In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz makes a compelling case to seize the moment in hiring great people. Ths business disruption over past months has created an unprecedented opportunity. He encourages business leaders to think beyond survival and look for opportunities this crisis has created. Chief among them is the chance to hire talented people at a time when they may be rethinking their career goals, family priorities, company culture and geographic preferences.
Four out of five CEOs worry about skill shortages. According to The Economist, four out of five CEOs worry about skill shortages, up from half in 2012. Thousands of companies are laying off workers and downsizing. Some sectors are collapsing. An unprecedented number of people at all levels are suddenly finding themselves out of work, but nor for economic reasons. At the same time, a major force that had been fueling the intensity of the war for talent — globalization — is likely to recede. People are rethinking their purpose, career goals and family priorities. This will have implications on geographic preferences, career alternatives and travel habits. The pool of available talent has suddenly expanded! Visionary leaders have a golden opportunity to prepare the ground for post-crisis recovery and growth.“Making the leap from good to great starts with getting the right people on the bus” – Jim Collins. Throughout history, economic hardships have created windows in which exceptional employees and leaders are widely available for a short amount of time. A case in point. In the late 1940s, Hewlett-Packard was a fledgling electronic equipment maker. Business was slow and finances strained. But as legions of great engineers streamed out of closing or soon-to-close U.S. military labs, HP’s legendary founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard realized they couldn’t let such an amazing hiring opportunity pass them by. When asked how they could afford to keep taking on new people in those difficult years, their answer was simple: “How could we afford not to!” Years later, when asked about the biggest contributor to HP’s success over the years, they routinely cited their willingness to invest in talent no matter the external economic climate.
The best leaders bring in architects to plan the new building even as the firefighters work to save the old one. While some become short-sighted and irrational during crises, the best leaders and organizations stay calm and turn the situation to their advantage, sprinting away from their competitors and never looking back. To use an analogy, they bring in architects to plan the new building even as the firefighters work to save the old one. Harvard Business School’s Ranjay Gulati, Nitin Nohria, and Franz Wohlgezogen considered the benefits of this kind of long-term thinking in an analysis of 4,700 companies across the last three recessions. They discovered that 9% were able to come out in much better positions than they entered because of their “progressive” focus. They did cut back, but were extremely selective about when and where they did so. More importantly, they continued to make strategic investments. Rather than thinking in “either/or” terms — you’re either hiring or you’re downsizing — they, like HP, embraced the “and,” understanding they could do both things if they were smart about it.
Unfortunately, most companies make the mistake of uniformly freezing hiring in downturns. During the 2008 global financial crisis, BCG and the European Association for People Management surveyed 3,400 executives, including 90 senior human resources leaders in more than 30 countries, to see how they were responding. The most frequent action (or reaction) was to scale back recruiting. At the same time, survey participants rated the selective hiring of high-performing employees from competitors as one of the three most effective responses to the crisis (from a list of 22) and the one with the most impact on recovery.
Seizing the Opportunity. So, how can go about capitalizing on this once-in-a-century hiring opportunity? Through urgent and disciplined engagement in several initiatives:
1. Leaders should list three to five great players they would have liked to have hired over the past five years and then check in with those people.
These will probably be individuals they frequently deal with (suppliers, advisors, clients), or assessed as potential candidates in the past. Discuss everyone’s selections, rank them in terms of attractiveness for and your company, and agree on who to contact. It’s possible that many will now be open to considering an offer because their circumstances have changed.
2. Set up a task force to source potential candidates from target sectors and companies who may now be either jobless or open to change. Ask HR leaders to work with top-line managers to scout for outstanding people in key functions, particularly ones coming from hard-hit sectors such as airlines, hotels, and recreation, or start-ups that might already be faltering in the face of recession.
3. Interview and check references remotely with the same rigor you would in person. Technology allows us to replicate traditional hiring processes and procedures in remote, physically distanced settings. Video conferences can be nearly as effective as face to face conversations. Outline the qualities and competencies you’re looking for in a new hire before you start. Heavily weight soft skills, including inspirational leadership, change management, collaboration, and influencing, as well as the potential to keep growing, learning, and adapting to new circumstances. Look for curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination and the right motivation. Record your thoughts and observations about how the person measures up to your metrics immediately after the conversation. Involve two or three other interviewers and compare notes with them. Carefully check business references. Decades of social research has concluded that third-party opinions are much more accurate than individuals’ own views of themselves, particularly for soft skills.
4. Go out of your way to motivate the best candidates. Once you’re convinced that you have the opportunity to bring in someone you really want, arrange to have the person speak to senior leaders who can share their love and passion for your company and describe the value they hope to build with the new colleague. Pay can be important but research shows that what truly motivates knowledge workers is a high level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Flexible work arrangements are becoming more important to people as are opportunities to keep on learning and growing while working to build something larger than themselves.
5. Focus on development of your in-house talent. This is also the time to carefully review your existing key players, stay closer to them than ever and assess their skills and knowledge in light of the revised outlook for you sector and company. Help them move from potential to success with targeted development plans including the right type of stretch assignments, which often arise from crises. Competitors will be targeting your top performers so be sure to give them plenty of reasons to stay. They are the very people you will need during recovery.
Over the past few months, there has been unprecedented trauma around the world. It can be tempting to focus on the short term of crisis management. But when we emerge from this very unexpected disruption, it will be the long-term thinkers who not only survive but thrive. If your organization is equipped to hire for lasting greatness, now is the time.