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Posted: March 23, 2009

The Mary Poppins principle

Employers need to value substance over easily-trainable skills

Liz Ryan

Dear Liz,
I'm on a job search, and I'm dismayed by the endless lists of job qualifications that show up in most job ads. Are there really people walking around who have fifteen or sixteen different specific protocols and certifications? Are all of these things really necessary? How about a hard-working and ethical person with a solid background and the ability to learn new things? Should I skip over these jobs or go ahead and apply even if I'm missing some of the bulleted requirements?
 
Thanks,
Daniel
 
Dear Daniel,

I could not agree with you more. I started out as a corporate HR person when Methuselah was learning his colors in preschool, and back then, most of the job ads were in the newspaper.

One day, I cut out an especially idiotic job ad and kept it in my pencil drawer. That job ad said "Administrative assistant needed - must have Word Perfect 5.0." Here's a perfect example of a job that requires quick thinking, good organizational, verbal and written communication skills and a great work ethic. What's in the ad? Word Perfect 5.0! Who cares about that? You could teach that application to any person who's had word-processing experience, in a few hours at most.
 
Employers get it backwards way too often. 
 
I call this problem the Mary Poppins effect. You may be too young to remember that movie, Daniel, but in it there are too little British kids who need a new nanny (their naughtiness has driven away the past dozen nannies) and they write their own job description. The kids want someone who is sweet, neat, pretty and will take them on outings and give them sweets, and so on. The dad rips up the kids' job spec and tosses it onto the fire, where it burns up and goes up into the chimney as smoke. Mary Poppins descends from the clouds sometime later, so presumably she got the job ad delivered to her via smokemail. The point is, in their 'job requisition' the kids asked for everything that would be desirable to them in a nanny.

They are adorable kids. We don't blame them for the long list of "must haves." We do blame experienced business managers for falling victim to the Mary Poppins syndrome.

If we can hire smart, nimble, ethical and hardworking people with relevant experience, we should be happy. When we overburden a job spec with endless, specific requirements, we not only lose out on highly qualified people, but we may lower the level of our talent in our organizations, as well.
 
Instead of screening people out of the running based on the presence or absence of a protocol or tool that they could pick up in hours, we should look for the fundamentals. Sure, if we have a choice to make between two outstanding candidates, maybe we'll choose the one with more of our fussy bullet-point items. (And maybe we won't.) To use a laundry list of ultra-specific requirements to make critical hiring decisions – sometimes including software applications that are peculiar to a given employer! – is ridiculous. It shows poor leadership.
 
A Mary Poppins-type job ad says to the reader, and to prospective buyers of the company's products or services, "Smart is good, but pre-trained is better. The less training we have to do, the better for me, the manager! Plan head? Heck no. I want someone to hit the ground running!"
 
Job ads that contain lists of twelve or fifteen must-have acronyms signal that the employer – or, at least, the hiring department – is not as smartly led as it might be.
 
In answer to your question, there generally aren't tons of people walking around with all of those silly protocols in place. Employers run Mary Poppins job ads and then they say "The quality of the labor pool is low." Ha! The quality of the labor pool is not low, if we're looking to hire flesh-and-blood human beings rather than bionic-engineered super-beings, pre-loaded with fifteen of the most obscure flash-in-the-pan certifications and protocols. We can do better. We can look for people who can think and solve thorny problems. We can teach them all of our favorite protocols once they're on the job.
 
As you look at a job ad, Daniel, use your good judgment and experience to decide which of the fifteen bullet-pointed requirements are essential to the job. If you've got eight or 10 of those bullet points under your belt, I'd go ahead and apply for the position. You don't have to mention the points you're missing. Instead, speak in your cover letter about the problems the employer is up against and your success in solving similar problems in the past. Think of the first paragraph of your cover letter – the paragraph that talks about the employer's situation, rather than your own – as the spoonful of sugar that helps your credentials get in front of the decision-maker.

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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at liz@asklizryan.com or www.asklizryan.com.

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