You could argue that in a professional services business, talent is the most important asset. You could argue the same for any business.
The talent war we read about is real, and it's getting worse. It will decide the fate of most businesses in the "new normal."
The traditional recruiting model for new graduates should be re-examined. The more managers and business owners I talk to, the more I hear about hires that looked good when the offer was made, but turned out to be a poor fit a few months into the role. Some turnover is healthy, but investing in new grads and then quickly losing them is costly and disruptive. This is particularly the case for small and medium-sized businesses.
Everyone knows the game.
This is the game:
• Identify the schools (normally business schools) at which you plan to recruit, and the level at which you will recruit (undergraduate such as BBA, or more senior such as MBA).
• Contact the school career centres early in the summer to book times during the busy recruiting calendar. September is the silly season to recruit new grads, eight to 12 months before they graduate.
• If you are big enough and have the gumption, hold a private party or BBQ for select (career centres normally help with selection) graduating students some time in August. Sell, sell, sell on exclusivity and firm smarts.
• Post a job at the end of the summer.
• Head to the school in early September to hold an information session. At the information session sell, sell, sell. Try to convince students you are different and offer the best environment for development and work-life balance.
• Head back to the school in late September for first round interviews, normally behavioural.
• Hold second and third round interviews, normally technical and fit interviews, in October.
• Make an offer or offers. Make a hire.
Why is this model under strain? First, consider that the process can be "gamed." Candidates for business degrees understand the game so well they can fake their way through interviews. The result can be bad for both sides, as you end up with someone who is not a great fit, and the new grad ends up with a job he or she doesn't really qualify for or want.
Next up is the differentiation argument. Have you just spent months or years trying to be different, trying to get a leg up on competitors or new entrants by innovating your customer experience, or on your website, or with your technology? If you play the game above, how differentiated are you? Without meaning to do so, you are telling top grads you are just like everyone else. To some extent, that is important (you want candidates to consider you a serious option). But too much of the same can be dangerous.
Now ask yourself this: Which industry relies most heavily on talent for success? There are many good answers, but I would argue it is professional sports. In hockey, if you have good talent, you win, you put bums in seats and sell jerseys, and you make money. If you have a poor level of talent, you lose and you are in the red. Do you think football teams hold information sessions and interview linebackers with hypothetical questions such as "what would you do if the running back breaks the line and fakes a lateral?"
Of course not. They scout talent. They watch talent actually perform the function live before pursuing anyone.
There are three good lessons here for SMBs looking for fresh talent at schools:
• You will be competing with larger organizations, and you have to realize that and leverage the differences, just like small market teams do when talking to free agents. Perhaps you offer a wider scope of experience and a better lifestyle than the larger players.
• The term recruiting itself implies you must convince or entice someone to join your organization. Is that what you want? Don't you want candidates to want to work for you? Then they have to know and understand you.
• For talent scouting to be effective, candidates have to be looked at under "game conditions," not in "what if" scenarios. This means observation, in addition to interviews.
So what are the alternatives? In business, if you want to get above the fray, one high potential route to follow is thought leadership. Instead of selling, demonstrate expertise and let potential customers or the audience decide how differentiated you are and what your value proposition or culture really is.
Map this onto talent scouting for new graduates:
• Consider approaching the schools you are interested in with a unique value proposition. Instead of holding an information session, offer to give a talk (in a classroom) on your industry, or teach case examples that connect the theory learned in courses to the real world you live and work in.
• Offer to participate in case competitions or to host some type of unique challenge where you tap your network for interesting guest speakers or judges. Whatever you do, keep it interactive.
• Contact the student-run clubs and ask them for guidance on how to deliver something of unique value to graduating students, and customize the session around the clubs.
• Once involved, resist the urge to sell your organization. Instead, speak from experience and ask students a lot of questions. Use specific examples when answering questions.
• Most important, put yourself in a position to evaluate students on the criteria most important for your organization and/or the role you are looking to fill. It might be smarts (who is asking the best questions?), communication skills (who is articulate and confident?), or problem solving skills (who is gathering and analyzing data effectively?). Then either let students self-select and approach you (at least you will know they want to work for you) or selectively approach those in whom you see the talent you are seeking.
• If possible, arrange for students to carry out micro versions of the work you and your firm does (pick a stock, make a marketing recommendation – whatever the case may be). These game situations are the most indicative of who will be successful in your organization, and who will not.
Two things to remember:
1. You need to be mindful of the calendar – if you hold your unique session after the heart of recruiting season, some top students will have already signed elsewhere.
2. The key to this process is to pull back the curtain and let students get a real look at what you do, so that those who approach you, or you approach, understand what they are getting into.
The benefits can significantly outweigh the investment required. Some of my colleagues push back and say: "but this will require more time on our part?" I doubt it. It requires more creativity and a willingness to break process. The upfront time investment might be slightly higher, but countless hours will be saved on the back end in not wading through hundreds of resumes and cover letters – many of them from candidates that don't really want the job anyway, and in not interviewing as many candidates.
If your business relies on talent, and I can't think of many that don't, it might be time to have a long look at your recruiting processes.
A closing note to those who think I am not a fan of career centres. On the contrary – career centre professionals do a fantastic job of educating and preparing students for the process of interfacing with companies with hiring needs. Career centre professionals can be your biggest allies and sources of information to help you make a plan.
This is not about circumventing career centre process, it is about cutting through the noise to differentiate and get the talent you need.
Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, founder of Torque Customer Strategy, is now a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the Customer Strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.