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The Perfect Fit, Isn't
The imperfect fit may be the perfect choice

By David Hunt, P.E.

Hiring "the perfect fit." It's the fantasy of every employer. The problem is, this fantasy hurts companies because it increases employee turnover, increases downtime, and promotes corporate complacency.

Perfect frustration
As an engineer currently "in transition", I've been quite fortunate during my job search. Unlike lots of people, I get interviews. But, agonizingly, I don't get many employment offers. My problem? I'm not a perfect fit. Since my credentials and accomplishments are very good, I've taken to wondering what a perfect fit is -- and whether companies are deluding themselves that perfect fits are the best hires.

The feedback I get is positive. I interview well. I have excellent qualifications and I am articulate, sincere, and results-driven. My engineering experience is solid and includes significant accomplishments in product design, cost reduction, and process improvements. I've even got two patents -- plus masters-level degrees in both Engineering and Management.

I've met quite a lot of imperfect fits like me who share my frustration. The consensus is two-fold. First, companies fear hiring a poor performer or someone who will leave soon. Second, they want someone who has done the job already and can drop into the position and be effective with no learning curve.

The pigeon problem
On the face of it, given the seemingly large pool of available talent, the desire for a perfect fit seems smart. After all, a perfect fit (assuming one really exists) can hit the ground running. But ironically, the closer to a perfect fit a candidate is, the more likely that person is to leave soon because the narrow job definition is likely to create dissatisfaction. In other words, I think people take new jobs for new experiences and the chance to learn new things -- not to get pigeonholed.

I pursued a Masters in Engineering to break out of a specialty into which I'd been pigeonholed. But the only position I found after receiving my degree was doing it again -- I was a perfect fit. No wonder I left within a year. That same danger applies to everyone taking a position identical to one they've done before. Employers should bank on the fact that most will keep looking because few employees want a stagnant career. Pigeons leave and the job is once again left undone.

Analysis paralysis
The cost of leaving a position unfilled can be significant, not only because work is left undone and schedules slip, but because other functions that depend on the empty position are affected, too. The question is, does it cost more to leave a job undone, or to hire a worker who needs a bit of a learning curve?

In his book Winning, Jack Welch addressed the debate about hiring someone who can hit the ground running versus someone capable of growth. He'd choose the latter. Additionally, he acknowledges the risk of making imperfect hires and considers it preferable. After 30-plus years of hiring, he says he got it right only 80% of the time. Any hiring is risky and there are no guarantees. Ultimately, dithering and delaying in hiring produces "analysis paralysis." Hoping to avoid unavoidable risks, jobs are left unfilled, the employer's needs are left unmet and customers are left unhappy.

But there is another danger to discounting imperfect fits. While hiring a perfect fit is a good tactical move, it can be a strategic error in an economy that is increasingly dependent on rapid innovation and revolutionary, not evolutionary, thinking.

Do the job or solve the problem?
Companies make a strategic error when they hire people who are easily pigeonholed. Pigeons will peck away at a task because they've done it before. The imperfect hire asks, "Why?" Imperfect fits see opportunities that aren't obvious. For example, I worked in automotive lighting, and then transferred to climate control. My "outsider's" lighting experience led to an unusual idea with the potential to save my company over $750,000 annually. Insiders doubted it would work, but the idea was completely validated -- ironically, just weeks before I was laid off.

In another case, my imperfect attitude led me to question why the company was scrapping so many parts purchased from a certain supplier. The parts were failing our test procedures. Rather than focusing on the part itself, I asked whether our tests were unnecessarily stringent. It turned out the parts functioned just fine -- the problem was with the testing process, not our parts vendor. Suddenly, expensive parts were no longer being scrapped and our productivity improved. The experts were doing the job the way it was always done. They made assumptions and blamed the supplier. It took a fresh-eyes perspective to see the reality and to solve the problem.

The perfect choice
Nobody has a lock on all the best practices. Few problems are new or unique to any one industry. New solutions come from a fresh look at problems. That's why it's dangerous to hire narrowly. Imperfect fits bring new perspectives and experience to a company. Continuous innovation and growing, enthusiastic employees are critical. In learning the industry and in bringing outside experiences, imperfect fits will find innovations that just might be hiding in plain sight. Further, growth opportunities actually reduce the risk that an employee will leave since they are not repeating stale tasks that have been done the same way for years.

Innovation means new products, new solutions, and money saved. Employees who are free to meet challenges in new ways enjoy career growth -- and that means long-term retention for employers. In other words, the imperfect fit may very well be the perfect choice.

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If you enjoyed this article by David Hunt, don't miss Avoiding Risk In Hiring Means Avoiding Innovation. Whatever the field, experienced outsiders can bring insights that come from not knowing what can't be done!

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David Hunt is a Mechanical Engineer. He's a perfect choice for a Project Engineering position in the medical device/instrument, alternative energy, or aerospace/military industries. He is flexible in his geographic preference, though he does admit a fondness for the idea of living in New Hampshire. He can be reached at davidhunt@outdrs.net.


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