Attracting top talent is actually fairly simple

Attracting Top Talent Can Be Simple

Back in June 2014, I sat in a Starbucks near Copley Square in Boston and wrote this post on whether recruiting should even be a function of Human Resources anymore. At the time, I was applying for jobs — I was in Boston interviewing for two — and I was thinking a lot about the recruiting process as a whole. That was probably 18 months ago, and my thought processes have evolved on it even more since then. No, I don’t work in HR. No, I don’t spearhead recruiting practices. But yes, it is something that seems confusing to a logical person.

Think about it along two perspectives:

  • Hiring processes are static; it’s typically a list of skills you need to have, and then you can advance in the process. A couple of interviews, which don’t often yield a ton of insight, and then the hiring manager makes you an offer based on “feel,” probably. Problem here? Jobs are dynamic, because companies change strategy and revenue models all the time. So you could come in with 12 skills over here, but a year later, you need 7 wholly different skills. So in reality, you want curious and adaptable people — CQ, baby! — but companies don’t hire that way.
  • Companies spend a lot of time — or should, at least — on their branding, messaging, value proposition, and “go-to-market” strategy. In the process of all that, they’re defining a number of things about themselves, and all of that ultimately faces consumers or clients. OK. But what about when you attract new employees? How are you phrasing that value prop? Companies almost never think about that process, which is part of a broader framework whereby all the focus is on customers and none of the focus is on employees.

This brings me back to my point at the top of this post: what if recruiting came from, let’s say, Marketing? I know a lot of marketing people would grouse. “This isn’t our jobs; we got targets to hit!” But marketing is theoretically responsible for the positioning of the brand. Shouldn’t that apply to how a potential new hire sees it too?

Peter Cappelli of Wharton makes a pretty simple argument about attracting top talent here:

Since you’re aiming for quality, not quantity, offering terms and conditions that are appealing to all applicants is unnecessary. Rather, you’ll want to figure out what kinds of candidates are a good fit and then meet their particular needs. If you want people with terrific pedigrees, you have to be willing to pay a lot — but do you really need those pedigrees? If you want candidates interested in staying for the long-term, you have to offer them good opportunities for advancing internally. Organizations rarely take a hard look at what they can give people, and so they are continually disappointed by their recruiting. Whittle down the list of attributes you want to those that you are willing to pay for, whether with money or with intangibles.

How To Simplify Your ‘Get Top Talent’ Process

Couple of important points here:

  • Applicant Tracking Systems: These are what most companies use. If you’ve applied for a job and seen things like Taleo, or even ‘Easy Apply’ on Indeed, that’s all ATS. Basically your information goes into a system and the recruiters can access it. For some reason, most recruiting processes and pipelines are designed to get the most candidates possible — we care way too much about quantity as relates to work, as an aside — as opposed to getting the best fit. This isn’t surprising, though: companies approach consumers the same way. They want the most, as opposed to the people who really need it and will become evangelists. That’s also a mistake.
  • Figure out what kinds of candidates are a good fit and meet their needs: This is kinda life in a nutshell, right? If you want super-experienced, super-expertise-laden people, you probably need to pay them. If you want to reduce turnover, you need some kind of internal path through an organization. So, essentially…
  • What’s your value as a company, and what value do you want in people you bring in? Think about this for more than five minutes. Then work with finance to assign a fair-market value to it based on research.

A couple of days ago, I saw a post on LinkedIn for a VP marketing role. The suggested pay was $49,000. If you went back one generation and told someone that they’d rise to VP and make less than 50K, they’d laugh in your face. Companies today think they can do this — they assume the power is on their side post-2008 — but it’s an outdated model of thinking. If you want the best people, you pay for the best people. That’s how sports works too. If you want people of a certain type or skill set, you think about what motivates them and you target them that way. This is somewhat fraught because oftentimes managers don’t understand motivation, but it can be done.

The Role Of Failure In The Process

Now we come to a second point — if you want “smart people” in your organization, well, smart people are capable of taking multiple streams of information into account and making a decision. That means you’re allowed to mention bad things/failures as opposed to sugarcoating everything, which most companies do.

Here’s Cappelli:

Also be up-front about the aspects of the job that might not appeal to everyone. It’s tempting — but a huge mistake — to downplay or withhold that information. Hires who learn about the less-desirable aspects after they start the job will certainly feel misled, possibly underperform as a result, and even quit if the deceit is bad enough. It’s much better to be honest from the outset. Scare away those who won’t fit — and establish positives that will attract the right candidates into the pool.

Just had this happen to me recently. One of those companies I was interviewing with in June 2014 — the one I eventually took — told me they had a strong focus on employee engagement and organizational health. That stuff is right in my interest wheelhouse, so I was psyched! What that ultimately meant was: the CEO discusses it a lot, but no one really knows what that means or cares about it — and would rather be heads down on their daily tasks. I felt a little bit misled, sure, as the above paragraph explains.

Job interview cycles are way too “rah-rah!” We should be OK with discussing failure. I don’t care if you make a ton of money or have no turnover — every company has failings. No company is perfect. If you’re about to dedicate 50 hours/week of your life to this place, why not get that out there initially?

The Simplification Of Getting Top Talent

So here’s what we do:

  • Think about what we need in that role (as opposed to running around screaming about headcount)
  • Think about whether those talents already exist on our team
  • Think about what would motivate the type of person we need
  • Think about where that type of person would be found
  • Realize the goal isn’t quantity, but quality (quantity will likely lead to analysis paralysis for the hiring manager)
  • Be comfortable discussing failure and shortcomings of the organization

The best people will come to you off a model based on “some thinking before the process began” and “transparency around what to really expect.”

Why complicate this?



Ted Bauer


  1. Considering all the content that’s been readily available about the hiring process in the US, you would think things would be getting better. They’re not, and after being in the working world for a few years, it’s difficult to not get apathetic and discouraged — after having been angry, of course.

    I’ve read all the advice that suggests “networking” is where’s it’s at, and that job seekers shouldn’t simply spend hours scouring through pages and pages of Internet job ads…but I’ve never met anyone who landed a legitimate job offer by “networking.” On the other hand, everyone I’ve met in the business climate has gotten their job by the “traditional” Internet job board/company application black hole process. In those cases, it was a matter of volume — applying to as many feasible jobs as possible until you get lucky.

    All that said, I still don’t understand why so many companies outsource their hiring processes to third party recruiters — unless it’s because they need a scapegoat if things don’t work out how they’d like. It’s so silly that jobs like “Business Analyst,” “Marketing Manager,” for example, take months and months to get filled. Those are some of the lowest hanging fruit in the business world.

    • They outsource because they don’t know what they’re doing, and have broken hiring processes, and think outsourcing to specialists will solve their problems. And then in true human form, they refuse to admit they might be part of the problem, refuse to change, and so end up just feeding more and more people into the hopper, hoping sheer numbers will eventually over power their poor processes.

      And recruiters by and large just respond to their needs, and what they almost always want without exception is to, “see more people.” Most recruiters would rather find two or three good people, present them, let the client hire one, and then move on. Thing is few if any clients actually want to do that. They prefer endless interviews, and putting obstacles in the way that make the process harder, but not in any way that helps guarantee a good or better result, because it looks like they’re being picky or thorough, when in fact they’re just delaying things.

      They tell people to ‘network’ because they don’t understand cause and effect. They don’t understand that people who get jobs via networking usually relied on long standing networks of friends and co workers, not going to some networking event. Nor do they understand that these hires are generally successful because of the inherent vetting of those long standing relationships. So in a very real sense the people who tell you networking is the way to go are much like the cargo cults from WWII. Nor is it helpful advice for introverts.

      But that’s what you get when you let SALES! people control an entire industry. Irrational processes aimed at satisfying ridiculous demands from increasingly unreasonable clients who no one is willing to challenge, and lore and bs based processes and recommendations that sound plausible enough to keep going, but which fall apart anytime someone spends more than ten seconds examining the claim.

  2. Processes get fixed when there’s motivation to fix them. Hence, the reason why hiring still lags in advancement as a process is largely because no one gives a shit about it. As I’ve said before there are two major reasons for this.

    One, economically labor has been devalued world wide via various means. As people get cheaper to replace, why bother maintaining them? This does not necessarily involve a cabal of conspirators twirling mustaches and laughing manically as people get fucked, it’s just perverse incentives that lead politicians, bureaucrats, and business ‘leaders’ to pursue policies that are in their interests, and by definition against the interests of most other people.

    Two, sociologically we are just brought up, at least in the US, to think employment is a favor of sorts. This harkens back to our Puritan and Calvinist past where work was considered a good in itself. In reality it’s a mutual exchange, but employers now, and likely forever, will always presume they are in the ‘superior’ position in the relationship, and so whatever they receive will always be viewed as ‘owed’ to them on some level. Whatever they give in in exchange for services rendered is done so grudgingly, with the ‘understanding’ that you’re really ‘lucky to have a job.’

    To see a change in recruiting practices these two major trends have to change. They likely never will. But, if you were by some miracle able to stop practices like monetary debasement and policies that choke off competing employment opportunities, while at the same time making a significant amount of employers realize they are NOT entitled to borderline slave labor, you might see a change in how hiring is done. But not until then.

    • ” while at the same time making a significant amount of employers realize they are NOT entitled to borderline slave labor,”

      I couldn’t agree more. This is a serious problem in hiring/recruiting/retaining talent. You can’t expect to underpay and overwork someone and expect them to stay forever.

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