How To Win The War For The Top Talent

You’ve heard it many times, and probably said it a few times yourself: A company is only as good as its employees. In fact, everyone seems to be saying it; that phrase, with slight variations, gets more than a million hits on Google.

But while people may be, both literally and figuratively, the lifeblood of the organisation, why do many companies act as if talent is a commodity? The current high unemployment rate may be partly responsible for a misperception that open positions will be easy to fill. In fact, executives who are actively hiring say that finding good people is as difficult as ever, and possibly more so: economic uncertainty has made many potential candidates wary about leaving their current positions.

Therefore it’s important that companies of all sizes become more sophisticated in the ways that they recruit, particularly for upper-level positions, where competition for the most outstanding candidates is fierce. In order to ensure that your company reaches and ultimately hires the best talent available, senior executives across the organisation should take a holistic view of the entire recruitment and hiring process. Companies can no longer simply post an opening and sift through the resulting pile of resumes. To win the war for talent, executives and hiring managers should work closely with human resources departments to take advantage of a number of emerging techniques for reaching and ultimately hiring the best talent available.

Be Aggressive About Passive Candidates
For starters, be proactive. Don’t begin the hiring process when an employee gives notice, or when the company creates a new position, but long before. Cultivate a roster of potential hires by various forms of networking, both technological and personal.

For example, CareerBuilder’s Talent Network and LinkedIn Recruiter show just how far the concept of the “online job posting” has evolved. These aren’t mere job boards but powerful platforms that address many aspects of hiring, including “passive recruiting,” a practice whereby companies initiate and maintain contact with people who are not actively seeking new positions but might be open to talking.

Passive, or “continuous,” recruiting can be a great way to vet promising candidates over a period of many weeks or months. For fast-growing companies it can serve to create a pipeline of talent that can be hired fairly quickly in times of rapid expansion. Companies that want to develop more bench strength in specific areas, such as engineering, also find it useful. Passive recruiting is also a great way to stay in touch with valued employees who have left, or those who have applied for one job but might be better suited to another; (for more, see the related video interview with GE’s Kim Warne).

Technology can help you find people who hold certain positions or have suitable backgrounds or skills (a carefully constructed search phrase can produce a very targeted list of potential candidates). It also provides a way to advertise your brand and give potential candidates a clear picture of your company’s culture and values. YouTube videos featuring everything from site tours to employee testimonials are becoming increasingly common. And some companies are now encouraging employees to use their personal social-network pages to recruit potential job candidates.

Whether facilitated by Facebook and Twitter or good old word-of-mouth, employee referral programs remain a highly effective way to recruit talent, in part because employees know whether a friend or colleague will be a good cultural fit. “In my experience the vast majority of successful hires have come from a referral or a recommendation by someone in my network,” says Troy Henikoff, CEO of Excelerate Labs and a former CEO of many high-tech start-ups. That’s because “qualities like trust and reliability are critical, and job postings can’t capture those” in the same way a referral can.

Advertise Your Culture As Well As the Job
Job postings remain a viable way to attract active job seekers, but the key is to craft them with an eye toward attracting the best talent rather than simply screening out weaker candidates.

That means that the hiring manager should invest the time up front to craft a job description that does two things: clarifies performance expectations and underscores the appeal of the company. “If you aren’t a well-branded company,” says Lou Adler, president of The Adler Group, a consulting firm specializing in performance-based hiring, “your job posting needs to be written in a way that grabs attention. It should answer the question, ‘Why would a top person regard this job as a good career move?'”

It should also provide a lucid picture of the company culture, since you will ultimately be evaluating candidates on a combination of their skills and experience and their organizational fit. The more information you can provide about what they can expect, the more you will help them make an informed decision.

Adler recommends describing a position not in terms of years of experience or educational attainment but via performance objectives, which differ from the usual litany of competencies and skills that dominate the verbiage of most job postings. Spell out the six to eight objectives a new hire would need to achieve in order to be regarded as successful, and assess candidates based on their track records in achieving similar objectives.

Become an Ace Interviewer
Once you have a list of finalists to be interviewed, consider whether your current approach needs to be rethought. You may want to ask different kinds of questions, and even avoid some common behaviours that can impede making the optimum choice.

For example, Adler cautions that, “More hiring mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of the interview than at any other point in the process.” Too often, he says, the hiring manager quickly decides whether or not she likes the candidate, and that judgment shapes the rest of the interview, usually to ill effect. The interviewer lets her guard down with candidates she responds favourably to, but is unconsciously more hard-edged with candidates who don’t make a favourable first impression.

Assuming you can avoid the natural tendency to make quick judgments, how else can you optimise the interview process? Try to put the candidate at ease. “At the first job interview I ever went on,” says Scott Simmons, an executive recruiter at Crist Kolder Associates, “the manager said, ‘Look, I’m more nervous than you are, so just relax.’ That really helped.” Simmons also says that interviewers should be well-prepared, which means having a list of all the questions you need answered. Make sure you ask every candidate the same questions, so you can evaluate candidates on a set of common responses.

As for what questions to ask, “behavioural interviewing” is very useful: ask for an example of how the interviewee dealt with a challenging situation, what specific role they played as the situation unfolded, and what they learned from it. A single, open-ended question that lends itself to follow-ups can reveal a lot about a candidate.

Kevin Morrill, CTO and co-founder of Referly, a social shopping platform, relies on an interview technique he learned during his 10-year career at Microsoft, where he interviewed more than 500 job candidates. “I ask candidates to explain something to me in five minutes,” Morrill says. “It can be anything at all. One person tried to explain how to play poker, and another explained a book they had just read.”

The goal is to see how well the interviewee can communicate something reasonably complex, and can stay on target while doing so. This requires some cleverness on the part of the interviewer. Morrill, for example, will sometimes interrupt to ask a tangential question. He’s hoping the interviewee will find a graceful way to deflect the question rather than become distracted by it. The ability to remain confidently focused toward the goal of providing a lucid explanation is what counts the most. Note whether candidates take a minute to organise their thoughts before launching into their explanation; those who do often prove to be good hires.

Odds are good that candidates, particularly those applying for senior positions, will interview with several people in the organisation. Morrill says one key to making this multiple-interview approach work is for each interviewer to write down his or her impressions as soon as the interview is over, including quotes from the candidate and the interviewer’s opinions as to how the candidate’s behaviour and responses might predict how they’ll respond to the challenges of the position being discussed.

Hiring Is Not the End
While these techniques can help you attract and assess the best candidates and give you greater confidence that you will extend an offer to the right person, hiring will always entail a leap of faith. “In spite of all the great processes and questions we have as part of our process,” says Seth Besmertnik, CEO of Conductor, a technology company that specialises in search optimization, “some of the people we were on the fence about turned out to be great, and others whom everyone loved turned out to be not so great.”

Extending the offer is not, in a sense, the end of the hiring process. As Besmertnik says, “hiring is a form of risk that you have to actively manage” by working closely with the new person to help them adjust to their new role in a way that enables all their talents to emerge.

As for the people who don’t get the offers, treat them well. Let them know what the winning candidate possessed that made the difference, and stay in touch with them (particularly the finalists, who may be ideal for another position). Treat all candidates well at every step of the process, and advance each step as quickly as possible. When candidates are left with a positive impression of the company they may act as ambassadors for you, alerting friends and colleagues to your culture and your opportunities. Yes, even applicants who aren’t hired can help you hire the best. And they themselves may prove to be the best for a future opening.

Additional Resources:

Using Social Media to Enhance Recruiting
Many new technology platforms allow executives to use “social referrals” as a way to efficiently market available positions and enhance the recruitment of passive job candidates.

Hire Education
A well-designed internship program can greatly enhance a company’s talent pipeline. Learn how GE has had great success with this approach.

Don’t Try to Capture the ‘Purple Squirrel’
Many jobs remain open for far too long because companies hold out for the mythical “perfect candidate.” Here’s advice on how to maintain high standards while also being realistic.

Should You Hire More Generalists?
Research has found that generalists make more accurate predictions than experts. They also help tame information overload by adding critical context to data. Is there a hiring lesson in this?

Big Manager on Campus
Top college graduates remain in high demand, so companies that hope to attract the best need to do more than simply staff a booth at college job fairs. Here’s how to graduate to the next level.

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