Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Opportunity, Opportunity Everywhere

According to The Wall Street Journal, 52% of US companies reported difficulty filling jobs. This is an amazing fact considering a) the unemployment rate, b) the underemployment rate, and c) the amount of employed workers either “not engaged”, “actively disengaged”, or looking to move to different companies.
This difficulty is explained due to the fact that “employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp up time. In other words, to get a job, you have to have had that job already”.
The Set-Up
So, let’s say we want a forex trader for our Treasury department. If our organization is large enough, we need to work through our friendly neighborhood Human Resources (HR) department to achieve this process.
We sit down with our eager HR rep, who tells us that with the economy the way it is we can certainly find a forex trader who can hit the ground running, and not only that we can do it on the cheap.
They ask us all kinds of questions so they can screen candidates: How many years of experience? How many years in our particular industry? What degree qualifications does our candidate need to have? And so on.
They leave our meeting with the criteria list – 10 years of forex experience, 5 of which were in the banking industry (since it is high volume experience), with a Bachelors in Finance (Masters preferred), reported to bosses whose name starts with a T, and likes to make home-made jam on the weekends.
Afterwards, we are supplied with a list of questions chosen from a standardized list to ask each candidate and forms to fill out once the interview is completed. And let’s be clear, each candidate needs to be asked the same questions, no more or no less. The forms need to be completed for each interview.
We interview the top 5 candidates HR screened for us and make our pick from among them. HR then makes an offer and establishes the starting date. Time from beginning to end is 41 days.
What is wrong with the above?
We Are Letting Someone Else Do Our Work
Contrast this approach to that of Larry Bossidy, raised in the legendary GE people development fold prior to leading the turnaround at Honeywell. He says in his book Execution (co-authored by Ram Charan) that selecting people is a job that “should never be delegated”. He further notes that during the first two years at Honeywell he spent about 40% of his time on people, and 20% thereafter. That is a lot of time for a CEO!
Does this approach take more time? Yes! But it also makes a lot of sense – after all, leaders get things done through others. It just might pay off to devote a little attention to who those “others” are going to be! And how they develop and grow…and the experiences they get…and the challenges they face…and the strengths they build upon and utilize.
We Are Not Setting Our Sights High Enough
Jim Collins, in Good to Great, identified seven factors that went into companies that were able to ascend from the ranks of the good to the great. The second factor identified, right after the leadership attributes of the CEO, was the people. Not any kind of people, mind you, but the right people.
The “right people” is a crucial distinction. According to Collins it is much more a matter of “who” rather than “what”, going on to say “In determining the ‘right people’, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge or work experience”.
Hmmm…don’t recall HR asking us about the character attributes.
We Are Not Playing to Strengths
In Now, Discover Your Strengths, the authors define strengths to be a combination of “talents”, “knowledge”, and “skills”. Whereas “skills and knowledge can be acquired through learning and practice”, talents are “innate”. Therefore, focusing on talent is the best practice to determine the best potential candidates. Skills and knowledge are teachable, transferable, and trainable - talent not so much.
Come to think of it, our HR rep did not talk about this during our preparation phase.
We Are Ignoring Our Team
Going one step further with Now, Discover Your Strengths, if our Treasury team comprises x number of people, do we want them to each possess a certain strength, thereby creating in aggregate a departmental signature strength, or do we want them to each possess different strengths in order to make our group “well-rounded”?
Finally, what of our culture? If we have a strong, team based approach, those individual achiever types are not going to play well with our team, whether they have 1 year of forex experience or 10. If we are in a very political organization, certain types will thrive while others will be crushed.
Why Do These Problems Persist?
Part of the problem here is metrics. A lot of HR organizations, eager to join the metric craze, have an “on-boarding” objective, from posting the job notice to first day of work in less than 60 days for example. How likely is it that HR will be working with us or against us when we say the first round of candidates did not exhibit the right fit with the team?
Part of the problem is legalities. HR does not want us to be sued, and if we are they do not want us to lose. Noble goal, really. Yet it is certainly possible to achieve our objectives while simultaneously meeting this goal. The bad news is it will be somewhat more costly (e.g. more testing of applicants). If HR is in control of that budget, how likely is it that they will be working with us or against us?
Part of the problem is hard work. Screening for years of experience is easy. They had this job from 2003 to 2010. Seven years. This number can be calculated automatically. Screening for character, or talent, requires a whole lot more effort that cannot be performed entirely by computers. With limited FTE’s available, how likely is it that HR will be working with us or against us to enable us to determine these “softer” skills.
If we are like most organizations, the answer to at least one of these questions is “not likely”
Opportunity, Opportunity Everywhere
Because the vast majority of organizations will not perform these tasks sufficiently, those of us who do, given the current environment, have a fantastic opportunity to position our teams with the right talent, the right character, and the right fit now, with sustainable benefits and competitive advantage for years and years to come!
Happy Hunting!

Are your hiring and management metrics conducive to creating a great organization or do they create mis-alignment?
What strengths does your team need to have to achieve great things?
Are we willing to work hard to achieve the highest goals?

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  1. I think another problem with HR screening candidates is that they may be missing or overlooking candidates with the right skills because they don't understand the lingo. For example, being experienced with comparable tools of the trade might be overlooked because it's not the same tools utilized by the organization.

  2. Maddie,

    That is an excellent point - language is a very important component in a lot of professions. Thanks!