Searching for hires in all the wrong places
Originally published on February 10, 2012 in the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Here’s a great story about hiring better people by changing your recruiting focus.
A large accounting firm had an office populated with partners who, years before, graduated from Ivy League schools. They, of course, wanted to hire younger accountants out of the same prestigious institutions. However, things had changed since these partners were young college grads. These accounting jobs were not as coveted as they had once been.
Today’s young Ivy Leaguers wanted to work for Goldman Sachs or one of the other Wall Street investment banks — that’s where the best and brightest of their friends went after graduation. For these young employees, a job with an accounting firm felt like a consolation prize. What made this more difficult was that, in the absence of an investment banking job offer, these newly minted business people were still accepting offers from this accounting firm.
At first, things looked promising — maybe this time the firm was going to be successful in keeping these sharp young people. However, more often, after three to five years, these employees left the firm to (you guessed it) join their friends in Lower Manhattan.
In the meantime, the firm had poured thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars into developing these young leaders — only to watch their investment walk out the door after giving two weeks notice.
I give the partners in this firm a lot of credit — they woke up and smelled the coffee. They faced what for them was a harsh reality: while they could hire some Ivy League talent, by and large they could not keep those people long enough to have them become partners. If they wanted to recruit people who would stick around and be successful long term, they were going to have to focus their recruiting on different schools. They did it. They turned their attention to universities with strong accounting programs that were one notch down from the Ivies.
The results were great. Rather than hiring second-tier candidates, they often hired the best and brightest from these programs. Far from feeling that accounting was a consolation prize, these recent grads were pumped about the prestige of the opportunity they were being offered.
Over time, the firm has had much greater success at retaining these people all the way into partnership.
If you believe as I do that recruiting is a leadership priority, not just an HR priority, then question your current assumptions about recruiting. Are you looking in the right places for your new hires? Sometimes our habits and egos stop us from recognizing that our hiring failures stem in part from an unexamined recruiting strategy. Consider if you have been ignoring people who could be terrific performers for your company.
You may not get hung up on where someone went to college. However, when hiring, you may overemphasize the importance of industry experience, which is a kind of “real world” Harvard degree.
Many of us covet people with industry experience because we think they will be “plug and play.” We hope that we won’t have to teach them about our business because they will have already learned this on our competition’s dime. Yes, there are some roles that really do require people with an extensive, in-depth understanding of your industry.
However, for most positions, you are better off hiring the most talented person you can find and training them in your business as opposed to making industry experience a first and absolute requirement.
You know as well as I do that your competitors rarely part voluntarily with their best people. Requiring industry experience is often a security blanket that hiring managers and their HR cohorts cling to because they are afraid of making a hiring mistake. I know one marketing firm that insisted on trying to hire salespeople with an existing book of business from their competitors. They never succeeded in hiring A-players this way. They did, however, hire a slew of mediocre salespeople over the years.
The biggest irony was that the top two salespeople in this company came from outside the industry. One guy sold commercial printing before he started his career with this firm. The other one sold beer.
To my earlier point about the CPA firm, both of these individuals saw selling marketing services as a step up in their careers.
The chance to move into a new, more prestigious industry attracted both people to this company. These two account executives made this company tens of millions of dollars over many years. They had the native sales talent, intelligence, and work ethic that allowed them to succeed anywhere.
In my experience, the companies that consistently build A-player teams believe that their philosophy and approach is distinctive. They want to teach people their business rather than try to undo the bad lessons they have learned from competitors.
What they look for in new hires are the ethics, talents, and motivations that cannot be taught. These include work ethic, motivation to achieve, intelligence, resourcefulness, and natural sales talent. Then, they look anywhere and everywhere for people who possess these qualities. When they find them, they put on a full-court press to bring them onto their teams.
Examine your assumptions about the pedigree and experience that new hires “must” possess. This applies to industry experience as much as it does to where people went to school.
You want to hire great people who view your company as a step up, not as a consolation prize. It does you no good to hire your competitors’ scraps. Instead, start looking for the best talent wherever it may be.
You can train people so that they understand your industry and company. What you can’t do is retain an employee who does not appreciate the chance to work for your company. Neither can you train people to be smart, creative, or motivated.
Hire people who possess important skills that you can’t teach. The investments you make in them will pay off in the months and years ahead.
ERIC HERRENKOHL is president of Herrenkohl Consulting (www.herrenkohlconsulting.com), an executive search and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. He is also the author of the Amazon bestseller “How to Hire A-Players” (www.howtohireaplayers.com), described as “the definitive book on talent acquisition.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.