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3 Ways Recruiting Can Help Succession Planning

Kevin Wheeler (kwheeler@glresources.com), 

the President and Founder of Global Learning Resources, Inc.

I have heard hundreds of complaints from candidates about the increasing efforts by organizations to find exact fits for narrowly defined positions. While part of this is done to filter out the few from the many, mostly it is misplaced effort that will, in the end, reduce your own recruiting effectiveness and that of your organization.

The Harvard Business Review recently quoted a 2002 survey of executives, saying that "nearly 60% of executives admitted they were not cultivating even enough talent to sustain their current business models or innovate for growth, let alone manage an unpredictable future." It seems a constant that no matter how much time and effort organizations spend on succession planning, they end up needing to find outside talent that has not yet been identified  or even thought of, in many cases.

One of the primary reasons for this is that circumstances change more than anticipated, and whatever talent was previously identified is no longer adequate. It is a part of human nature, perhaps, to always try to chart the future by looking in the rear-view mirror. We imagine worlds that are simple extensions of the one we inhabit, and we rarely anticipate the amount of change that will be needed. Along with this goes narrow position definitions and a lack of flexibility.

Nissim Taleb, a noted mathematician and essayist, has written extensively about this phenomenon in other aspects of our lives. For example, we often focus tremendous energy and time analyzing past action and events, hoping that specific findings will help prevent a future event.

But future events are always so different that we could not have predicted them and the specific findings tend to be moot. We did not predict, for example, the dot-com bubble or bust, the Challenger explosion, or September 11. No September 11 commission or Challenger investigation will prevent the next tragedy simply because these things cannot be predicted. Taleb calls these events "black swans."

"A black swan is an outlier," he writes, "an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that's what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past."

In times of rapid corporate change, perhaps it's time recruiters were placed in a relationship more central to the succession planning process rather than on the margins. Many organizations leave recruiters entirely out of the succession planning process, bringing them in only at the last moment. Even at this point, the recruiter may be bypassed. For senior-level positions, organizations will frequently engage a third-party recruiter for privacy reasons or because they believe the internal staff is either not well-connected enough or too busy to be effective.

There are three significant ways that recruiters can add real value to the succession planning process. First of all, they should provide a competitive analysis of the labor market. Secondly, they should contribute to the overall talent plan and offer analyses and projections on a variety of possible staffing scenarios. Finally, they should create and maintain flexible talent pools.

Let's look at each in more depth.

1. Competitive analysis

I have mentioned this a hundred times in previous articles and believe it is the bedrock of future effective recruiting. Every profession needs to have a deep understanding of its supply chain. Recruiters need to know the general availability of a range of talent and have a precise estimate of talent depth and availability, as well as the organization's ability to attract whatever specific, key talent that may be needed.

This means using tools such as Eliyon, the Internet, and proprietary research to draw these pictures and keep them up to date. 

2. Talent planning

Recruiting has to make a business case to be involved in talent planning at a corporate, division, and unit level. Talent scarcity and cost should ensure that no good talent leaves the organization unless everything has been done to retain it.

The first hurdle is to simply identify good talent. This is often a one-dimensional process of taking a manager's word for who is good or not, but it should in fact become multi-dimensional, where numerous aspects of quality and performance are looked at before a decision is made. A person one manager may find annoying, precocious, or insubordinate might be exactly the right employee in some other part of the organization. This is where recruiting can play a neutral role, looking at skills and competencies and recommending a transfer or offering a move within.

The second part of talent planning is to combine it with the competitive analysis data and draw pictures of how scare certain types of skills are in your markets. The scarcer the talent, the more effort should be expended in retention and training internally.

The third piece of this planning process should be scenario planning  putting together, with managers, all sorts of possible futures. The more possible future directions you can help mangers identify and the more you can loosely identify the needed talent for each of them, the better you can build talent pools.

Historically we have put way, way too much emphasis on looking for people with certain specific skills and talents that have been (or we think might be) successful at a certain job. We are often dead wrong. Over 30% of American CEOs don't have MBAs or college degrees, yet if we were asked to write a job description for a CEO I am certain one of both of these would be requirements (a requirement, by the way, based on no quantitative data at all). The list of "misfits" who perform jobs they weren't trained for is very long. Were YOU trained as a recruiter? How did you get to be in your position and what specific set of qualifications would make you a great recruiter today? The same set of skills as those that would have made you good 5, 10, or 15 years ago?

Talent planning should be about scenario planning compared against constantly updated competitive data, combined with the appreciation that we cannot predict the skills our firm will need in the future with any accuracy. And that takes us to the third way recruiters can help succession planning.

3. Talent pools

Because we cannot accurately and precisely predict what talent we will need over the course of even six months, the highest art of modern recruiting is the constructing, maintaining, and modifying of pools of diverse candidates with a wide variety of skills, backgrounds, and interests. Coupled with this is the ability to match these diverse skills to the emerging positions and needs that will exist.

The ability to do this effectively will really separate amateur recruiters from professionals. Hiring managers, at a loss to accomplish tough assignments, will look to the talent experts to help them put together a picture of what a successful employee should look like.

These profiles will have to be based on tests and selection criteria that are far removed from the guesswork and ordinary interviews we do today. They will require us to gather performance data from new employees, experiment with different mixes of skills, and follow up by monitoring productivity and performance over time and then inputting this back into the mix.

This is by no means an easy or fast process, but over-reliance on narrow skills definitions, the endless tinkering that I see going on with job descriptions, and the lack of flexibility on the part of hiring managers will all impede our economic recovery and the prosperity of our organizations.


Kevin Wheeler (kwheeler@glresources.com), the President and Founder of Global Learning Resources, Inc., is a globally-known speaker, author, columnist, and consultant in human capital acquisition and development. His extensive career, global client base, and research affiliations make GLR a leading provider of both strategy and process. GLR focuses on assisting firms architect human capital strategies. GLR guides firms thorough comprehensive talent acquisition processes and procedures as well as the development of talent within organizations of all sizes. GLR can be explored at http://www.glresources.com.