From Succession Planning to Scenario Planning

Last week I was once again confronted with a hiring manager who was frustrated, and frankly angry, that his organization’s recruiting department had not found him the engineer he needed after a six-week search. He said that given the unemployment levels in Silicon Valley and the number of talented people he knew personally who were looking for work, there could only be one reason for the lack of good candidates ó and that reason was an incompetent recruiting function! Unfair, perhaps, but also indicative of what many managers are feeling today. Clearly the recruiting functions of many organizations are failing to respond to a changing marketplace. Competitive insight is a quality few recruiting organizations have. Despite the abundance of talent, many organizations have difficulty finding the right people to fill their open positions. In most cases, this is a result of having a recruiting function that reacts to openings when they occur, assuming talent is available, rather one that tries to anticipate those openings, assuming talent is scarce. For years organizations invested heavily in formal succession or talent planning ó analyzing and predicting their future needs and the internal supply of talent they could rely on. They built strategies based on a rational and in-depth analysis of market growth, economic trends, internal talent, the number who would be ready after more years of experience, and so forth. But increasingly they are realizing that this does not work. It is impossible to predict your future talent needs with any accuracy. After all, who predicted the need for HTML programmers in 1995? Who predicted the growth of security personnel prior to 9/11? The emerging process for crafting talent strategies involves developing a number of alternate scenarios that provide a response to a wide variety of possible occurrences. This is often called scenario planning and involves projecting possible situations and then deciding what the organization would do and how it would react if each situation actually occurred. This is proving to be a far better approach than the analytical and rigid approaches of the past 20 years. At the same time, many organizations are developing business processes and setting up facilities that are multi-use or that can be quickly reconfigured to meet any situation. In other words, they are building flexibility into everything they can, so that the uncertainty of tomorrow does not have as large an impact on their revenues or profits as it might. We in recruiting need to adopt some similar thinking. Rather than wait for openings to occur or for people to apply for those openings, we need to build a process to anticipate the needs and a capability to respond very quickly to changing business demands. Here are five things you can do to begin developing these capabilities: 1. Assign someone to focus primarily on the future and develop scenarios. While this may seem wasteful, it will be your best course of action over time. By making someone responsible for developing scenarios about the kinds and numbers of people your organization may need over the next year or two, you will begin to see where you need to build your talent pipelines. This person will do market surveys to see what supply looks like in your geographic area, and she will also spend most of her time talking to hiring managers, senior executives, and other key employees to see what possible new products or services may be emerging that will need to be staffed. This person will also need to catalog the skills of the current employees. 2. Based on these future possibilities and your employee skills gaps, widen the types and backgrounds of the people you have in your talent pool. Actively recruit a wide variety of people and let them know that you are building a talent pool of people you may tap into later. Most of us would be flattered to be solicited to be part of talent pool, even though we are not actually being recruited at the time. By reaching out to all potential hires, you increase the chances of having the person you need on tap when needed. Success in this area can be seen and measured. When the time to present a suitable candidate to a hiring manager approaches zero, you have achieved success. No search was necessary because you had already anticipated the possible need and had someone in the wings. 3. Develop multiple talent pipelines. Every organization with any sizable recruiting volume (real or projected) needs to have more than one or two sourcing capabilities. You should have a robust website that generates at least 30% of all your candidates; you should have 30% or more coming to you from employee referrals; and another 25% should come from internal promotion. The remaining 15% can come from your talent pool and from the pre-need searches you conducted based on your scenarios. A very small percent of your total hires should have come from recently conducted searches, your resume database, recent newspaper ads, or search firms. High percentages of candidates coming from these sources indicates a highly reactionary recruiting function. 4. Spend time building talent pools rather than searching for specific candidates. The real success to getting candidates is to allow a broad spectrum of people into your talent pools. Anyone employees recommend, anyone indicating interest in your firm, or even people you meet socially should be courted as potential hires long before you need them and even if you don’t think they are a current fit. Just as CEOs can no longer anticipate what future strategies will be successful, nor can you predict what kinds of people your firm will need. Having a very broad pool makes it much easier to find that “impossible” candidate when the time comes. 5. Make building relationships the cornerstone of your recruiting function and spend the time needed to make and maintain the relationships. Technology can enhance this process and gives you the ability to deal with many more people than you could if your only tools were the telephone and face-to-face contact. Leading edge firms are using email, newsletters, online chats, and instant messaging to make this process more productive. You should have one or two people whose primary purpose is to stay in touch with candidates, invite hiring manages into online conversations with candidates, and keep the pools full of excited and interested prospects for your business ó no matter which way it goes or when. Traditional succession planning is less and less useful as loyalty goes down, turnover rises, talent becomes scarcer and choosier, and as full-time employment becomes one of many ways to earn a living. The new approach is flexible, broad and builds anticipatory scenarios.

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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


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