The Discipline of Recruiting Leadership

May 26, 2011

Way back in the ‘90s, two consultants published a Harvard Business Review article, and subsequently, a book on strategy – The Discipline of Market Leaders. It was among the first management books I’d ever read and its concepts continue to impress me to this day. Full disclosure: I worked at the same management consulting firm as the authors, and even briefly worked on the controversial marketing strategy for the book. The company no longer exists, but the experience remains as one of the best of my career. The premise of The Discipline of Market Leaders is fairly easy to understand. The authors assert that successful companies compete by exploiting a specific “value discipline” and dominate the market year after year by providing extraordinary value. These companies pick one — and only one — of the three values disciplines to conquer:

  1. Operational Excellence: best price with lowest inconvenience
  2. Product Leadership: innovation that delivers the best product
  3. Customer Intimacy: deep customer relationships for customized results

The book is full of great (albeit a bit dated) examples of companies that “choose their customers and narrow their focus.” A few modern examples of my own: Apple comes to mind as a Product Leader. Customers expect the folks in Cupertino to turn out innovative products. They will pay more for the privilege of being the first with an i-anything. Wal-Mart is the long-standing example of operational excellence; Amazon is the Internet equivalent. Customers expect the best price, convenience and speed. Starbucks is great example of customer intimacy. Half-pump skinny extra hot vanilla latte? Not a problem for the Starbucks baristas.

The Disciplines Applied to Recruiting Leadership

Each time I approach a new recruiting challenge, or am asked to lead a new team, I interview the “customer” – the hiring managers (or their leaders). (And by the way I’ll be talking sourcing leadership in Florida.) It’s become habit to understand what they’re after – a fast, low cost process, the best talent in the marketplace or something else altogether. Of course, many managers will reflexively declare that they want a fast, low cost process and the best talent. As a recruiting leader, you would be foolish to promise both. Yes. Foolish.

If your customer is indeed looking for the very best talent in the marketplace you simply cannot promise to deliver the goods quickly and cheaply and remain credible. I’ll let you in on a secret: life is much easier if you declare a discipline and deliver predictable value.

Operational Excellence and Recruiting

Many recruiting organizations strive to achieve operational excellence; delivering the right talent just in time. In the right environment operational excellence — where time is substituted for cost — is achievable. Efficiently run retail, customer service or college recruiting organizations come to mind.

  • Keys to success: Efficiency, standardization, predictability and metrics
  • Structure: Command and control management, centralized, highly trained process-driven recruiters
  • Sourcing: Active and semi-active candidate sourcing
  • Technology: ATS aligned with recruiting workflow, online assessments, mobile and remote technology

Product Leadership Recruiting

Recruiters in Silicon Valley likely recognize this model. Startups and hot tech companies are competing for the best engineers. A superstar software developer can make or break a company or product. It is important to distinguish between hiring the best talent possible and hiring the best candidate. Hiring the best talent possible involves understanding the entire talent landscape, identifying by name and accomplishment the top talent, and using a variety of persuasive techniques to get the talent to move. Product leadership recruiting is required when only the best in a particular field – the award winners, the Ivy League graduates, the high achievers – will produce necessary results for the company’s success.

  • Keys to success: Creativity, aggressiveness, decisiveness
  • Structure: Organic, ad-hoc teams, senior recruiting talent in all jobs
  • Sourcing: Passive candidate sourcing, research, and competitive intelligence
  • Technology: Social media, CRM, knowledge sharing and information/data harnessing

The Trap of Customer Intimacy

Many recruiting organizations, patchworked together over time, take on the characteristics of a customer intimate organization, by default. Customer intimate recruiting teams are viewed as client-driven, prone to create a new solution for every recruiting challenge, collaborative, and relationship-driven. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless one of the other two models is what your hiring managers really crave.

  • Keys to success: Collaboration, problem-solving, relationship-building
  • Structure: Flexible teams, functionally-aligned or decentralized, strong A-Z recruiter
  • Sourcing: Passive or active candidate sourcing as needed; ever-evolving
  • Technology: ATS with strong talent management integration, surveys and feedback, strong internal communication tools

If you run a recruiting organization for a mid- or large company, it’s likely that you have recruiting teams (or recruiters) that fall into all three categories. The authors of the book make compelling arguments for having each team declare the value it provides, focus its efforts and communicate and deliver that value consistently. The biggest mistake, as I see it, is trying to be all things to all clients. It is much better to declare your value than struggle to deliver something you’re ill equipped to deliver.

Imagine articulating these scenarios with your leadership:

  • “Our process is fast, efficient and we’re great at hiring field technicians, but we don’t have the in-house talent to recruit a CTO, so we’re going to engage an executive search firm.”
  • “We focus on building a pipeline of top software engineers; we outsource our customer service hiring to a reputable RPO firm.”
  • Each function is assigned a senior-level recruiter who works closely with managers and HR to fill each position as it opens. It’s not the fastest process, but hiring managers feel supported.”

Is this a more realistic approach to leading an internal recruiting function? Do recruiting leaders have the luxury of determining their focus and strategy? Would companies find a value discipline approach to prioritizing recruiting resources acceptable? What do you think? Could the Value Disciplines be applied in your organization?

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!