Sprinters and Marathoners

Sprinters and Marathoners

The first thing I want to find out about a candidate during an interview is whether he is a sprinter or a marathoner. Of course, it would be easier to ask him the question directly, but many (especially the youngsters) would have trouble answering, probably because they never thought about it or because they do not know themselves well enough.

Quite often, a highly motivated candidate may pass the technical test successfully but fails after his first interview. This often causes discontentment and frustration in the individual, sometimes coupled with a feeling of unfairness and misunderstanding. And yet the reason is quite simple, the candidate may have a sprinter’s profile while the company is looking for a marathoner (or vice-versa). If the profile is ignored and the position is given to the candidate whose personality does not match the needs of the company. In that case, it often results in dissatisfaction on both sides. The individual may find the assignment given to him as too stressful, not well structured, not well articulated, or on the other hand too tedious or too constrained. Most often this results in burnout or premature abandonment even when the candidate has the required skills.

Everything would be easier if, during the interview, the candidate specified his type of personality and immediately understands that the position is not in line with his profile. However, the exercise is much easier than it seems, because to understand the difference between a sprinter and a marathoner is not enough, it is also necessary to be able to define one’s preference when one is just starting their career.

Sprinter versus marathoners is a simple analogy that illustrates quite well the difference in personality. In as much as the two are athletes, the physical and psychological differences between the two are huge. It is extremely unfair for a sprinter to have to do a marathon. Usain Bolt reportedly said he never had to run more than 1.5km and that in any case beyond 800m he became quite bored. The body of a sprinter is cut to provide maximum performance over a very short distance. His muscles are much more massive. Psychologically, the sprinter must reach his top speed as quickly as possible, and, to achieve that, he must spare no effort. On the other hand, the marathoner must pay close attention to his weight. In fact, to be able to go as far as possible, he must be light and know how to pick up and get going. If he starts with a sprint, he will not go far.

In the corporate world, this analogy is applicable. A sprinter will perform very well in short-term assignments where the rules are unclear and high level of uncertainty. On the other hand, a marathoner will have a better performance in long-term tasks, where the rules are defined and the challenge is known. Regardless of the profile, both are capable of solving complex problems but will not have the same approach. The wrong profile on the wrong mission can have an unsatisfactory and sometimes chaotic result.

There is no specific category of job reserved for a sprinter and another reserved for a marathoner. Most of the time, the difference is more in the tasks than in the job. I know a lot of good sprinter web developers as well as many marathoner web developers. That said, some jobs have a very high skewness in favor of one type of personality. Most of the very good out-bound sales profiles have a sprinter profile. An Out-bound salesperson whose mission is to look for the first customers of a small unknown company and in which the usefulness of the product has not yet been proven is more likely to succeed in his work if he is a sprinter.

Care must be taken not to equate a sprinter or a marathoner to an extrovert or an introvert. Even though there is surely a slight correlation, these two notions are different. There are introverted sprinters and extroverted marathoners. It is also worth noting that it is not a binary classification. In the same way that we have 60m, 100m, 200m, 110m, 2km, 5km, 10km, half-marathon, and marathon in a race; there are also various types of missions in the corporate world. Very often, athletes who win the race between (500m, 1km, 2km, etc...) are neither the best sprinters nor the best marathoners. Many people have a mixture of both profiles, for example; 60% marathoners and 40% sprinters. This makes profiling exercise a little more difficult. One last thing to take into cognizance is that the personality of individuals can change over time. For example, an individual can start her career as a 55% sprinter, 45% marathoner, and can become a 40% sprinter and 60% marathoner after 7 years of experience.

These are therefore several parameters to take into account when trying to match the profile of a candidate in relation to the assignment that will be entrusted to him. It is not easy for a young candidate to assess his own profile and even less, the connection between his profile and the tasks he will be working on. That’s why a candidate should be honest about his/her preferences during an interview rather than try to please the interviewer. This enables the recruiters to avoid putting a square peg in a round hole thereby saving the applicant the trouble of getting into a job where they will likely not be fulfilled in.