Case Study: Are You a Strategic or a Tactical Thinker?

[Note: I’ll be hosting another free online event sometime in October 2004. This one will present some ideas on how HR and recruiting leaders can become more strategic in their thinking. There are a number of clues in this article on how to do this. If you can find at least five, you’ve hit the strategic threshold. If you get at least three, you have the minimum prerequisites to be invited. If you need more directions than this, you lose three points (this is actually a clue, which you won’t understand if you need them). Send your responses to] I have a simple rule you might want to follow if you want to achieve any one of the following hiring results:

  • Increase the quality and quantity of the diversity candidates you’re attempting to hire
  • Increase the quality of all of the candidates you’re attempting to hire
  • Hire more top experienced staff (at least three years relevant work history).

The simple rule you might want to follow is Basic Sourcing Rule #3: Stop spending your money on employer branding. Instead, write better job descriptions. (You’ll find Rules #1 and #2 in the ERE archives if you look hard enough.) Here’s why.

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  1. Employer branding is a good tactic, but misapplied in most situations.
  2. Top people with some experience have a different set of decision-making criteria than entry-level people when looking for new career opportunities.
  3. These more seasoned people are more concerned with the quality of the job and who they’ll be working with and for, rather than with the company name

With this in mind, here’s another worthy principle to follow when developing sourcing programs: Stop thinking like an HR leader and start thinking more like a top marketing and sales executive. I’ve placed both types in my search career, and the differences are striking. For one, HR leaders are more concerned with details, legal compliance, organizational development, and the common good. While these aren’t bad things, they aren’t the competencies I would choose when selecting a top recruiting executive. A sales and marketing executive is more concerned with creating product demand, growing sales, obtaining results, and improving company performance. I believe an external results-oriented focus like this is an important trait of all recruiters and recruiting executives. The typical HR leader has an internal process improvement focus which can muddy one’s thinking when considering how to attract more top candidates. Now on to explaining sourcing rule #3: To create product demand, you need to first understand, and then meet, a target customer’s motivating needs (this is from Marketing 101). On a comparative basis, it’s important to know what drives top potential candidates to act when putting together sourcing programs. What I’ve discovered is that the types of HR and recruiting executives who naturally consider this kind of stuff are those with a marketing and sales perspective. Those with an admin perspective are more concerned about low cost, legal compliance, and making sure that nobody’s feathers are ruffled. With this in mind here’s the decision profile of a top non-entry level person when considering alternate career opportunities:

  • She is more discriminating.
  • She has limited time to invest in looking and will not waste time.
  • She will only examine opportunities that appear compelling.
  • The opportunity for personal growth as represented by the job is the primary decision criteria.
  • The quality of the hiring manager and team is usually second or third in importance.
  • The compensation and benefit package is significant (fourth or fifth), but is flexible depending on the strength of the job (i.e., a better job requires less upfront compensation).
  • A well-known company with recognized expertise is a plus for attracting the person’s attention, but less important as a criteria for staying involved in the process or accepting an offer.

The decision profile for an entry-level person is different. For these people, building a foundation with a reputable company is at the top of the list, not the bottom. In this case the employer brand is far more important. The shift from the company to the job shows up quickly, usually within two or three years in the workforce. While an employer brand is still a useful attention-getting mechanism for these more seasoned top people, it isn’t enough to keep them interested. The job itself must represent a clear positive career move. This is an area where most companies fall short. For proof, just read your company’s online job descriptions. In the vast majority of cases these seem to be written to meet some legal or admin requirement, certainly not to get a top person excited enough to apply. Even the formatting is unappealing. Most top people will opt out of the process after reading one of these typical job descriptions, unless the need for a job outweighs the need for a better job. This opting-out effect is a critical dimension of candidate behavior that needs to be tracked. If a top person needs a job, he or she will be less discriminating than if the person has multiple jobs to choose from. If the written job description isn’t compelling, you exclude many top people from even considering it. Good marketing people track the response rate of each stage in an advertising program. Tracking opt-out ratios at every step in the hiring process is the recruiting equivalent. Few companies do this. This is another area where a marketing mentality can help in recruiting. This is also an example of how HR sometimes moves ahead on implementing a tactical solution to fix a strategic problem. When strategy drives tactics, core problems are fully understood before misguided solutions are implemented. If this strategy-before-tactics approach was applied to employer branding, it would be quickly evident that while it works well for attracting entry-level people, it’s less effective for attracting top people who are more experienced. As it stands, however, the employer brand continues to be a draw for experienced people who aren’t top performers. For this group of people job security is a more important decision criteria than the job challenge. Most people don’t want to attract these people, but defenders of employer branding use this to justify its value. HR seems all too willing to follow the crowd and will often implement a quick tactical fix before understanding the underlying strategic problem. Diversity hiring is further proof of this. Most diversity initiatives are too tactical, including more targeted advertising, more slogans, better pictures, more training, better websites, and more sponsorships. When a tactics-first approach like this is used, results are marginal and short-lived. So if your diversity hiring initiatives aren’t working this could be the problem. The solution is to first understand the strategic reasons why your company has a diversity hiring problem. The answers will probably involve lack of core cultural support, manager bias, inappropriate selection criteria, weak development programs, and executive sponsorship that is more talk than walk. Until these issues are addressed, diversity hiring initiatives will just be window dressing, falling far short of expectations. If HR wants to be a strategic player, it needs to worry less about the windows and more about the foundation. This starts with better job descriptions, which brings us full-circle to the point of this article. Traditional skills and experience-based job descriptions should be thrown away. By themselves, they do more to prevent a company from hiring top people and implementing successful diversity hiring programs than any other single factor. Job descriptions must emphasize what the person taking the job will do, learn and become, not what the person must have. This includes a clear description of the projects the person will work on, the expected deliverables, and how these tie into the company vision and strategy. It’s always better to elaborate on what the person needs to do with his or her skills and experiences rather than listing the skills themselves (e.g., “use your business marketing background to launch the new high-speed line.”) This way, managers can use the results a person has accomplished as the selection criteria rather than the absolute level of skills, academics, and experiences. This opens the door for more diverse candidates by eliminating an artificial barrier to entry. It also opens the door to all top performers who aren’t attracted to a job that offers more of the same. A good rule to follow when writing these performance-based job descriptions is to emphasize opportunities over requirements. This is what job branding is all about. It’s also how you attract a pool of top performers of all colors, races, religions, ages, and industry backgrounds. Getting managers to describe what their people need to do and accomplish is the first step in changing a company’s culture from one based on skills, experiences, and academics to one focused on performance. While a tactic, it’s also the basic building block of a progressive and forward-thinking organization.

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).