Stop the Recruitspeak: Learn to Talk and Think Like a CEO

Few individuals would disagree with the fact that CEOs are the leaders of their corporations. CEOs are clearly powerful people who provide direction to everyone in the organization. People follow and copy their behavior not only because of their power, but also because they know the direction where the corporation is going. Many individuals in the corporation strive to act like their CEOs, especially senior managers, directors, and business unit GMs. These senior managers dress, act like, talk like, and even attempt to think like their CEOs. The benefits of thinking, acting, and talking like a CEO can extend to the very bottom of the organization. In fact, it’s a wise move for anyone in the corporation to try to talk like, act like, and think like their CEO. The way that CEOs and senior managers talk and act is quite distinctive and easy to notice. Because I have had the opportunity to be a CEO, and also to meet many CEOs of major corporations throughout my career, I have grown to understand the distinct way they think, act and talk. Obviously every corporation’s CEO is somewhat unique, but if you read the many books written by CEOs and former CEOs, watch their interviews on TV, or listen their speeches on corporate web sites, you can learn to at least talk like a CEO by identifying and understanding their common language. Certainly recent books by Jack Welsh, Lou Gerstner and Larry Bossidy are excellent examples of how CEOs think and talk. After meeting them, listening to their speeches, and reading their books it is clear to me that most CEOs at the very least expect (and many in fact demand) that everyone in their organization begin to think and act just like them. Unfortunately, when you shift your attention to HR, you find that almost no one talks and acts like a CEO. If you go the next step down and look at corporate recruiting, you invariably find that most managers of corporate recruiting (and corporate recruiters in particular) fail to talk and act like a CEO does. Of course, these individuals frequently call themselves “business partners” or strategic individuals. But the fact is that you could tell immediately that they are not like CEOs just by their talk alone. Even though few corporate recruiters have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with their CEO, only a very small percentage of recruiting professionals ever take the time to identify the way they think and talk by reading their books, their speeches, or their strategic memos. Obviously, it is not possible for every corporate recruiter to act strategically all of the time. But the very least that recruiters and recruiting managers should do is to learn to talk like a CEO. It’s important in business to “walk the talk” (a famous CEO refrain) but if you can’t always “walk the talk” you should at least learn to “talk the talk.” This article is designed to educate you about how CEO’s think and talk and how you can take that information and use it to change the way that you, as a corporate recruiter, think, act and talk. Incidentally, I have purposely excluded executive recruiters from this lesson because they almost invariably already talk like CEOs. Because they charge such high fees and they often work directly with senior executives, they long ago realized that they couldn’t have a high success rate if they didn’t both “walk the talk” and” talk the talk.” In order to think and act like a CEO, fortunately you don’t need to copy their language or actions exactly. Many CEOs cuss like sailors in private, are staunch Republicans, or wear $2,000 suits. In my experience, none of these traits are required in order to be successful at lower levels of the business. There are, however, numerous CEO attributes that you can emulate. Show Me the Money CEOs understand that the language of business is money. They see everything in dollars; every sentence they use contains dollars. If you don’t believe that money is the language of CEOs, visit a senior management meeting or read the annual report. You will quickly see that the one common denominator that permeates every discussion ó whether it be about the performance of a department or project ó is dollars. One example of this laser focus on dollars is the fact that employees at Microsoft have described meetings with senior management as “math camp.” It’s also important to recognize that, in addition to dollars, CEOs love numbers. For example, market share, time to market, and inventory turnover, can all be expressed in numbers. CEOs live and die by the numbers. However, if they are given a choice as they prefer to use the one common denominator that connects all disciplines and business units, and that is dollars. Comparing “dislike” numbers is difficult but if you convert every number to dollars, you reach a level that everyone can understand. For example, in HR, you could report that your turnover rate is 3% using a number alone. However, you can make that number more powerful when you convert it to dollars by stating that the revenue impact to the firm of the 14% differential in turnover (between the industry average 17% and your firms turnover rate of 3%) results in increased revenues of $70 million a year! Any department or any senior manager will understand a $70 million increase in revenue ó but only within HR will they understand the importance of 17% turnover rates. To a CEO there are two types of money. This can be illustrated by looking at the formula for return on investment. The word “investment” in the formula stands for costs and the word return stands for the increased revenue, as a result of that investment. CEOs know that any accountant can cut costs, but it takes a truly innovative person to increase revenue. This is true because increasing revenue requires you to succeed in an incredibly competitive marketplace. Cutting costs requires no great products, no great customer service, and no innovation or creativity of any kind. In addition, almost all CEO’s believe that once they have a superior product that increases their market share and total revenues (top line), they can eventually increase profits (the bottom line) by raising prices, through gains in economies of scale or even cost efficiencies. Rather than focusing on cost alone, CEOs prefer to focus on the overall return from the reinvestment. Cutting costs might impress the CFO, but what really impresses the CEO is using the resources you have to create a higher rate of return’s than any other department (whether it be an overhead department or a P&L unit). In short, ROI is what they expect. Lessons Learned Corporate recruiters and many people in HR speak of filling requisitions, cost per hire, time to fill, and even occasionally, the quality of hire. These are all interesting terms, but none utilize the language of CEOs; all are focused on process, not on results or dollars. Great recruiters talk about, measure, and improve business results in a variety of areas including:

  • Performance differential: The performance differential between hiring top performers versus average performers in the same position (the increased revenue as a result of hiring a higher percentage of “top performers”)
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  • Minimizing vacancy time: The increased revenue and time-to-market product development improvement as a result of minimizing the time that positions are vacant in mission critical jobs
  • Poaching from competitors: The enhanced revenue to us and the decreased revenue to a competitor by “poaching” away key individuals directly from competitors
  • The value of brand: The revenue impact of having a great external “employment brand” and recruiting “magnet hires” (both attract top performers in a way no recruitment advertising ever could)
  • Hiring innovators: The dollar value of the increased product features as a result of increased employee innovation by hiring out-of-the-box thinkers and through increased employee diversity at all levels of the corporation
  • Excellent sourcing: The increased on-the-job performance of new hires and the resulting revenue increase as a result of continually improving and utilizing the best sources and candidate assessment tools, as well as hiring and retaining the very best recruiters
  • Bad hires: The output or revenue damage caused by a “bad” hire. Where a bad hire includes individuals who must be quickly replaced because of their poor performance and immediate involuntary turnover because the person was not placed in the “proper” situation

For those of you that still believe that CEOs look at “people” as something that can not be quantified, it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. Yes, I am aware that many CEOs say publicly that their most important asset is their people. But the cold cruel fact is that CEOs see people as the largest expense item of the corporation, and they frequently “lay off” that so-called most important asset because people are expensive. If you want CEO’s to see recruiting and employees in a different context you must demonstrate not the low cost of the recruiting function but instead the revenue impact of hiring and retaining great employees. Key words to adopt: ROI, top-line growth (as well as increasing revenues), profits and margins, are all good terms to use frequently. Performance differentials, productivity, and increased margins are also words that should enter your vocabulary. Competition, Sports and Military Analogies CEOs are incredibly competitive people. They think of everything in terms of “us versus them.” They often respect the competitor, but they almost always “hate” the competitor and they certainly want to beat them every time in every area of business competition. In addition, they assume the competitor is also fiercely competitive so that they will also relentlessly copy and improve everything our organization does. As a result of this competitive paranoia, they expect and demand that every program and product have continuous improvement elements in order to gain and maintain your firm’s competitive advantage. Everything must be expressed in the term of competition or continuous improvement. For example, you can’t really say your revenues are $22 million, you must demonstrate how revenues have increased from last year and how “hard evidence” compared to the revenues of our direct competitors. Many CEOs go to the extreme and demand comparisons not of the average of the industry but instead the best in the industry and frequently the best in the world. All competition is relative and all results are fleeting. Many CEOs get this intense competitiveness as a result of their participation in or love of sports and the military. Numerous famous CEOs are fierce competitors in sports. For example, Larry Ellison of Oracle is a fierce competitor in sailing, Scott McNealy of Sun Micro is a fiercely competitive hockey player, while Jack Welsh a fierce competitor in golf. They are fanatics about winning and measuring results. In sports, everything is measured precisely and winning is clearly defined. A single error in a sports event will be discussed endlessly on radio and in newspapers within hours after the sporting event. CEOs often use quotes by famous coaches. They point to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Shaquille O’Neal as role models. Whether CEOs actually participate in sports or not, they see sports analogies as a great way to demonstrate competitiveness. Sports analogies are particularly relevant to recruiting because recruiters and recruiting are held in a much higher esteem in the sports world than they are business. Clearly in sports, if you recruited Joe Montana, Shaquille O’Neal, Tiger Woods, or Mia Hamm you would be a celebrated hero, while recruiting a good water boy would get you little recognition. Unfortunately, corporate recruiters tend to focus on hiring a large number of average performers in high volume positions. The result is little or no recognition. What they should instead do is focus on hiring superstars in either mission-critical positions or at the executive level if they want to be corporate heroes. Again, the lesson to be learned is that recruiting superstars in mission-critical positions will mean much more attention and respect than recruiting average performers. Corporate recruiting managers should identify the mission-critical positions and recognize and reward recruiters when they hire exceptional individuals. To continue the analogy with sports, recruiting should also track the performance on the job of individuals they hire in order to identify the best sources for top talent and to learn from failures. CEOs also frequently talk about the military and war. Not all CEOs have participated in the military, but many do equate business to battles and war. Many famous CEOs have read “The Art Of War” and it’s not unusual for them to invite generals and military heroes to speak at corporate events. Don’t be surprised when they use terms like skirmish, battle, move the troops, and damn the torpedoes in their books and business meetings. Corporate recruiters can continue the process of thinking and acting like CEO by using more war and military analogies within their own department and in their discussions with managers. Consider recruiting to be a war ó it was in fact called the “war for talent” during the last economic boom. It’s important to talk about recruiting in the context of us against them. Recruiters must continually benchmark not just the best practices and the results of the competitors. Once armed with this information, you can then continually improve your processes so that they produce superior results and a clear corporate competitive advantage. Lessons Learned Rather than viewing recruiting in the context of a battle between companies for the best talent, most corporate recruiters think of recruiting in isolation. They view recruiting as something that we do for a corporation, but they don’t see it as a direct competition between bitter enemies. Recruiting needs to be looked at as an “us versus them” situation. In basketball, you don’t just recruit a single seven-foot center because you have a vacancy. You recruit several seven-foot centers so that you will have sufficient backups in case of an injury, and also so that, perhaps more importantly, you deny the competitor the opportunity to have a seven-foot center. Filling requisitions is not enough; you must think competitively as a recruiter. This new competitive way of thinking also makes you realize that recruiting an unemployed person or college student has a neutral impact on your competitors, while recruiting an important individual from a key competitor not only enhances your firm’s revenue and learning but simultaneously decreases the revenue of the competitor. Unfortunately, few recruiters realize the added value of poaching as compared to hiring the easier-to-find active candidates. Incidentally, it’s important to point out that a significant number of HR people with a “social work” mentality avidly dislike the use of the war and sports analogies. They will aggressively deny their relevance and frequently say that they are “sexist.” This is a silly argument in that it assumes that one sex is more competitive than the other. Given the fact that both sexes avidly participate in sports and the military, such resistance is detrimental to the entire HR and recruiting function. I haven’t found that these individuals are willing to change or even listen, so I recommend that you send these “social workers” packing. Key words to adopt: Selecting the best athlete, competitive advantage, hurting the competition, winning the championship, dominating the competition, and most football, baseball, and most golf terminology are good place to start. Additional words to utilize include war for talent, collateral damage, laser bombs, shock and awe, and inspire the troops. In Part 2 of this article series I will continue to highlight additional CEO “think and talk” areas, including increasing customer value, prioritization, risk taking, and the need for speed.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

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