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.

Great on Every Level


Great on Every LevelGreat organizations are great on every level. They pay meticulous attention to how they hire everyone, from the receptionist to the CEO.

If your company lavishes attention on senior level hires, and leaves lower level openings starved for attention, that’s a real warning flag. You are never going to achieve your potential if the conversation about lower level hires is that you can settle for less.  

Results happen on the front line, not in the rarified air of the boardroom where important strategic decisions are made. And all top performing executives know this. When you are interviewing top executives, they are also interviewing you, and assessing if their team has what it takes to deliver great performance … at every level.

Should You Run The Search Yourself?


A client called me to discuss a job opening at his firm. He’s very well connected, so naturally he was wondering if he should try recruiting on his own before engaging us to run the search. “Can you help me weigh the pros and cons of paying you a fee to do what I might be able to do on my own?”

It’s a fair question, and the answer is not as simple as you might expect.

Yes, search fees are expensive, but before running the search yourself, here are a few aspects of the recruiting process it’s easy to overlook:

Identifying candidates:

If you are considered “well connected” in your field, you are probably directly acquainted (1st degree connection) with up to 20% of the potentially viable candidates for your job opening. But are you actually willing to open your rolodex, and aggressively recruit them? Is there anything that would prevent you from contacting some of the top people at your competitors (are you comfortable being perceived as a “raider?”)

Having the ability to identify candidates is only one part of the recruiting equation. The next step is to develop a compelling marketing message (beyond the job description). Messaging quality significantly impacts recruiting results—just emailing around a job description rarely does much to attract the top people.

Do you have time to reach out individually to top candidates?  “Jerry, I thought you might be interested in hearing about this position, and here’s why…”  We get most of our response on our second or third direct contact with a candidate. Successful, focused, busy people often ignore job board ads, don’t read generic newsletter job postings, and even brush off the first direct inquiry. Are you ready to be responsive when candidates express interest? You can’t recruit  people and then leave them hanging.

Evaluating candidates:

After the interview, how comfortable are you in rejecting the people you just went to the trouble of recruiting? it’s easy to reject a stranger who answered a job ad, but harder to reject someone you personally invited to interview.

If you are well-connected, you stand a fair chance of finding at least 2 or 3 qualified candidates on your own. Of course, if you are advertising your opening, you will also receive inquiries from hundreds of less qualified people … many of whom are connected to you through mutual acquaintances. Who will receive all those resumes; who will respond graciously to each one; who will keep your candidates informed of the hiring schedule; and who will send all the rejection letters? Beyond that sort of hiring administrivia, who is available to screen all the candidates against a uniform selection criteria, without showing favoritism?

Moving the Process Toward a Decision:

Finally, who is tasked with moving the hiring process forward to resolution? Hiring delays can be quite costly, but hiring often languishes behind other more urgent priorities. Driving the hiring process forward based upon fair selection criteria usually requires significant leadership focus. Indecision and perceived unfair handling of candidates reflects poorly on all involved.

When your ideal candidates are all connected to you in some way, these issues should be considered before you start the process. A significant number of our new searches come on the heels of a failed search conducted by a busy executive who had the best of intentions, but simply lacked the time to follow through on the search process all by himself.

A solid hiring process involves far more than simply knowing good people.

What High Performing Organizations Do Differently


Imagine a problem has just occurred that will cause your company to lose $15,000 per month in revenue, and might soon cause a string of similar problems. Which solution to the problem would you choose?

Solution A) This solution has no upfront costs, but it diverts your internal resources away from their current work, takes 4 months to implement (costing $60,000 in revenue) and is projected to lose an additional $24,000 during year one, with the likelihood of continuing losses of $36,000 per year thereafter. This solution has a 50% chance of failing completely and if it does fail, it might trigger a cascade of similar problems.

Solution B) This solution has an upfront cost of $15,000 (which was not in your budget). It requires no diversion of internal resources, and takes 2 months to implement (2 months faster than Solution A). By the end of year one, Solution B will recoup the $30,000 revenue lost during its two month implementation, and is likely to generate an additional $36,000 in annual revenue thereafter. Solution B has a performance guarantee, and significantly reduces your risk of this problem cascading into other areas.

If Solution B seems like the obvious choice, let’s review what happened the last time a vital person with hard-to-find skills resigned from your firm.  Did you consider using a search firm to fill the job?  If so, did the conversation sound like this? “I hoped our HR department might be able to find someone to fill this job. We thought if we could handle the search internally, we might save money on search fees. And if HR failed, we could always hire a search firm later.” Or, perhaps your internal deliberations sounded like this? “We did not budget for any search fees, so we had to do it on our own.” Both conversations probably sound familiar, and on the surface they might even sound reasonable. But when you look carefully, you realize that that both conversations make the same four assumptions. They assume:

  1. There is no cost to leaving a position vacant. There is zero cost to the lost productivity of both the employee and the team.
  2. There is no risk to leaving a position vacant. Under-staffing and over-working the current team will not result in any turnover risk. Zero.
  3. Any hiring process that results in a hire is just as good as any other. A hiring decision will be just as good whether you have only one candidate to consider, or a full slate of 6 qualified people.
  4. Any person hired in this job will deliver equivalent results. There is no difference in productivity or performance between an “A player” and a “C player.” Zero difference.

So if all four assumptions are laughably wrong, how did you ignore them in your decision making? Research shows exactly why it happens. Recruiting costs are very easy to calculate, but it is far harder to calculate the cost of not hiring, and harder still to calculate the cost of hiring badly. When faced with that kind of complexity, busy executives look at what they do understand (recruiting costs), and ignore what they don’t understand (the cost of hiring slowly and badly). The snap decision becomes: “We can’t afford to pay a search fee.”

High performing organizations are different. Because they have specific performance targets to meet for every position, the cost of not hiring (or hiring badly) is far more obvious. So they have an easier time balancing their recruiting costs against the return on investment of making a good hire quickly.

This is exactly what our Solution A and Solution B example did for you above. With good information, the trade-offs were easy to make. It was the gathering of the information that was complex. (Which is precisely why so many people will skip the next section of this post and just read the conclusion). Read the rest of this entry »

“The Rare Find” is a Must Read for Hiring Managers


If you want to lock in a long-term competitive advantage for your organization, be among the first to read and apply the lessons of George Anders new book “The Rare Find:  Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else.”

Drawing on vivid examples from the U.S. Army Special Forces, Teach for America, Facebook, Hollywood, and professional sports, he shows how you can see what everyone else is missing in their hiring.

This is no vanity book. He’s not pitching his hiring system, or trying to sell you consulting services. Even better, he is not advocating that you “just do your hiring like we did at GE in the 1980′s.”

No, this book is the real deal.  Space does not permit me to cover all my favorite quotes, but here are a few:

“American social norms call for job candidates to tell a story of uninterrupted success. Previous experiences are burnished until they all sound like triumphs. Traditional resumes are set up so that resilience becomes invisible. That’s a horribly unfortunate distortion. At some point fate slams all of us to the ground. What happens next determines who we become. Some people are so bitter or dispirited they never fully recover. Others do whatever it takes to bounce back. The more you can learn about how people handle adversity, the more astutely you can judge them.”


“…we’re in the midst of an enormous economic and technological upheaval that is redefining what it means to be enduringly successful. Long track records my be irrelevant or impossible to find in fields that are taking shape so fast the everyone is a newcomer. Competence is not enough anymore. The difference between growth and stagnation comes down to finding people with bold, fresh approaches, who can create opportunities that no one else saw before. That’s true not just in Silicon Valley, Hollywood or Wall Street; it’s the new norm in almost every field.”

From how to define what kind of person you are looking for, to how you should interview candidates, this book covers the landscape of talent spotting. I found no evidence of vague, sloppy platitudes or lazy thinking. For example:

“Take something as universal … as ‘work ethic.’ That’s a cherished value at almost any top tier organization (but) everyone’s definition of ‘work ethic’ calls for slightly different virtues. Some jobs call for people who can summon up extraordinary stamina and ingenuity in a crisis. Others require orderly souls who are totally comfortable with the tireless preparation for a challenge that may be months or years away. The work ethics of a great doctor and a great football player are not the same. Solving the talent puzzle means looking for exactly the right ethos that’s vital for a particular job–rather than trying to match candidates to a along list of universal virtues that might or might not be especially relevant.”

With Unemployment so High, Why Pay a Search Fee?


Bread Line Sculpture at the FDR Memorial

People who are unfamilar with the DC job market often ask why anyone would pay a search fee to find someone when unemployment is so high.

It’s a reasonable question, and saying “Good people are still hard to find” seems somehow incomplete as an answer.  So if you need to answer the question more authoritatively, here are the facts. 

While the national unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, the effect of the economic downturn is being felt very unevenly.  Some cities have much lower unemployment than others, some industry sectors are faring better than others, and unemployment rates vary dramatically depending on your level of education. 

So, in our typical searches we are looking for a candidate who lives in the Washington area, currently works in professional services (associations, nonprofit leadership, government contractors, or similar kinds of work), and most of our searches require someone who has a college degree.

Looking first at cities –local unemployment rates vary from 4% to 28%.  The Baltimore/Washington area has remained one of the strongest big city job markets in the country throughout the recession.   Our regional unemployment rates are currently around 6% and northern Virginia is even lower, hovering around 4.5%.  (If you recall, 5% used to be considered by economists to be “full employment” – where everyone who wanted a job had one).  (Sources:  http://bls.gov/web/metro/laummtrk.htm  and  http://policy-cra.gmu.edu/data/UnemploymentRate.pdf

But when you are recruiting, the real question is who you are competing with for the same candidate – are you the only employer in town with a good job to offer, are does everyone else in town want to hire the same candidate? So a useful way to visualize the difference between cities is this “Job Market Competition” chart from Indeed – a job board aggregator.  They list the number of unemployed people in a city relative to the number of job postings, and again, you see Washington/Baltimore among the most competitive job markets in the country.  Where a city like Miami may have 5 unemployed people for every 1 job posting, Washington has never varied from a 1 to 1 ratio throughout the entire downturn.

Next, looking at industry sectors  – The Washington area Professional and Business Services sector is our fastest growing market, adding more jobs during the past year than any other segment of our local economy.  (Source:  http://policy-cra.gmu.edu/data/JobChangebySector_Metro.pdf).  People who work in the professional services sector are among the most employed people in the region, and their job opportunities are expanding. 

Finally, looking next at the candidate population – the national unemployment rate varies from 4.4% for people with a college degree to 14% for people who have not completed high school.  So again, our ideal candidate is statistically, least likely to be unemployed. (Source:  http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t04.htm. For an even more graphic illustration of the disparity between education levels see this New York Times interactive model: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/06/business/economy/unemployment-lines.html)

In summary, we are competing for candidates in the hottest major job market in the country, in the fastest growing sector of the local economy, for people who statistically have the lowest level of unemployment.

If you do not engage a search firm, and do not have a skilled recruiter on staff, your primary way to reach candidates is to run ads on job boards - competing with other organizations for the very few qualified local people who are actually checking the job boards.  This approach often drags on for months, with no certainty of reaching a successful conclusion.  

Instead, when you engage a search firm, hundreds of qualified, local candidates are contacted immediately.  Many of the people contacted would never have heard about the opportunity otherwise.  With a robust outreach strategy, you can usually have someone hired within one or two months, and the entire cost of the search can be paid for with the salary you saved by having the position vacant for a couple months.

That’s why we’ve never been busier, even though the national unemployment rate is still so high.

An Executive Search Firm Leaving Money on the Table? Huh?


Let’s play a word association game.  I’ll say a phrase and you think of the first thing that comes to mind … Ready? 

“Retained Executive Search Firm”

Hey, by any chance did the words  “bargain” or  “great value for the money” come to mind?  No?

The Economist recently published a jaunty little analysis comparing the societal benefit generated by IBM during their first 100 years of existence, vs. the benefits generated by that “flagship of American philanthropy” – the Carnegie Corporation.  And while it was an odd pairing,  it was a fascinating perspective on how corporations can potentially make a larger positive impact on society than even a major philanthropy.   (Key word: Potentially)

In gauging the impact of IBM, the article used a term I had not heard before - “consumer surplus.” 

“… companies create what is known as “consumer surplus”—the difference between the market price and what a consumer would be willing to pay. This surplus benefits society, not shareholders.”

Southwest Airlines and Costco regularly create a consumer surplus.  Lots of organizations are organized to generate a consumer surplus.  You recognize it as a customer when you get that thrill of feeling smart – knowing you are getting more than what you paid for.    But to create it, a company has to “leave money on the table” and not harvest every last nickel from every last transaction.   Companies must design their process to leave money on the table … on purpose.

Creating consumer surplus is definitely not something that most retained executive search firms are good at.   (If you want to understand why executive search remains so stubbornly expensive, read my post in Fistful of Talent about the two biggest myths in executive search).

If You Cannot Learn from Others, You Cannot Lead


In some organizations, the higher you rise up the management ladder, the less people give voice to their disagreements with you.   And when you become insulated from that healthy disagreement you might tend to forget that other people do not see things exactly the same way you do.  

Which does not make them wrong.  

When you are the only “smart one” in the room, or when you think everyone else is lazy or stupid for not agreeing with you … you are not fit to lead.

Your success as an executive hinges on your ability to learn from others.  You simply must be able to see things from someone else’s viewpoint, to respect and learn from that viewpoint and to find common ground.   Yes, you can influence others to see things your way, but to do that, you must first be able to understand what may be valid (and valuable) about their perspective.

If you cannot learn from others, you are not fit to lead them.

Over hundreds of executive searches, the single best predictor of failure is a hiring manager who cannot trust and learn from the people around them.  If you can’t trust, you can’t learn from others, you cannot delegate, and you are trapped within your own limitations.  If the job market is different than your expectations, you’ll forever be looking for something that is not there.  If you don’t trust the candidate, every answer that varies from your mental picture is something to be investigated.  If you don’t trust the recruiter, you’ll have to review every resume, and manage the project yourself.

Search without trust is doomed to failure.

The Perfect (Resume) is the Enemy of the Good (Hiring Process)


Nothing is more damaging to a good hiring process than the perfect resume.   Once a hiring manager gets it in his mind that a resume needs to look a certain way, any deviation from that mental picture is punished with apathy.  As in: “Eh, I don’t want to interview that person.” 

The perfect resume (if that unicorn ever does arrive) causes everyone to get excited before the interview.   Expectations are sky high.  “This guy looks like a perfect fit!”  Right up until they open their mouth.   As they say “Light travels faster than sound, that’s why most people seem bright until you hear them speak.”   

So how can you overcome the good resume/bad candidate, bad resume/ good candidate problem? 

An HR manager told me her guilty secret this week.   After she takes her first pass thru the giant stack-o’-resumes that her job board ads generate, she is often unimpressed with the “A” resume candidates during the interviews.  So then she goes through the whole stack again, looking at the “B” resume candidates – who often do better than the “A” resume candidates in the interviews.  But here is the fun part.   She told me that she does not get discouraged until she takes a THIRD pass through all the resumes, because it is often the candidates with “C” resumes who interview the best!

This dovetails with my experience.   We carefully guard against “perfect-resume bias” in our hiring process (see “You Got All That From Reading the Resume?  Really?“)   Consequently fully a third of our placements come from candidates that our clients initially resisted interviewing based on resume alone.  

But seriously, we don’t read all the resumes we got from a job board ad three times.  Nobody deserves that kind of punishment.


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