Behold the Turtle: 5 Ways to Effect Positive Change

James Bryant Conant ó who was a significant player in the Manhattan Project (the team that created the atomic bomb), as well as the President of Harvard and the U.S. ambassador to Germany after World War II ó certainly should know what it takes to be successful. One of his favorite quotes was, “Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” Conant was a pioneer at bringing new thinking and practices to the organizations he was part of. While none of us are creating atomic bombs (as far as I know anyway), leading a major university, or negotiating with foreign governments, we face uncertainties, problems, and concerns that are challenging and often even frightening. I know of recruiting leaders who are faced with finding hundreds of highly skilled people to meet the demands growth is placing on their organizations. I know of others trying to bring in replacements for the high numbers who are leaving, perhaps because of poor leadership. Some recruiters face skill shortages, foreign outsourcing threats, and the uncertain economic status of their own organizations. Others are bogged down in archaic systems and outdated concepts about recruiting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, it will require a positive attitude toward change and a willingness to take risks in order to move forward. It is easy, given these scenarios, to pull into our shells and go about thing as we always have. There is a lot of comfort in the past and in doing what is routine and uncontroversial. No one gets fired for doing what the boss wants. On the other hand, not many get promoted or do anything exciting either. Progress and growth only come to those who “stick their necks out” and try new things. I have distilled five criteria for making positive change happen from the hundreds of articles and stories that are written every year about creativity and about those who lead effective organizations. 1. Become a change fanatic. Focus on what you can make different or better rather than on doing the same old things. While it might seem as if doing what you do better and better would result in more recognition and success, it is often the opposite that does that. Recruiting leaders at Cisco pioneered recruiting concepts that have now become common. Cisco was one of the first to push using the Internet for recruiting, to rely heavily on the Internet for sourcing, and to focus recruiting advertising and sourcing efforts on targeted groups of candidates. The leaders of Guru led the development of job boards for temporary workers and then moved on to apply technology to assessment and screening. While Guru itself was not particularly successful, their ideas have been picked up and are part of Unicru today. Change is often the result of frustration with however things are currently done. As the frustration levels rise, the creativity levels also go up. Think about what frustrates you and then brainstorm ways that you could change the situation. Invite a few colleagues to help you figure out new approaches. The ideas you come up with may be the pioneering ones of the 21st century. 2. Collect and use data wisely. Effective change should be based on data. When change is based on facts and numbers, it’s easier to defend to management than when it is undertaken on a whim. Data also makes it much easier to see if you have made progress. Collect all the information you can and spend the time you need to learn what it is telling you. Get the numbers and then look for patterns and connections. Qualitative information can also tell you a lot, so ask candidates and hiring managers about their experiences, attitudes, and ideas. Often the best leaders identify an issue and then put together small SWAT teams of recruiters (and maybe others as well) who are asked to address the issue with creative brainstorming and problem solving. Then it is up to you to get the resources and stick your head out of your shell to run some experiments and see how the issue responds. When you have the data of how things were before the change initiative, you can then use it as a baseline to assess the impact of the change and make course corrections. 3. Act boldly, quickly, and often. Above all, great leaders act with decisiveness and boldness. Timid people don’t usually last long as leaders, or if they do, they become cautious, rule-obeying bureaucrats. Innovative leaders are trying out new ideas all the time ? often on a small scale where the potential damage is controlled. Because there is much more failure than success, it is critical to move quickly, try as many experiments as you can, and assess their impact. It is often better to ask for forgiveness than permission. 4. Fail fast. The only real learning, it is often said, comes from failure. Success is nice and we all enjoy reading case studies of how people implemented new programs. However, you can learn much more from the experience of failure, especially if you can fail quickly and as quickly try another new idea. If you don’t dare touch the burner on the stove, you never get to experience what a burn is or what is does to your finger. While getting burned is never pleasant, it gives you clear knowledge of the power of fire. Thomas Edison used to say that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, meaning that hard work and trial-and-error were the best ways to bring new ideas to fruition. It is still the best way. 5. Copy blatantly. Constantly look for good ideas everywhere and then put them to use in your organization. I don’t mean just looking for recruiting innovations. Also look at marketing or other similar functions and see what they are doing around the issue you have. Chances are the same concepts might work for recruiting. Scan magazines and books, talk to friends, ask candidates what they find exciting about anything they have experienced while job hunting, and then see if you could implement some of the same ideas in your organization. I could expand this list to 8 or 10 more rules for leadership success, but this should be enough to give you some ideas on how to get moving. The challenges we face are going to get bigger and more complex and the recruiting leaders who reap the rewards will be the ones who have dared to stick their head out of their shells and take a few risks.

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Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


1 Comment on “Behold the Turtle: 5 Ways to Effect Positive Change

  1. Interesting points Kevin but I feel I must post a response to some of your ideas.

    My belief is that recruitment as a function and process will only become a serious management consideration when HR professionals show how their efforts in this area effect company performance. Metrics, Metrics Metrics, should be the mantra of all recruitment professionals now!

    It is all good and well to expound about the effect of recruitment on your company, but until you can show a measurable and objective perspective on the return on investment from your efforts than any ‘new’ or ‘change’ philosophies, are at best, ideals that lack substance.

    Failure is not tolerated in a capatilist perspective and unfortunatly, it is the capatilist or ‘shareholder’s return’ perspective that has muted any sort of creative ideas in recruitment and selection. I’m afraid America’s ‘laissez faire’ approach to business has a lot to answer for here as it has influenced global approaches to business.

    I believe from my own recent studies into recruitment (For my Masters) has led me to believe that unless recruitment and selection and in a broader sense HR grasp the fact that ROI is king these days then we will always be considered as a necessary evil in any organisation.

    I say all HR and recruitment professionals should sit with Management accountants for a time and grasp the concept of measuring the effect of their new ideas, or at least learn how to measure the effect of their current processes in order to understand how ‘change’ may be of benefit.
    Failure is not an option, at least not in this economy.

    Metrics, Metrics, Metrics. Get with the program!

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