Is Cat Herding your Talent Acquisition Strategy?

By Michael Palmer

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Early in my career I had the pleasure of working with Electronic Data Systems (EDS). During the height of the first dotcom bubble we hired a brilliantly creative advertising firm (Fallon) that produced an advertisement originally aired during the 2000 Super Bowl. The ad lampooned the challenges of herding cats as a metaphor for wrangling organization’s IT systems and information. I was working in the Bay Area (San Francisco), where the competition was fierce. We were struggling to hire enough new staff to support our many new outsourcing engagements. My recruiting team was constantly challenged to find creative ways to generate candidates, our Hiring Managers were under consistent pressure to fill positions and the analogy of “herding cats” seemed apropos to our hiring. Our strategy was to do whatever was necessary to hire quickly. In hindsight, not a very effective strategy.

Fast forward to today. As a consultant, I am constantly exposed to organizations that are seeking assistance to move their recruitment effectiveness forward so it would seem natural that my perspective would be skewed towards organizations that are in greatest need of help (or greatest awareness of that need). However prior to my work as a consultant, working internally as a Recruitment Leader or as an RPO provider, the majority of recruiting departments that I encountered operated without any strategy whatsoever, neither macro nor micro. Over the years it has become abundantly clear to me, that without a focused strategy, continuously adjusting that strategy to the employment market, technology and other environmental factors, we all end up chasing our tails. I am often reminded of the “herding cats” analogy when I spend time with customers discussing their recruitment and hiring strategies.

What are the steps to setting and maintaining an effective hiring strategy? First, what is strategy? Webster’s simple definition; “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time”. When working with my customers, I break down strategy discussion into two areas, macro and micro.

Macro strategies deal with the big picture; employment brand, general candidate attraction, the candidate experience, selection philosophy, culture, etc. In other words, the overall direction the hiring function follows to achieve the business results that drive share/stakeholder value.

During a recent engagement with a customer, I was asked to build out a concise talent acquisition strategy for them. We began with the macro strategy by defining the problem they were attempting to solve. Their employment brand had been on the decline, but not because they weren’t a great place to work. Quite the contrary. In the absence of a hiring strategy, they had devolved their hiring process to a slow, inefficient and cumbersome beast that was very effective at screening out the best candidates, leaving them with candidates that were not destined to become highly productive or engaged employees. Further, as they hadn’t defined their culture, or identified the cultural competencies that would make their new hires successful, they were hiring only for technical fit, not cultural fit. These both resulted in low engagement, high turnover, and some damaging glassdoor reviews.

Our strategy statement evolved to include our desired outcomes; 1) Streamlining the hiring process to insure a positive candidate experience and targeted time-to-hire metrics, 2) Defining the culture with its related competencies and retraining hiring managers to identify “fit”.

The macro strategy became the guiding principal that we used to rebrand the organization and its roles and also included a social media rebranding campaign, a rework of the role descriptions and career site. In essence, it was a total remodel of the way the company presented itself, its career opportunities and elected to treat its candidates.

Micro strategies involve how and where specific positions are posted, marketed, advertising venues, social media channels and sourcing venues.

In this case, they were carpet bombing all of their roles across multiple national and local venues attracting hundreds of candidates per role though not seeing the quality they were seeking (though they may have had quality mixed in with the plethora of resumes), would frequently also send out these roles to third-party recruiters. So their costs were escalating at an alarming rate. Their recruiter’s time was spent reading hundreds of resumes that were well off the targeted mark as well as managing the third-party recruiters. Doubling down on the fact that their credibility as recruiters was being damaged with the Hiring Managers – they weren’t “recruiting”, they were “administrating”. They didn’t have time to do any direct sourcing, so that function was hastily outsourced to third-party recruiters who were no more successful due to all the issues with the macro strategy mentioned above.

The micro strategic outcomes centered around two main areas; 1) Attracting the right candidates by targeting posting and sourcing venues thus aiming at quality instead of quantity, and 2) Achieving the highest ROI possible on their recruitment spend.

Our micro strategy involved using the data in their ATS to identify the best posting and sourcing channels for specific roles, which lowered the candidate quantity while increasing the quality freeing up recruiters to actually recruit. The need for third-party recruiters immediately decreased and it’s likely that if they continue on the path they’re on, will decrease to near zero within the year. We also implemented online screening tools for higher volume roles and suspended posting to glassdoor until we could rebuild some brand credibility.

Does your company’s talent acquisition function have strategies in place? Chances are, if you have to ask, the answer is “no”.  As is so frequently the case, when all is going well, we don’t ask why, it’s when we’re going off the rails that we take the time to re-evaluate our methods and tactics. As Sun Tzu said, “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

Michael helps organizations align and optimize their talent acquisition processes with their overarching business objectives. This includes conducting recruitment audits, designing and implementing recruitment strategies, processes, systems, tools and teams in order to attract, screen, recruit, select, and onboard engaged employees. Follow him on twitter @hireinsite

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