at the very top and cascade down to each subsequent department head and their team. If a compromise is made for political or other seemingly valid reasons, the entire organization will suffer.

Of all three of these hindrances to hiring “A level talent,” the third is the worst by far. Because if you are able to beat the odds and someone of talent makes it through the poorly engineered hiring process or is willing to see the “poor value proposition” as a challenge, you have a talented person engaged. However, if you are able to hire a talented person under a poor leader, the outcome won’t be good for long. Great people need to be able to do what they do best in an empowering environment. Weak leadership is the greatest threat to top talent and thus to the company.