Sometimes, getting a person with a college degree into a high-level job just isn’t enough

I make no apologies for spending the vast majority of my time this morning talking about hiring and career coaching, but first, take a moment to say a little more about yourself. The views and opinions you express on this page are yours alone. They do not represent those of the companies you work for or to which you are affiliated.

It used to be common for companies to place high value on a college degree, with internships and jobs earmarked for students entering their 20s or 30s. In recent years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of internships and jobs with organizations with low to midlevel ranks.

So now what?

It turns out, while we all might want our companies to fill high-level positions with people with degrees, that isn’t necessarily what the hiring manager wants — so much as it is someone who comes equipped with the skills to have the position at all.

The reality is this: There’s probably nobody you know who has a whole lot of experience managing more senior executives. But there’s definitely someone who isn’t suited for higher-level positions but who is a proven performer in the role you’re taking.

Maybe this fits the bill, if you’re good at your job, or want a higher-level position. In either case, let’s start listening to the person in the role and how he or she perceives the work. And there’s an important lesson to take away from that.

Not every person can handle high-level management. Managing up and down, however, doesn’t have to be. And that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about now: Hiring someone who fits the job description but also has the same or similar skills and history you would want.

Let’s say you have a promotion at work, and you’re very pleased and curious about finding someone who fits the company but who has the skills you’d like. If there’s one thing I know about hiring, it’s that hiring without knowing the person is easier said than done.

Have you ever been confused about whether you should call someone who has a letter “S” or an “M” after his or her name? That’s called asking for references. And here’s what you get:

More than 100 per minute! But one in five fill out the form anyway. Nearly all who didn’t file are in the middle of 40-hour weeks, but most are juggling families and jobs at the same time.

All but 10 percent are over age 50, and two-thirds have no college degree.

Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to have a No. 2 in-house. You can watch the company’s competitive effectiveness plummet. When executives don’t have the chops to take on a strategic project, or one of them has a track record of abysmal project management, they lose control of their teams and impact the company. When managers become ineffective, accountability suffers.

One big mistake employers make is not having a clear sense of who exactly a candidate is, and more importantly, what her or his abilities are. This is very different from looking for a middle manager or an intern, because there are other roles across the organization that require a higher level of strategic thinking.

So not having a sense of the person can often kill a hiring plan. Asking people about their own work history is a must, but knowing what the person’s strengths are is something you can and should look at differently.

While you’re at it, ask how people from their past worked in their current position — what training programs and learning experiences they had, what the typical tasks were, and how long they’ve held the role.

If we can learn something from all of this, it’s that the key to successful hiring is understanding and engaging the person.

It’s easy to be critical of hiring practices, but hopefully I’ve already made it clear: You don’t need a degree to have the skills required. And it’s also abundantly clear that the likelihood of someone doing a great job at a higher level is much higher than it is managing more junior positions.

After all, you can never have too many good people in a team. And just because someone is new to an organization doesn’t mean they need to be someone new to your workplace, either.

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