How We Use a Federal Job Framework to Improve Startup Hiring

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When we get called in to help early-stage startups hire, we often start with a current job description (if there is one). And we invariably find lots of vague criteria, like:

  • 3-5 years’ sales experience (Why exactly that much? What does 3 years mean you know that 2.5 years doesn’t?)

  • Excellent communication skills (Clear speaking voice? Talent for drawing info out of reticent employees? Ability to write concise briefs?)

These types of criteria are super common. They’re also not nearly good enough to run an efficient search.

From day 1, we’ve challenged our clients to get really specific about what they’re looking for. No more “Proactive attitudes” and “Deadline orientation” without lots more context!

Then a few years back, we were introduced to an intriguing framework.

It came from an unexpected place not known for its innovation: the government. Yet we saw exciting possibilities to help companies get more specific. We began to experiment.

So what’s the framework?

K-S-A.

It was initially used in federal job applications and stands for:

  • K - Knowledge

  • S - Skills

  • A - Abilities

“KSAs” are actually essays that job seekers write as part of their applications. Yet we’ve had a lot of success adapting the federal definition of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities to help startups improve their hiring and find top-caliber candidates.

We thought: what if we used this KSA idea to generate way more specific candidate attributes than “Ability to think creatively and innovatively”?

So we tried. And it worked!

Defining Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

We use the following basic definitions for each of K, S and A:

  • Knowledge - Information you know well and can easily command. For example, a good real estate agent should know many of the relevant local laws. This doesn’t mean you do anything in particular information, just that you have it at the ready and can use it to avoid missteps or capitalize on opportunities.

  • Skills - Originally applied specifically to psychomotor skills, we’ve adapted it to simply mean things you’ve gotten good at through practice. You could theoretically get a score  at a “How good are you at X” contest. For example, someone who is an “Excel ninja,” or fluent in French. The important thing is that we’re not concerned with any particular results, such as whether someone can negotiate a multi-million dollar real estate deal in French.

  • Abilities - This means that you can produce an observable result in a specific context. The important distinction between Abilities and Skills is that for Abilities, it matters less how you achieved the result than the fact that you did it. To go back to the previous example, this would be something like, “Can successfully negotiate a multi-million dollar real estate deal in French.” We actually don’t care if your French is perfect or pidgin - as long as you can get the deal done and make everyone happy, we’re happy.

How do you know which you want - K, S or A?

First, it’s important to know that whether K, S or A, these are attributes we want someone to bring with them on Day 1.

So for Knowledge, what are the things they need to know on Day 1 - or else they’ll slow the rest of the team down or be unable to make the right decisions?

For Skills, how good must they be at a discrete skill to keep up with the variety of ways they’ll use that skill at your company?

And for Abilities, what results should they produce - and in what context - using whatever methods work best for them?

(Side note on Skills vs. Abilities: From a practical perspective, being persnickety about the exact difference between a skill and ability is less important than having a clear definition of what you want to see. So whether you say “Skill to produce excellent brochures in InDesign” or “Ability to produce excellent brochures in InDesign,” you’ll still be focused on the important part.)

Let’s see some examples of how we use each.

We use Knowledge when we feel like any reasonable person could do what we want if they only knew X. For example, anyone can avoid over- or under-baking a cake if they know to check that the center is 210˚ F. And again, this is knowledge the candidate should come in with - you don’t have the time or resources to teach them these things on-the-job.

We use Skills when we need a high level of aptitude but don’t know exactly where we’ll apply it in the future. Lots of technical jobs are this way. For example, you may need a coder with top-shelf Java skills if you know that 1) you’re tied to that language for a while; and 2) your technical challenges will only get harder.

And we’ll use Abilities when the most important thing is a result in a context. For example, a Director of Product at your company may routinely need to get buy-in from a small number of highly siloed stakeholders with big personalities. Totally different from getting buy-in from your team, or from a group of laid-back execs who stay in close communication. The manner in which you do something could matter, too - for example, a manager who gets high productivity from her team without being a taskmaster.

And that’s it! Knowledge is what you know about, skills are things you’re a “ninja” at, and abilities are what you can get done, and where. Of the 3, we’ll define a candidate attribute as an Ability about 50% of the time.

These 3 served us well for a few years. Eventually, though, we found it useful to make up a 4th term of our own.

Presenting “+M”

(That is not a formatting error.)

K, S and A together covered most of what we wanted candidates to bring with them on Day 1. But over time, we realized that a few things didn’t neatly fall under those 3 headings. We needed a way to capture desires, drives or tendencies when they really mattered.

Presenting KSA+M!

M stands for Motivation.

With startups in particular, a personal drive can be equally (or more) important than the current ability level. When undergoing big changes, tactics or even titles may shift every few months. But the underlying drive to sell, or design, or get the word out, throughout all the changes, needs to remain constant.

So what might this look like?

We might say a candidate needs “a Motivation to make everything they touch more beautiful”. When would we use this?

Let’s say you need a designer. Maybe you have no designers on your team, so you need someone higher level to direct the visual identity of your brand. Maybe you’re working on a physical product with an online experience portal. And you probably need to produce materials for marketing.

And let’s say that like Apple, you want people to “ooh” and “ahh” over how every last thing you produce looks.

In this case, there’s a big difference between Designer A, who knows all the tools of the trade and can adapt them to any client’s needs, and Designer B, who gets physically uncomfortable if something looks less beautiful than it should.

You want Designer B. You need someone to lead, have opinions, and constantly push the standard higher. This isn’t something the work up to - it needs to be in their DNA.

OK, so far so good. Where else do we use Motivations?

Motivation as a part of Culture Fit

The other way we often use the +M piece is for attributes broadly grouped under “culture fit.”

Many teams have norms of behavior that aren’t really learned - they’re just “the way everyone is.”

For example, we worked with a small company whose employees routinely pulled each other aside after meetings to discuss how to communicate in a more inclusive way. They wanted new team members to not just be OK with that, but to relish it. The kind of person who may have caused friction in a more bureaucratic environment because they needed to break down communication walls.

We ended up with this:

“Motivated to always improve their ability to communicate in a way that is effortlessly mindful of others - and do so with colleagues, potential clients, and current clients.”

It bears repeating that this is not the same as an ability to do something. This means someone will be inclined in a direction without anyone directing them. They will inject more of this trait into your culture.

So if you need to see more of a particular orientation, communication style, way of being - consider using a Motivation.

Putting it all together: time to pick favorites

In just a meeting or two, your hiring team should be able to knock out several KSA+M’s that the whole team agrees are important to do your job well.

The final step before rewriting a job description and searching for candidates is to prioritize what you have.

Ideally, you should be able to whittle down to 5 or so make-or-break attributes. These can then form the basis of your search strategy and your interview process.

Moreover, having everything written down and agreed upon by the whole hiring team makes hiring a lot easier.

Instead of bickering over the semantics of “Excellent leadership ability,” you can focus on finding objective evidence that candidates will excel at specific things.

Instead of asking for stories where candidates showed “Excellent leadership ability,” you can ask them how they were able to successfully get a small and rancorous group of higher-ups to come to agreement.

Or how they built a first-ever sales team of at least 5 people, then created a first-ever training program.

Or whatever else your startup needs most.