Thinking Outside the Box First Requires Getting Out of It

Sometimes summer reading can bring a new perspective on old problems. Here are a few samples, and some rather odd advice: “…great successes ó and spectacular failures, to be sure ó come from daring to be different.”

ó Jeff Pfeffer, “Dare to Be Different,” Business 2.0 (September 2004) “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate… What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can.”

ó Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or Life in the Woods (1854_ “NASA ignored the possibility that the Columbia’s fate was doomed by a broken piece of shielding, because it assumed it couldn’t happen. The cause of the SARS global outbreak was figured out in three weeks because different worldwide health agencies worked together without any preconceived ideas.”

ó James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (Doubleday, June 2004) This odd collection of seemingly unrelated information leads to some rather hasty but nevertheless apt conclusions as they apply to the hiring process:

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  • If you’re not seeing and hiring enough top people right now for every position, assume that everything you’re doing is wrong.
  • Consider everything, even the dumbest ideas, as possible solutions.
  • Trust no one, especially pseudo-experts who are unwilling to try something different. Instead, allow the collective wisdom of a diverse group of independent thinkers to prevail.
  • You’ll become what you think about. So think about becoming better doing radically different things.

With this new open-mindedness in operation, here’s some practical advice for those who want to stop repeating last year’s mistakes and get on with the goal of making the hiring of top people a systematic business process. Or… Some wild and crazy ideas on how to be different: 1. Be more strategic, and less tactical. I’ve written about this before (see article), but it bears repeating. The primary reason that hiring top people isn’t getting any easier is that HR/recruiting is too tactical. Following the herd is tactical. Following a different herd could be strategic ó if you select the correct herd. Being strategic is the first step to making hiring top talent a systematic business process. Here are some ideas you can use to become more strategic:

  • Understand the problem before implementing solutions. Bring in other people from other departments who have a different perspective to the problem, to gain unbiased insight. Part of this is to be sure that cause and effect aren’t confused. For example, don’t assume that hiring errors are caused by bad interviewing; it could be a result of bad sourcing, with managers forced to hire people just to fill jobs.
  • Use the scientific method to develop new solutions. Identify the problem, understand the problem, develop solutions, test the solutions to see if they work, implement the solutions, monitor progress in real time and make mid-course corrections.
  • Tie hiring needs directly to the strategic and annual operating plan. This means that you need to develop a rolling 6 to 12 month forecast (maybe longer) of hiring needs. Then categorize each new hiring need by importance (game-breaker, important, rank-and-file), and assign the best and most resources to the most important assignments.
  • Look at the problem systemically, to prevent sub-optimization. This means that you consider all of the issues confronting all of the stakeholders before solutions are implemented. Sub-optimization is a common problem when one part of a system is designed to work extremely well, but in the process it compromises the total results. For example, implementing a sophisticated online test which accurately assesses competency isn’t a good idea if many of the best candidates don’t take it because it’s too long.

2. Don’t do what everybody else does. Use common sense instead. This is Jeff Pfeffer’s point in the above referenced article. His contention is that traditional benchmarking won’t work if everybody does it. By the time you do it, at best you’ll only get average results. Instead, either create your own solutions, or benchmark totally different processes. One idea: why not benchmark Dell’s business model and apply it to your recruiting process? Or why not examine how a top company develops and markets a new product line? From this, you might change the whole model for hiring. Why does the best approach to hiring still have to be the posting of ads and having candidates apply? Instead, you might offer an online catalog of jobs where candidates can see the short and long term impact of a specific job before applying. In fact, you might want to first list the challenges of the job and show how these tie directly to the company strategy. Then why not compare these jobs in a matrix to your competitors? If you want to find stronger, more discriminating candidates, why not change the whole model for hiring to one where interested candidates can explore and learn about it first hand without actually applying? Let’s call this the test-drive hiring model. 3. Eliminate the corporate recruiting department, or have it report to the CEO. If hiring is indeed #1, why doesn’t recruiting report directly to the CEO? The head of the recruiting department needs to be elevated in importance and have equal stature to every other business function. As an alternative, eliminate the recruiting department and make each functional VP responsible for his or her own hiring. Or develop a different recruiting model for each function, consisting of some combination of internal and external recruiting. The key: shake things up, assign responsibility, don’t allow excuses, and make the process more competitive. 4. Put a non-HR person in charge of the recruiting department. Recruiting needs to be a line function, not admin, staff, or overhead. Until this happens, nothing will change. A bottom-line mentality is essential if hiring top talent is ever going to become a systematic business process. This is why recruiting can’t report to HR. If recruiting now reports to HR, give it only one more year to dramatically improve performance. If in the first month they come up with a primary goal that is anything other than “improve candidate quality,” immediately put someone else in charge. Consider your best operations person as a likely choice. Select someone who has hired lots of top people and has dramatically improved overall performance across multiple functions. 5. Stop using traditional job descriptions. Every job has multiple components ó responsibilities, skills, competencies, behaviors, and expected results. However, there is now too much emphasis on skills, competencies, and behaviors. This is HR stuff. Instead, more focus should be on expected results. This is the line mentality required for recruiting. Here’s why. Top people are more interested in jobs that clarify the results, especially if they tie to the company strategy. Try putting the challenges in your ads at the top if you want to see more top people. This broadens the available pool of candidates who might not have the exact skills and experiences, but who have comparable accomplishments. Then, during the interview ask candidates to describe these to see if there’s a match. This is also a great way to hire more diversity candidates. 6. Stop spending money sourcing active candidates. Too much time, money, and resources are spent chasing active candidates. Instead, why not try to figure out how to reapportion these funds and resources to where they might have better results? One way would probably be to leverage the employee referral program (ask your best employees to identify the best people they’ve worked with in the past and then invite these people to the online test drive mentioned above). Here’s another. Why not use SearchExpo, AIRS Oxygen, and Eliyon to identify the top 100 people in your target pool, and then use, or some comparable customer relation management program to maintain an ongoing and automated dialogue? Or, why not go to every hiring manager in the company and have them give you ten ideas on where to find the best people for their department? 7. Ignore cost of hire. Quality is all that counts. With the right organization, strong leadership, and solid systems, any company can consistently hire the top third, and the top third outperforms the bottom third by at least 85% in every function. (Just look at a normal bell curve for proof. If 1.0 is the mean, the top third is about 1.3 and the bottom-third is .7. This is the 85% difference.) Hiring the top third means 85% fewer errors, 85% more sales, 85% more code written faster and with fewer errors, 85% less turnover, and so on. This 85% is enough of a difference to make any business case for more resources that dwarfs the impact of cost as an issue. Being strategic means looking at every aspect of ROI, not just costs when building a recruiting strategy. Measuring candidate quality is relatively simple. Here’s one way. First, write your job descriptions to describe what it takes to be in the upper third. Then, during the interview, just ask people to describe their accomplishments and figure out if they’re in the upper third doing comparable work. (You might want to download my 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template for more on how to do this.) If you’re still making the excuse that the quality is too hard to measure, you need to reread this article. The first step to thinking out of the box is to first get out of it completely. Surprisingly, this is the toughest step of them all. Some summer reading might help.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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