5 Steps To Build A More Innovative Organization


business strategy Are you struggling to get your new initiatives off the ground? Do you wish your organization was more nimble and entrepreneurial? Do you yearn to build a team of people who don’t need a rule-book … people who can handle ambiguity? Do you daydream about having a team of fearless innovators who bring you great ideas, and then leap into action to make their ideas a reality?

OK, fine, it’s good to have goals.

But if you don’t work in that kind of environment right now, are you sure you know what innovation really looks like … up close and personal? And when you interview an innovator, just what exactly should you look for? And after you hire them, will your office be like the set of Mad Men?   

If you’re looking for someone with a history of serendipitous moments, where the innovation muse whispers brilliance into their ear, the cosmos align, the sun bursts through the fog and birds start chirping, you will be looking for a very long time. As children we all heard the tale of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, causing a supposedly sudden insight into his theory of gravity. But few of us heard what Mr. Newton was doing prior to that famous moment. So does innovation look like blindingly brilliant moments of fruit-inspired inspiration? Or does it look more like the part of the story that happened before the apple fell?

Sorry kids, strokes of genius are really tiny–more like pointillist painting than the broad-brush conversational style used in most executive suites. If you want to hire an innovator, don’t look for a fast-talker with grandiose ideas, they will not go the distance. As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

Instead of hiring a big talker, seek out someone who can methodically and painstakingly take tiny, unconnected painted dots (ideas) and form them into a bigger (and more interesting) picture. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, calls this the “Myth of Epiphany.” As he puts it, “Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it.

Other researchers have also concluded that innovation is a far more arduous process than most of us are led to believe. Keith Sawyer describes how one researcher set out to chronicle Eureka! moments only to find that good ideas are actually built upon bit-by-bit.  Peter Sims studied Pixar and the creative process used by world-class architects and comedians. Here is what he said:

“It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.”

Chris Rock knows many of his joke ideas will bomb. More importantly, he knows that’s completely OK. He revises and edits his material until he arrives at the tightly crafted sets we see on HBO. Breakthrough ideas and innovations are built on foundations of mistakes and dead ends. Innovation is surprisingly methodical, as it emerges over time out of “peripheral” knowledge, or out of seemingly irrelevant ideas.

Even on TV, innovation does not look so easy:

What appears to be an effortless flash of brilliance in this clip did not come out of nowhere (though the timing is fortunate). Prior to the dramatic scene, Don Draper had spent the entire episode scribbling countless pitch ideas onto napkins, only to decide they were all terrible.

So how do you build a more innovative organization? 

Read the rest of this entry »

How to Hire an Innovator and Change Agent


iStock_000017017468XSmallEvery week I talk with organizations who are looking for a change agent–someone with creativity and drive, and a proven track record of kicking new initiatives into high gear.

Why do they come to me?

Because hiring managers are beginning to realize that the skills required to create a track record of success in good times (any time before 2008) are different than the skills needed since the downturn began. Managers have been disappointed by candidates who spoke eloquently about innovation in the interview but failed to deliver results. At Staffing Advisors, we live and breathe innovation. We see it up close every day within our firm, and across hundreds of searches, we’ve learned what to look for when we interview people for our clients.

So how do you weed out the hacks and the phonies during the interview process? How do you find people who are delivering results right now? Here are five of our best articles on how to hire an innovator: 

  1. How to Interview an Innovator – How can you accurately discern from the interview how a candidate will perform on the job? Separate the real deal innovators from the poseurs and empty suits with these methods.
  2. Hiring People Who Can Handle Ambiguity – Innovators often excel at ambiguous and complicated grey-area tasks. But to effectively understand how candidates handle ambiguity don’t ask,”Tell me about a time you were in an ambiguous situation.” It won’t work. Try this instead.
  3. Hiring People Who Have a Growth Mindset – A survivalist mentality crept into some workplaces, characterized by fear and risk aversion.  This outlook is counter to what’s needed to jump start growth. Here are 5 important qualities needed in people who lead growth initiatives.
  4. Don’t Believe Everything You Think – If you’re looking for an innovator, be sure to hire candidates who demonstrate successful adaptation to rapid change. What distinguishes these people? They are the ones who consistently challenge your organization’s out-dated assumptions, the ones that take the time to constantly view problems from new perspectives. Is an innovator really going to be an effective change agent for your organization if they can’t do this regularly?
  5. Why Do Change Agents Often Fail? – After you successfully identify and hire a real deal innovator, you’re not out of the woods yet – studies show that up to 70% of change initiatives fail. Fortunately, you can dramatically improve your odds using these insights from the field of neuroscience.

If all these articles make you begin to think that innovation is more perspiration than inspiration, then you are on the right track.

When Hiring, Should You Ask for Salary Requirements? It Depends on the Market.


resume2I’ve talked a lot recently about how employers need to adapt to the rise of mobile job seekers – especially by making the application process less painful. Let’s tackle a related job-seeker frustration – asking that salary history be included with an applicant’s resume. A recent job seeker – who is underpaid in their current position – asked me “Is it possible to fulfill this request without revealing this information? Or do I have no choice but to disclose it?” With the job market recovering, job seekers are concerned that your compensation strategy just involves tacking on an additional 10% to their undervalued recession salary, keeping them behind the curve.

If you’re looking for a candidate with highly competitive skills, remove the salary history requirement. Asking for a salary history is instantly off-putting. High-quality, in-demand candidates will tune out and not complete the application process. And why should they? They’re being heavily recruited by other organizations that didn’t put up as many hurdles in the initial application. And they’ll likely take it as an attempt to lowball a salary offer, and steer clear.

Is the market for the position particularly scarce, where every application you get counts? Then don’t be such a stickler for the rules that you will instantly disqualify a top performer because they chose not to include the required salary history. You may have overlooked someone perfect for your organization. And odds are they didn’t include it because they want to ensure that your compensation philosophy is market-based – not based on their salary history.

Now, I’m aware that not all positions and budgets require a top performer, and not all positions are lacking in highly qualified candidates. If you’re looking to fill a dime-a-dozen position in a market with a plethora of talent, you can probably get away with including salary history in your application process. You get market data for free – so you can easily narrow applicants down to those that meet your budget. Candidates will still find the question off-putting, but the resulting few that drop out of the application process likely won’t damage your chances of finding someone to fill the position. It’s much more destructive to your chances when there’s market scarcity for the needed position.

Recently I spoke with an HR executive who had just filled out a frustrating application.  She said, “I implemented all these labor-saving components into my Applicant Tracking System, but I didn’t realize what a terrible experience the candidates were having as a result.”

Go test this – apply for a job in your own company and see if you give up before completing the application process. If you’ve instituted multiple requirements or labor saving measures, I’m betting you’ll walk away with a headache – especially if salary history is only one of many hurdles. Now imagine how many top performers did the same thing for all your past open positions.  Your search for talent might be easier (and maybe more successful) if you lower your organization’s initial barriers to entry.

How To Interview An Innovator


innovation1Clients often engage us to help them find an innovator for a strategically significant project. They need people who have taken something entirely new and gotten it off the ground, which is all too rare.

So that means we need to help them find a way to interview innovators and distinguish the poseurs and pretenders from the Real Deal Innovators. The world is full of one-hit wonders who, like Forrest Gump, happened to be present once at a successful time in history. Their false confidence and hubris will stand in the way of your innovation as surely as their inflated salary requirements will impoverish your new initiative.

As it turns out, it’s not that hard to separate the pretenders from the doers. I consider you the Real Deal if:

  • You spend more time innovating and putting your ideas into practice than almost anyone in your peer group (which accelerates your expertise far beyond everyone in your field).  You have earned the respect of a few industry  insiders, but you are probably not famous or widely known. (This is widely misunderstood. Being famous is a reverse predictor … it takes time and effort to build fame. Time that could be better spent on innovation.)
  • Unlike the famous people who speak at all the cool conferences, you have the tyranny of daily results driving your innovation. You measure yourself against hard metrics. You don’t come up with ideas and then spend time giving speeches about it. Trying to look smart. Leading to the inevitable decline of your actual skills as you progressively lose touch with reality and spend more time with sycophants.
  • And you probably don’t work in a place where your ideas have to be approved by a committee. You don’t spend all day in meetings. And you certainly don’t spend all day reporting on your results instead of producing them

No, when you are the Real Deal, you spend the vast majority of your time in the trenches. You know that most ideas don’t survive contact with reality. But parts of them do. So you try things, fail, learn, refine, and improve. Constantly experimenting, and constantly challenged by the imperative of producing results. Genius physicist Neils Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

It’s bloody hard to be on the bleeding edge of innovation. Creating the future is always uncomfortable and from day to day it usually feels like failing … until you look back from time to time and see how far you’ve come. (I am collecting a series of the most useful articles on this topic here: http://www.scoop.it/t/driving-innovation. Scott Berkun’s classic book The Myths of Innovation is also a must-read for innovators.)

So how do you interview an innovator?

  • Listen for the daily grind of it.
  • Listen for the experimentation, the risk, the failure and the grit and resilience to try again.
  • Run from people who describe it as a big success with no moments of uncertainty.
  • And then ask yourself, “Am I really ready to put up with a Real Deal Innovator?”

Reinventing the Executive Search Firm (Part Three: Being Digitally Approachable)


First ImpressionMany years ago, you could judge an organization by the professionalism of their sales force and the quality of their marketing documents (“Hey nice suit, and gosh that’s an impressive brochure!”)

Now, nobody wants a sales call and nobody reads brochures. Buyers do their research, gather recommendations from people they trust, check out the organization online and make their purchase decisions before they ever pick up the phone. (This is true for both candidates and employers).

Google is the new business card … and brochure … and sales force. Your reputation is now your digital reputation–whatever shows on the first page or two of the search results.

An engaging website with great content is expected by everyone. Authentic, online testimonials are expected by most people. A healthy social media community is important to the social media savvy people. A quick Google search should reveal a blog or a book or an interview that reflects well upon you and conveys how you view the world. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have something else impressive pop up on page one of the Google results, perhaps an an award or something…

And what about online reviews? With an empowered consumer, advertising  is giving way to online reviews. Yelp drives significant candidate flow to some staffing firms (and away from others).

Which brings me to executive search.

Why are so many executive search firms still operating with a bare-bones online presence? I can tell you from experience that it takes years to develop enough content to support a robust online community, and whoever gets started earliest often gathers the most attention.

In every sector of the economy, almost every organization is working diligently to make their marketing and communications efforts more social media friendly.

But when you look around, most executive search firms are still woefully behind the curve. Firms that are not gaining experience in social media and firms that have not invested in becoming “digitially approachable” will find themselves falling further and further behind.

You can read Part Two of this series here.

Reinventing the Executive Search Firm (Part Two: Contacting Candidates)


cold callMany years ago, the most effective way to introduce yourself to a busy professional was to call their office.

Now, phone calls are an interruption and voicemail is a black hole. Many people consider it rude to simply call someone without making some sort of introduction first. Good manners now dictate that communciation is asynchronous–the recipient gets to choose when and where they would like to be contacted. I’m finding that even welcome calls, like employers who want to engage my services, usually start first with an email.

Many years ago, an effective way to recruit good people was to call good people and ask who they knew.

Now, all those calls go to voicemail (see “black hole” above). The most effective way to find good people is to identify the online communities where they gather, to carefully identify potential candidates from their “digital footprints” and online profiles, and then to share an authentic, compelling message with rich detail via email or social media.

Candidates can’t be kept in the dark about details, or talked into anything, they simply want to be trusted with the facts and then invited to share the opportunity with whomoever they wish, and when and how they see fit. In this way, friends share opportunities with friends, and good recruiting messages are socialized organically, without expensive cold-calling or advertising.

Pushy sales reps and voicemail cannot do what good messaging, email and social media can.

Many years ago, it would take time and a trip to the library to research an organization. So the search firm would know a great deal more about a job opportunity than the candidate would. The recruiter would always have an information advantage.

Now, candidates can tap into their social media connections to find people in their network familar with an employer, and anyone with an internet connection can be reasonably well-informed within a few hours.

Which brings me to the executive search business model.

Executive search firms need to stop hiring cold-calling sales professionals, and stop paying them steep commissions in an attempt to talk people into jobs. This business model is increasingly out of step with the times.

In the modern world, search firms must be able to:

  • Craft an authentic, compelling message that’s interesting enough to be shared.
  • Find the right people to contact, and get the message out in a respectful and efficient manner.
  • Trust the candidate to decide what is in their own best interest.

In our comparison tests, we’ve found that interesting messages, properly socialized,  significantly outperform cold-calling.

The executive search industy will inevitably adapt to the forces reshaping every other industry, and we welcome the change.

Read Part One of this series here.

Reinventing the Executive Search Firm (Part One: Location)


Glitzy OfficeMany years ago, outplacement firms had lovely offices where laid-off executives could go to conduct their search. They could use an office to make phone calls, and they had administrative support.

Now, the vast majority of outplacement is done virtually. The job seeker rarely needs to visit the outplacment office. Costs plunged as outplacement firms shed their exepensive real estate and overhead costs. Outplacement services are still in high demand, but costs dropped as the delivery mechanism changed.

Many years ago, if you wanted to buy something, you went to a store.

Now, Amazon delivers merchandise to your home the same day you order it, and many people are predicting “the end of retail as you know it.” Retailers with expensive overhead costs struggle to compete with Amazon’s pricing. Consumers are still buying plenty of merchandise, but costs dropped as the delivery mechanism changed.

Many years ago, sales reps were the best source of information about products and services. You could actually learn something from them.

Now, by the time most customers are ready to buy, they have already done their research, and often know more than the sales rep. People no longer trust what they are told, they trust what they have learned on their own. Customers still buy, but are no longer willing to “be sold.” Maintaining a sales force is expensive, and many firms are learning how to attract customers without heavy sales and advertising expenses.

Which brings me to executive search.

Candidates don’t want to go to the offices of an executive search firm, and they don’t expect to learn much from talking to the sales rep (recruiter). They would prefer to be more in control of how they gather information.

Employers still want great candidates, but are reluctant to pay 33% of annual salary if less expensive options were just as effective.

For both candidates and employers, the personal service from a search firm is still helpful, but the delivery mechanism must change.

What we have done:

Staffing Advisors has conducted over 300 searches without a salesforce, with nobody on commission and without using expensive offce space, and here’s what we’ve found:

Candidates and employers, when given a choice, want our recruiters to schedule virtual interivews rather than take the time and expense of meeting every candidate  face to face. Our retention statistics have proven that properly executed virtual interivews bring just as much rigor (and far less bias) to the hiring process. They also allow us to cast a much wider net for nontraditional candidates.

Inevitably, the traditional search firm business model will give way to forces that are reshaping outsourcing, retail and every other industry. We welcome the changes.


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