What’s On the Minds of Talent-acquisition Leaders

It’s 7:25 a.m. on a crisp NYC spring morning and I’m sitting at the back table at Ai Fiori at the Langham Hotel in Manhattan waiting for the last of six top NYC talent acquisition leaders to arrive for breakfast. The breakfast isn’t scheduled to start until 7:30 a.m., but already the conversation is flowing and connections are being made. I keep my mouth shut, sit back, and listen intently, like an anxious parent watching their child perform at their first school play. I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

I’ll be the first to admit that as the founder of a recruiting technology startup, I’m an outsider when it comes to the day-to-day challenges facing today’s talent teams. That’s part of the reason why for the past few months I’ve been bringing together five to seven talent-acquisition leaders from some of New York City’s top companies for an intimate breakfast where we discuss their most pressing issues. Recently, the topic of innovation came up.

In today’s cutthroat recruiting environment it’s no surprise that talent acquisition leaders are forced to think about more innovative ways to attract talent. However, I was surprised to hear about one particular challenge they faced when it came to innovation — getting the broader recruiting team to buy into adopting innovation. Like a fly on the wall, I sat still and listened intently to talent leaders share their challenges, solutions, successes, and failures and here’s what I learned.

Lesson #1: Build the operational case

Talent leaders are used to building out the business case to sell a new idea to leadership, but less familiar with how to build an operational case to sell the idea to the stakeholders who will be executing on the plan day-to-day — the junior recruiting team. One VP of talent from a fast-growing fintech startup recounted a story about how she wanted to create a series of employee-profile videos to better showcase the culture to prospective talent, but knew the brunt of the coordination and execution work would fall on the junior recruiting team.

Her solution: Recording a short video of herself on her iPhone as a template for what she wanted the videos to look like. This two-minute video talked about her background before joining the company, why she joined, and the impact working there has had on her. At an all-hands meeting, she debuted the video as a lead-in to pitching the employee-profile video series to her team. The result: The excitement of the potential impact a video like that could have outweighed the downside of putting more work on the recruiters’ plates. A lively debate ensued. It wasn’t about how they’d find time to do this. Instead, it was about all the cool and innovative ways they could use these types of videos to promote the company to candidates. As she put it, “don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty before asking others to do the same.”

Lesson #2: Plant the seeds of innovation and wait for them to grow

Talent leaders often come up with innovative ideas fairly regularly. It comes pretty naturally, especially given their breadth of experience, exposure to new ideas at various conferences, and the leadership skills they’ve developed over time. However, one head of talent recounted an experience about how she was tired of always coming up with innovative ideas and pushing them down to her team. Instead, like any true leader, she tried to change the junior recruiting team culture so that innovation would start to come from the bottom up. This wasn’t an easy task, as she had to find ways to cultivate this ability in her junior team over time.

One tactic that worked particularly well was inviting very junior recruiters (even specialists and coordinators) to large conferences, such as LinkedIn’s Talent Connect and ERE’s Recruiting Conference, even if a lot of the attendees were more senior. Her hypothesis was that both the formal talks and more informal networking over dinners and drinks would expose these recruiters to all the innovation happening within the recruiting industry.

Her hunch turned out to be correct. This was not a quick win, but the impact of this strategy really hit home when one of her recruiting specialists booked some time on her calendar to talk about the candidate interview scheduling process, which until then, had been a nightmarish combo of emails, calendar invites, and spreadsheets. The recruiting specialists not only made the case that their current system was wasting time, but also tied it back to improving the candidate experience, a theme that had been echoed at many of the recruiting conferences she attended.

Not only did the recruiter identify an area ripe for innovation, she put it in the context of a broader strategic initiative, and even came up with a few proposed solutions. The result, innovation, bottoms up.

Lesson #3: Have vendors do your dirty work

As the founder of a recruiting technology startup, this probably goes against my own self-interest, but it was such an innovative tactic that I had to share it. A director of recruiting at an NYC software startup that had just raised its series B recounted a story about how she turned the barrage of cold emails from vendors into an innovation catalyst for her team.

Here’s how the tactic worked. She’d quickly scan cold emails from recruiting tech vendors. If something sounded promising, she’d reply and cc her recruiting manager, asking her to take a look. The genius of this tactic is that the recruiting manager had to take the vendor seriously, because it was a direct request from her boss. While at first this proved to be a drain on the recruiting manager’s time, she eventually became better at separating the noise from the truly innovative. The best vendors gave her new insight into an old problem. They made a compelling case for looking at things differently. Without really realizing it, she became in charge of selling innovation up to her director on several occasions. With each initiative that got shut down or didn’t gain any traction internally, she became more determined to succeed in bringing innovation to the organization.

Before long, there was a match between the vendor, the recruiting manager, and the director about a real problem and an innovative solution. The recruiting manager was so excited about leading the charge to bring an innovative product into the organization that she approached rolling it out to the broader recruiting team with equal excitement and motivation. As the director put it, “there’s been so many times when I’ve brought in new tech and relied on my recruiting manager to sell it to the team and most of the time it never stuck. But this time, the recruiting manager had full ownership over this innovative tool, which made a world of difference in her approach to getting other team members to buy in. And all I had to do was forward a few emails from vendors.”

Jason Rivas is the founder of the Future of Talent breakfast series that brings together an intimate group of innovative New York City talent-acquisition leaders to learn from each other over a delicious meal at New York City’s best restaurants. He is also the co-founder of FirmPlay, the first of its kind employee referral pipeline builder. The software transforms employees' first-degree connections into a talent pipeline that companies can search on demand to quickly fill jobs with high quality referrals. Before starting his journey as an entrepreneur, he had a short stint in investment banking after earning his MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

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