ca. 1999, Del Mar, California, USA — Horse Racing at Track — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I take simple delight in reading explanations for things I sense but haven’t fully cognized. It happened yesterday, three times. Here’s the most interesting.

“Companies have been hiring and developing these generic workhorse leaders when what they really need is a thoroughbred whose strengths are specifically suited to a particular racetrack.” (Harvard Business Review, When Hiring Execs, Context Matters Most)

Aside from being dry as dust, most job descriptions are boiler plate, a laundry list of tasks and accountabilities. They ignore the racetrack on which such responsibilities are to be enacted. Consider the role of chief marketing officer. Is growth to come through product innovation, overseas sales expansion or acquisition? Is the company culture one of conflict, collaboration or internal competition? Answers to these and other contextual challenges should drive the analysis of candidate qualifications.

The HBR article springs from research by CEB, an advisory firm under the Gartner umbrella, which studied 9,000 leaders over three years. “As they crunched the data and worked to understand why some leaders succeeded while others underperformed, the biggest factor that emerged was how well a leader’s personality, skills and experience meshed with the specific challenges of the job.”

If we ignore the reality of a particular racetrack — the specific challenges of a job —  we overlook a fundamental component of the overall structure that the horse (employee) is in. It’s illogical, even counter-productive, to expect a given outcome when an essential element of the structure isn’t taken into account.

The elegance of CEB’s finding rests in its relevance to so many walks of life, from hiring the right head of sales, to accepting or declining specific consulting engagements, to coaching little league teams. Yes, skills are transferable. They are the what. The how work is undertaken helps to predict success when context (the racetrack) receives its due.