This is a true story about my first recruiting lesson. You might find it useful if you want to hire more young professionals. My first management job (in the early 1970s) was as manager of capital planning for Rockwell International’s Automotive Products Group located in the Detroit area. This was a billion-dollar business with plants located around the United States, Europe, Australia, and South America.
I was green and had never hired or interviewed anyone before. On the third day on the job, my boss, Chuck Jacob, the controller, called up around 9 a.m. from the University of Michigan where he was interviewing MBA students. Over 20 people had signed up to be interviewed, and Chuck needed me there to help. We had to hire six new financial analysts to work in the financial planning and budgeting department, so these were critical hires for us. I sat in for one 30-minute interview with Chuck at 11 a.m. to learn the basics of interviewing, and then interviewed eight more students later that day on my own. What transpired that day and in the next few weeks provided some useful lessons on how to hire top young professionals. Here’s what my first 30-minute hiring lesson was like: After asking the candidate a few questions about major accomplishments for about 15 minutes, Chuck grabbed a piece of blank paper and said, “Time is your most critical asset. You must use it wisely. How well you manage the first 10 years of your career will determine how successful you ultimately will be.” He then went on to draw a graph. (As you follow along below, you might want to draw a similar graph. You’ll be able to use this the next time you’re interviewing any young professional who has multiple hot opportunities.)
Chuck labeled the horizontal axis “time in years” and the vertical axis “learning, impact, and growth.” He broke the time scale up into rough increments from zero to 10 years. He then went on to draw a learning curve that was steep at the beginning for the first year or two and then flattened off. Chuck said that this curve represents the growth curve of most MBAs right out of school. In the first year or so, there’s a great deal of learning going on, but after this, growth slows down. After a few years of this flatter growth, some people either get promoted or move on to something more challenging. He then drew another learning curve on top of the first curve around the three- to four-year mark on the graph. He repeated the part about how people have one to two years of rapid growth with a quick fall off, and then after another two to three more years, people start looking for something else to do.
Looking at the graph, Chuck went on to say that for most people during the first six to eight years of their careers, they generally only obtain two to three years of really high-impact experience. He then said that the key to career success is to maximize your learning by jumping onto another high-impact growth curve as soon as the first curve starts slowing down. Then, you’ll need to repeat this pattern over and over again. If you do this two to three times in any four- to six-year period, you’ll gain 10 years or more of equivalent experience over your peers. He then said – and this was the key to the recruiting part – that we can offer you this type of growth opportunity at Rockwell. IBM, Ford, and P&G can’t come close. So if you’d like a career opportunity like this, we’d like to invite you to our offices and we’ll prove it to you.
As a closer, he pointed to me and said, “Lou has only been with us a year. He got his MBA a year ago, and now he’s a manager. If he keeps it up, he could become a director within a year or so.” (By the way, Chuck was the controller of this billion-dollar group, and he was only 28 years old.) With that pat on the back and limited training, I then conducted eight more 30-minute interviews using essentially the same process. At the end of the day, we invited eight of the 20 students we met to dinner that evening in Ann Arbor, made five offers, and hired three. Over the next 45 days, we hired three more MBAs. As best as I can remember, all were promoted within a year or two, and many – if not all – became senior-level executives in a variety of major companies. Here are the big lessons I have learned in recruiting young professionals that are still applicable today.
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- Compete on time, not compensation. The graphical approach to showing career growth as a series of jobs was a critical part of this successful recruiting process. It clearly demonstrated the impact that staying on the steep part of the learning curve could have on personal development. Rockwell did not have a very strong employer brand at the time. P&G, Ford, and IBM were the companies everyone wanted to work for. We made the case that we offered comparable jobs, with comparable pay, but with far more rapid growth opportunities. Of course, we had to prove this. Chuck and I were both young, so this by itself helped, but additional proof (see below) was required. The point we made was that the decision to accept one job over another had to be based on a long-term career horizon, not just on the short-term aspects of the job. Using the graph, Chuck was able to visually demonstrate the cost of a bad decision, arguing that the person should not waste those early career years.
- You have to provide proof that the opportunities are real and better than the competition’s. Rockwell International was a Fortune 50 company at the time, but it was relatively unknown, with a weak employer brand. It was formed in the late 1960s through the merger of North American Aviation with Rockwell Standard. It was a hodgepodge of aerospace (the space shuttle), automotive OEM manufacturing, and industrial products. At the time I was there, the finance department was implementing a new financial planning and control system throughout the company. This was a great time for young people who wanted to work long hours to get ahead quickly. This is how I got my start, as well as dozens of other people we introduced to the MBAs when they came onsite to be interviewed. While Chuck made a very convincing and unique story with his graph, it was backed up with tangible proof. Without this, we wouldn’t have hired a single person.
- Make it about careers, not just jobs. When the candidates were onsite, we talked about career path opportunities, not just current jobs. While we demonstrated the challenges in the current job, the exposure the person would have, and the types of projects the person would be involved in, these were always related to a bigger theme. One theme was showing the linkage the job had to a major company initiative, e.g., Rockwell’s companywide financial-planning implementation initiative. The other theme related to the person’s career was demonstrating that the current job offered a critical technical or managerial building block.
- Hiring managers need to get involved. It was stressed upon us from the CEO, CFO, and every business unit president and GM how important hiring top people was to our personal success. Managers were expected to be involved at every step – and we were. The HR department played an important but subordinate role in the process. We had to forecast our hiring needs as part of the planning process, and to justify these with facts and how they related to our performance objectives.
- You have to recruit. Most top MBAs didn’t want to work at Rockwell at the time. The company had little name recognition and less buzz. To offset this, we had to recruit heavily. I don’t think there was another company that had a dinner party on the evening of the on-campus interviews for those selected for the next step. This was part of our plan, but it didn’t end there. We spent a great deal of time with the candidates during the interviews. It was no 30-minute quick in-and-out process, either. The candidates also got a chance to meet with more senior executives to demonstrate the exposure they would get once they were on the job. After offers were extended, we always followed up to make sure they would be accepted. Once offers were accepted, we started dialoguing about real job needs. This way, the new hires would have a better understanding of some of the projects they’d handle on the job. Collectively, a great deal of extra effort went into the process, with the hiring team handling most of the effort.
The core lesson here is that in order to hire top people, hiring managers and recruiters alike need to invest much more of their time. If they’re unwilling or not capable of doing this, hiring top people will remain a topic of conversation, an unrealized hope, and a constant source of irritation. As far as I’m concerned, time is your most critical asset. Don’t waste it.