Can You Really Be "Overqualified?"

Posted by Duane Cummings on 12/04/2018

It began innocently enough…I answered my cell and on the line was a friend who is also the CEO of a medium sized company. After we spent a few minutes catching up on what our families were up to and each others upcoming plans for the holidays, he asked if I knew of anyone that would be interested in a Regional Sales Manager position with his company.  A few people instantly came to mind and I began making a list as he continued sharing additional details.

He explained that the company had been forced to speed up expansion into a new geographic region to support one of their existing customers.  The potential candidate would be able to office at home and live anywhere in the southeastern United States, as long as they were close to an airport.  The pay and benefits were great and on face value it seemed like a fantastic opportunity.

I ask for more details regarding the search and he shared that his HR team, an outsourced recruiting firm and the Vice President of Sales had found several potential candidates, but none had signed on and they desperately needed someone in place before the end of the year. He also explained that promoting from within wasn’t an option.  If truth be told, in a few cases they had already promoted people beyond their current capabilities because of the rapid growth they’ve faced over the last few years. He finished by saying that he’d just come out of a meeting where he offered to “make some calls.” 

~~~You may already be thinking (like I was during the call) there are probably other practices in his company that may need some attention.~~~ 

His call wasn't lost on me and I let him know, “I’m grateful that you called.”  And then I had an idea, “Hey, what do you think of this? The consulting project I was working on just wrapped up---I do have speaking dates for 2019 and am still writing, but I could work around that stuff...what if I come fill the spot? That way your client is happy and then you can take the time to find and train the right person?” We had worked on a few things together in the past, so it didn’t seem out of place at the time to have that kind of dialogue. 

And then he said it, 

                          “You’re overqualified.”

The phrase stopped me in my tracks.  For one, I couldn’t remember ever saying that phrase to anyone else and two, I couldn't remember it ever being said to me.  Yet, it came out of his mouth without hesitation.  There’s no doubt that I have easily be UNDERqualified for countless positions…but “overqualified?” I was a bit stunned.

Feeling wounded, I prodded, “Are you sure you’re not just using “overqualified” as an out?  We’re close enough you could tell me if it's about my abilities.” He replied, “Truthfully, I think you’d be bored.” He then added, “and it would probably cause some issues with my Vice President.  I mean, you and I are friends, so he’d end up being insecure, maybe intimidated and I think it would be a recipe for disaster.”

I eased my tone and slowed my speech, “That’s fair, but then that brings up something else for me.”  I took a deep breath, “We’ve been friends a long time and I could be way off base, but now it actually sounds more like you may have a culture problem as opposed to a hiring problem.” There was a long silence and I still wonder if in the moment, I didn’t say that as a defense mechanism? Perhaps to deflect the news that somehow I wasn’t good enough to fill the position.  Regardless of why, it still appeared as though I was onto something. After what seemed an eternity he agreed, “Perhaps.”  Fortunately, we talked for another hour and ended the call by setting up a day for me to go visit with him. 

As I’ve continued to ponder what happened during that call, I’ve played the “what if”game.  For instance, “what if” Chef Gordon Ramsay decided he wanted to take a job as a cook in a local elementary school, would he be “overqualified.”  Let's be clear, I’m not saying that I’m a giant in my industry like he is, or anyone else I reference. 

But, “what if” Warren Buffett decided he wanted to go back and be a financial analyst at a small Wall Street firm, would he be “overqualified?”  Sure, he may intimidate other people in the office and there would probably be a respect for him that would make it difficult for the leaders to truly cast a vision and make things happen without first getting his buy in. But, does that mean he's "overqualified," or as my friend said, it's more likely that it is simply a recipe for disaster?

With his football team currently #1 in the country, "what if" Nick Saban decided to leave the University of Alabama and go coach a local high school team, would he be “overqualified?”  

A football coaching staff has always been a unique laboratory for building leadership teams. You’ll often see ex-head coaches join the staffs at other collegiate and professional programs.  They set their egos aside for the betterment of the team. In fact, the title “Co-Head Coach” is seen more and more nowadays, because leaders and institutions are willing to make whatever changes are necessary for a better shot at success. I wonder why we don't see that kind of strategy as often in the corporate world?

Perhaps that’s really it and “overqualified” is simply another way of saying “you won’t fit in the team?” I don’t really know.  But, I do know humans don’t usually enjoy being rejected and so maybe, I’m just hung up on the idea that I wasn’t going to get a shot at that opportunity.  If that's the case, I'd have rather heard, "You're just not the right fit."

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  I know there are HR managers, SHRM professionals, and executives of all levels who can shed some light on this subject. And maybe, just maybe through this process I will become an “overqualified” expert on the subject… of being “Overqualified.”

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Duane Cummings