Lesson’s from Sun Tzu on 5 Ways Even the Smallest Companies Can Be Effective at Recruiting Contacts

If you work for a small to medium-sized company, you feel disadvantaged when it comes to competing for the best candidates. You don’t have dedicated staff to pursue them; you don’t have applicant-tracking systems, and you don’t have the time or budget to invest in sourcing. You may also be limited by a management team that doesn’t understand the changing marketplace and the need for more competitive salary and benefit packages as well as more liberal polices around vacation, flextime, and tuition reimbursement. Many people who work in small companies and who have the recruiting charter see themselves as victims of the “big guys.” They say, “What can I do against the money and people of Microsoft, IBM or Intel? How can I compete?” Here are five tips and ideas, based on the Chinese general Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” that may help you be competitive and even win a few battles in this talent war! Tip #1: Do Not Be A Victim! Refuse to fall into victim thinking and feel that there is nothing you can do. There are many ways to compete no matter your size. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, wrote a series of essays between 320 BC and 400 BC which have been assembled into a book. Even though it was written for warfare, it has a lot to teach us about any kind of competition – national or corporate, private or public. The lessons he teaches are universal. And his first and perhaps most important lesson is to always prepare well for battle, know the enemy thoroughly and then prepare a strategy that will play to your strengths and to the enemy’s weaknesses. Competing head-to-head with an Intel for candidates, for example, can only lead to failure if you cannot offer the kinds of opportunities or salary that they can offer. To compete against a larger enemy, one has to use cunning and style. A good general will know the chink in the armor, so to speak, and then use that knowledge to gain an advantage.

Tip #2: Lay Out A Plan of Attack. Study your situation and learn exactly what techniques and tools the large organizations use to recruit. Know your competition thoroughly then spend time to plan a strategy that offers you advantages. If you believe that your largest competitors are winning candidates because they offer larger salaries, find something your organization can offer that may be perceived by some candidates as a better deal than just a big paycheck. Strive to lay out several plans of attack in case the larger firms counter attack. In other words, always have a contingency plan or two, ready in case your initial strategy isn’t working. Very few of us spend enough time in planning and in gathering the data we need to make good decisions. Do you really know what IBM or Microsoft is doing to recruit people? Do you have facts or anecdotes? Do you have benchmark data? If not, you should spend some time to figure this out. Tip #3: Differentiate Yourself Figure out what makes your organization stand out. Why do YOU like your company? Once you have defined the unique qualities, promote those to the candidates you are seeking. Go to places where these types of people go. It is probably not necessary to compete where your competition recruits, and that would violate Sun Tzu’s rule of never engaging an enemy on their own territory or on territory where they have familiarity. Find ways to AVOID the competition by seeking out the unusual or more niche areas to recruit. For example, in college recruiting you can choose to go to smaller schools where the big guys don’t go. They can probably provide you all the people you need, at lower cost. Find pools of candidates that are not normally tapped by large companies: people from the welfare-to-work programs or the elderly. As a smaller company, you could offer a recently retired person some part-time work with flexible hours and less formality and bureaucracy. That would most likely be an appealing combination for many people. Tip #4: Play To Your Advantages. Small size can mean you are able to act fast, make decisions sooner, and offer more flexibility in structuring an offer. Use this to your advantage. Figure out how to do your recruiting in the least bureaucratic way possible. Make it FUN to get an offer and EASY to accept. Many start-ups in Silicon Valley use this technique to their advantage. They leave all the background screening and all the “administrivia” to outside firms who specialize in this or they do it AFTER a person is hired. There is a little risk here, but they feel making it easy and fast to get hired offsets the risk. Smaller organizations can appeal to those who do not want the corporate life with its politics and bureaucracy. Small companies can play up the “family” nature of the work place and can stress the informality and ease of decision making and the access to the top management that can only be found in small organizations. Intel and IBM can’t compete on these things and that can be used to your advantage. Tip #5: Leverage Resources. Outsource the administrative side of recruiting using services such as those offered by Hire Systems or I-Search. Don’t get bogged down by tactical details when you have strategies to implement, modify, and develop. Learn to focus. Develop an administrative approach that is both effective and that can grow as your company grows. Develop a few good sources of candidates, not lots. Be a rifle and not a shotgun in your approach. Know what your advantages and resources are and then exploit them. As warfare has taught us for millennia, the largest armies do not always win and frequently lose. Rome was lost to bands of uncivilized raiders, Britain lost the colonies to a tattered band of rebels, and we lost in Vietnam to a vastly inferior army. Why? The little guys developed careful strategies, focused their efforts, knew their strengths and weaknesses and those of the opposing armies, and never gave up. The bottom line is simple — even the smallest organization can be a winner in this talent war.

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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 ERE.net, 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 kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


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