What’s the Real Problem with Job Advertising?

03/28/2014

We humans tend to confuse scarcity with value. We tend to overvalue what is difficult, and undervalue what comes easily. We overvalue what we don’t have and undervalue what we do have. You hear the mental confusion when a recruiter puffs up his chest and intones, “Good people don’t answer job ads.”

The recruiter is trying to build up the perceived value of the difficult work of reaching people who do not answer ads, and diminish the value of what comes easily (people who answer ads). But c’mon, the phrase just sounds ridiculous. Of course good people answer job ads.

Recruiters don’t actually believe that the very act of answering a job ad degrades a candidate’s skills in some way, while remaining unresponsive to advertising makes them better at their job. Obviously someone’s ability to perform on the job is wholly unrelated to how you recruited them. In our executive search work, we’ve found good people who answered job ads, social media outreach, cold calls, and emails. We haven’t tried it, but I’d bet that we could walk around wearing sandwich boards and some good people would respond (if the messaging on the sign was good enough).

So what’s the real problem with job advertising?

The problem is that good people rarely respond in large enough numbers to teach you anything useful about your job market. And there’s the rub. We’ve looked very closely at the engagement rate of good people to job advertising, and in our experience, it hovers around 1-3% of the total candidate pool. Don’t get me wrong; there are some fine people in that little number. (But I should also mention that our ratio of “on target” to “off target” resumes is about 1:30, so it takes a bit of reading to find the good ones.)

But if you want to hire a top performer (by definition, one of the top 10% of people with that skill in the market) and your job advertising only engages 1-3% of the best people in the market, how do you know when the candidate sitting in front of you is one of the best? All you really know is that they are one of the best people who happened to see your ad. You simply lack the context to know how they compare to their peer group.

How do you decide whether or not to hire them?

And that’s the most vexing conundrum of staffing for most hiring managers. The hiring manager always wants to hire one of the best possible people in the job market, but lacks the context to understand if the candidate sitting in front of him is one of the best. It’s vexing because in order to properly evaluate the handful of good people who answered your job ad, you need to understand the entire job market. But only a small fraction of the entire job market will ever answer your job ad, and, by definition, only a tenth of them are in the top ten percent. Without a sophisticated candidate research capability, you are flying blind.

While hiring managers can easily define the skills they would like to see in a position, they rarely know how the job they defined compares to the skills of the people in their job market. Supply and demand for skills varies wildly by position, by city, and by time-frame. It’s fairly common to define a job in a way that makes it unfillable, or undesirable, or that requires someone you cannot possibly afford. How will your recruiting process catch the error?

Can your recruiting process answer questions like these?

  • How many people in Washington work in finance for a nonprofit with a budget over $50 million?
  • What do their salaries and career paths look like?
  • How many would be interested in the position you have open?
  • How do their titles compare to your internal title?
  • How will small changes in your title, or responsibilities, or experience requirements change your recruiting outcomes?

Without this data, you can’t make an intelligent comparison between your open job and the supply of people. And you cannot get to the next level questions like:

  • How does your job stack up against other places your candidate might want to work?
  • How does your compensation compare to their other options?
  • Should you hire the person in front of you or hold out for someone better?

And that’s the real problem with job advertising, social recruiting, or any recruiting approach that only yields a few good people. You may be missing the people you really want to reach, and you may get a few good people, but you have no idea what to do with them.


Do You Really Need to Interview a Slate of Candidates? Or Just One?

03/11/2014

When hiring, it’s tempting to rush into interviewing, rather than waiting to develop a full slate of candidates. Hiring managers are often eager to interview as soon as they approve a job description. It’s a request most HR folks try to oblige. And it’s often a mistake.

So what’s the downside to interviewing the first few qualified people who responded to your recruiting efforts? If it only takes one great person to fill the job, why wait around for more candidates to emerge? What if the good people get other jobs while you are waiting? 

Occasionally, it does make sense to interview the first few people who apply. But most of the time, you actually slow down your search by interviewing too soon. Unless you are incredibly familiar with the job you are filling, waiting until you have developed a full slate of five to eight candidates almost always results in a  better hiring decision. (To be clear, I’m talking about waiting 3 or 4 weeks, not 3 or 4 months.)

So how do you know when to jump, and when to wait? We’ve put a lot of thought into this question, and here is our decision process (click to see the larger view):

SA Candidate Slate Flowchart

For example: If you routinely hire for Network Engineers, and currently have several on staff, then you have an excellent basis for comparison when you interview another Network Engineer. Because you have recently interviewed dozens of these candidates, you can instantly recognize a good one when you meet them. And you know what to pay them. No need to wait for a slate here.

But if you have not recently interviewed any Network Engineers, you don’t really have a basis for comparison. You need to educate yourself before you can make a fully informed hiring decision. You are unfamiliar with the job market, no matter how deeply familiar you are with the job and skills required. You need to see firsthand how people from various backgrounds would bring different capabilities to the job. You need to see how compensation for the role varies by skill level. In short, the early candidates might be fine – but without a full slate of candidates to choose from, you are not ready to properly evaluate them, or to understand how your job compares to their other options.


Chronic Employee Turnover Is Almost Never About the Employees

01/22/2014

bad-adsSenior executives often call me when they are at their wits end with people on their team:

  • “I’ve tried to make things work, but my VP of HR is just not delivering the results I need.”
  • “My Communications Manager just won’t step up to the plate. We seem to only react to things without any strategy.”
  • “The world changed around us, but Finance is doing the same things we did ten years ago. I’m getting no useful information and feel like I am constantly dragged into the weeds. We need to rethink what we are currently doing, but frankly I’m more worried about all the problems we are not even thinking about yet.”
  • “Our IT department is a real bottle neck. We want and need streamlined processes, better information sharing, and improved productivity. But all we get are surprise expenses, empty promises, and long delays. Even simple requests seem to get buried in obfuscation and complexity.”
  • “Our Chief Marketing Officer is not doing anything that drives revenue. We’ve spent money to upgrade our social media presence, revamp our website, and conduct extensive customer surveys. But our revenue is still flat-lined.”

Some of these concerns might sound like people problems. But twenty years of experience as an executive recruiter has taught me that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. An occasional bad hire is nearly unavoidable. But if you churn through executives every few years, your chronic turnover almost certainly runs deeper than just one bad egg. When your department or executive team has a pattern of failure, it’s likely that your work environment sets people up for failure (however unintentionally).

The First Law of Holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In the face of chronic turnover, don’t hire anyone new until you fix the underlying issues. Chronic turnover problems won’t be solved by blaming individual employees and then going out to immediately hire more. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Instead, chronic turnover is best solved by looking beyond the individual people and exploring any issues in the work environment. Before you move forward with another round of hiring, step back and look at your own role in these seven common causes of employee failure.

1)      Are you using an outdated business strategy? Maybe the way you’ve always done things no longer works. Nothing runs on autopilot forever. If it’s the wrong task for the times, it won’t matter who you assign to do it — they will fail. The skills required for success ten years ago are not nearly enough to achieve success today. Almost every job has an increased demand for results, coupled with dramatically higher complexity and ambiguity in the work. You can’t just use old job descriptions and salary budgets to hire new people … but many people still try to.

2)      Maybe the best people are just not that into you. Do you have trouble attracting great people to your open jobs? Or do you interview great people, only to see many of them withdraw from a second or third interview? That’s a signal that you, your job, your organization, or your industry are just not that attractive to the people you want to hire. No one stands in line for an iPhone 3G anymore, even though they did a few years ago. Have you considered that the job market might have changed around you and the best people have better options elsewhere? When was the last time you benchmarked your salaries against the competition? Do you really understand who is available in your job market and who you are competing with to hire them? (Almost nobody does this kind of market research when hiring.)

3)      Are you still placing .22 caliber people in a .357 Magnum job? Growing organizations outgrow people. Your internal positions inevitably become more complex as you grow. So your next HR Manager will face dramatically different challenges than your last one. Just because the last HR Manager was willing to work for $90k does not mean you can use the same salary budget to replace her. When you hire, you need to think about the future, not the past. And if you need a new business strategy (see #1), are you ready to pay a salary premium to hire someone with those skills? Strategy never comes cheap, but far too many managers hope (in vain) to find it in inexpensive candidates.

4)      Are you disappointed with everyone you interview? Perhaps your recruiting team is only considering the people who fit your salary budget, or perhaps your recruiting strategy only reaches the people who respond to job advertising (only about 18% of the total candidate pool responds to recruitment advertising). If you want different recruiting results, you need to align your HR practices with your business strategy.

5)      Do you hire new people to shake things up, only to be disappointed after you hire them? Do you find that your people will not step up to the plate? Do you give new people big audacious goals, then disappear while they get stuck in the thicket of executing? Do you hover at the big picture level, never getting in the weeds with them, making them feel like they are going it alone? Do you ask new people to build consensus with your overworked, understaffed current team, or do you help pave the way? And when it comes to conflict — be honest with yourself — do you reward your team for encouraging healthy debate, or reward them for getting along and not rocking the boat? Change agents need more support than senior leadership usually provides them, and they always cause more chaos than their managers prefer. You can’t say you want to hire change agents and creative thinkers and then not facilitate their ability to foment change.

6)      Do your new employees charge ahead, or freeze like a deer in the headlights? There’s an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” Do you share the credit and take the blame? Or vice versa? If your new hires know that they will be blamed for every error, how many risks do you think they will take? Do you swiftly make gutsy judgment calls in the face of uncertainty, or do you expect your subordinates to take those risks instead? If you are always traveling or behind closed doors, is your team forced to guess at what you are thinking? Do new employees have to figure out their mistakes from group emails or other employees? Or do they get honest, direct, and regular feedback?

7)      Do you have a rule for everything? Are your employees trusted to exercise good judgment or do you have a thick set of policies for everyone to follow? Maybe your HR policies were initially designed to mitigate your legal risk, but after years of adding small edicts to your employee handbook, your office now exudes the depressing atmosphere of a police state, repelling the very people you want to attract. Police states are rarely nimble or fun. (And in a sad bit of irony, some employment attorneys suggest that all those oppressive policies might actually increase your legal risk.)

If you find yourself blaming the person who failed in a job, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. You’ll almost never find the solution there.

Before you look at new people, look at yourself. Chronic turnover problems are best solved by looking long and hard at how you might be contributing to the very problem you are asking someone else to solve.


How to Hire an Innovator and Change Agent

11/20/2013

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.

11/04/2013

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.


The Pitfalls of Hiring: Judging Performance Without Context

08/09/2013

Humanity has always relied on our ability to make snap judgments of strangers so we could survive, otherwise there was always the chance of being caught unawares by a dangerous rival warrior masquerading as a peaceful trader. I haven’t heard of any recent Maryland tribal wars, but in hiring, we’re still stuck with the need to make snap judgments about people we don’t know particularly well. People-evaluation is a task prone to pitfalls. We trust our instant assessments of candidates, yet research shows we are too often prone to error. And it’s far too easy to fall into crocodile-infested waters by making the wrong judgment call.

When interviewing, hiring executives usually place huge emphasis on a candidate’s track record of achievement. But they often overlook the context of that achievement. In Why Unqualified Candidates Get Hired Anyway, article writer Anna Secino paints a picture of “businesses repeatedly promoting or hiring less-qualified managers who benefit simply by being associated with a high-growth group.” A Harvard Business School study looks into whether hiring managers are just as prone to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to their inherent personal qualities, without considering the context in which they succeeded or failed.

The results of the HBS study suggest that “experts take high performance as evidence of high ability and do not sufficiently discount it by the ease with which that performance was achieved.” If someone works in a highly successful, well operated company, and is highly successful as a result, we attribute their success to their innate ability. But if the exact same person works in a less successful company, fraught with employee tension and communication issues, and they failed at their task, we still attribute their failure to their innate ability to perform their job responsibilities effectively. We’ve discussed this dilemma before, and still love this quote from W. Edwards Deming:  ”A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Or as Warren Buffet put it, “When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”

Understanding the environment that helped shape a candidate’s success or failure is one of the most important lessons to learn in hiring. So if you’re trying to hire someone, it’s a terrible idea to focus on their successes and assume that they will be equally successful in your environment. Consider the cautionary tale of Ron Johnson, who took over as CEO of J.C. Penney after huge successes with Target and Apple. He “helped make Target hip, pioneering partnerships with big-name designers like Michael Graves, and had then moved to Apple, where he orchestrated the creation of the Apple Store.” But fourteen months after the takeover:

J. C. Penney is America’s favorite cautionary tale. Customers have abandoned the store en masse: over the past year, revenues have fallen by twenty-five per cent, and Penney lost almost a billion dollars, half a billion of it in the final quarter alone. The company’s stock price, which jumped twenty-four per cent after Johnson announced his plans, has since fallen almost sixty per cent. Twenty-one thousand employees have lost their jobs. And Johnson has become the target of unrelenting criticism.

He was fired not long after. Of course, the criticism of Johnson focused on flaws that everyone seems to have considered in hindsight – he lacked CEO experience, never managed a turnaround, lacked middle-market management experience, etc. And not surprisingly, given the prevalence of the fundamental attribution error in human behavior, his failure was chalked up as a personal one, rather than one seen in the context of J.C. Penney’s difficulties. After all, “one study found that efforts at merely getting a money-losing retailer back to profitability succeed only thirty per cent of the time.” It’s extraordinarily difficult for people to separate the context from the performance – a phenomenon Phil Rozenzweig calls “The Halo Effect.”

Fortunately, if you’re concerned that you’re making these snap judgements, you may just need to take a step back, and realize that the first impression isn’t necessarily the best one. We’ve discussed this before, and suggest making sure when you’re hiring an executive, you ask plenty of follow-up questions. As we wrote in Interviewing: Are They an Effective Executive or an Empty Suit?:

Anyone can answer “Tell me about your greatest achievement.” But the gold is how you follow up on their answer.  ”How did you achieve that? What roadblocks did you overcome? Who else was on your team? What was your role on the team? What decisions did you make in the face of uncertainty? What mistakes did you make? What did you learn from your mistakes? How did you measure your success?”  That’s where the juice is. You will immediately see that the Effective Executive is much more concrete and tangible in their answers. More thoughtful. Their heads are full of metrics that they use to measure their own progress. They give ample credit to other people on their team, and often sound quite humble about their own role.


Imagine Your Ideal Salesperson. Turns Out Your Mental Picture is Probably Wrong.

08/08/2013

Pushy SalesmanIf you’re looking for an employee on the front lines of your business (salespeople, customer service, etc), you might have this image of an outgoing, gregarious individual. Or maybe you picture the aggressive (pushy?) self-confident types, who relentlessly drive sales results.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you (and pop culture) are wrong – these types are actually the worst choices for your front lines. So if you’re targeting only these types during your hiring process, odds are you’re only hurting your sales success. Here’s why.

study from the Harvard Business Review found that effective salespeople do not necessarily exhibit a particular personality type – extroverted, introverted, etc. The study focuses instead on seven “skills related to sales success.” For example, “The Socializer,” the outgoing type most people think makes for an effective salesperson, is “the worst-performing when it comes to making the sale.” How can this be? Because “Socializers tend to chit-chat at the expense of actually making the sales pitch.” Similarly, “Storytellers” focus on “how other clients used the product or solved the problem,” but taken to extremes their stories are “counterproductive…The danger for storytellers is they pay too much attention to these past customers, and not enough on those sitting in front of them.” Makes sense to me. Time is valuable and these types use too much of it by not getting to the point. I avoid the incessantly chatty cashier at my supermarket – and she’s always the only cashier without a line, so I don’t think I’m alone there.

Another HBR study found that “contrary to conventional stereotypes that successful salespeople are pushy and egotistical, 91 percent of top salespeople had medium to high scores of modesty and humility.” Likewise, it was actually a lack of gregariousness (a preference for being with people and friendliness) that resulted in higher performance – “top performers averaged 30 percent lower gregariousness than below average performers.” As the researchers conclude, “ostentatious salespeople who are full of bravado alienate far more customers than they win over.” In other words, for fans of The Office, would you rather deal with Dwight, or Jim?

You may be thinking, “Wow, now I’m not sure who to hire!” If we’ve torn down everything you thought was true, and your mental picture of a good salesperson is now just a formless wraith, don’t worry. We can rebuild it – we have the technology.

If you want the best sales profile possible, ideally you should seek out an ambivert (a mostly equal mixture of introverted and extroverted traits). A study by Adam Grant at U Penn’s Wharton School found that “In a three-month period, [ambiverts] made 24% more in sales revenue than introverts, and 32% more in revenue than extroverts.” No, that’s not backwards. Not only did the ambiverts outperform extroverts, but the gregarious extroverts were actually the worst performing for total revenues earned, of all three personality types. And introverts and extroverts both “pulled in roughly the same percentage of sales.” Why are ambiverts so much more effective? As Grant puts it, “The ambivert advantage stems from the tendency to be assertive and enthusiastic enough to persuade and close, but at the same time, listening carefully to customers and avoiding the appearance of being overly confident or excited.” Ironically for those hiring managers that try to whittle down their applicant pool by focusing only on the extreme extroverts, and then wonder why finding a great candidate is so difficult, most people are ambiverts, so the most effective salespeople were ruled out before you even hired them. You might have even ruled out the ambiverts on your own staff in favor of the boasting, gregarious candidates, when the perfect person to do the job is right down the hall.

Think about the last time you were hiring someone for a sales or customer service role. First impressions matter, right? During the interview, you were probably laser-focused on whether the candidate had that gregarious and outgoing personality. So when the candidate was nervous and didn’t effectively sell themselves exactly like you imagined, you ruled them out. They were nervous the first time they met you, so how are they supposed to make a great first impression and effectively sell your product or service to customers? But we’ve written before about the differences between interview skills and working skills. Turns out that candidate who nailed the interview, and made that phenomenal first impression? He might only be great at interviewing because he’s pretty lousy at doing the actual job. In fact, the study we referenced found “the contributions of extroverts were not as good as expected and the introvert performed beyond expectations in a team environment.” Are we saying to take an extroverted candidate out of consideration, solely because of their personality? Of course not. Just include the introverts and ambiverts in the mix as well. Studies show they’ll surprise you. And if you need more interview advice, we’ve written before about how to get beyond the superficial showmanship of an interview.


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