The Art, Science and Business Impact of Talent Acquisition

RTTT LIVE! opening keynoter Rusty Rueff explains why recruiting has never been more important.
By: | November 9, 2018 • 4 min read

The year: 2006. The buzz: The War for Talent (first termed by McKinsey & Co in 1997) had returned.

There was no keeping up with the demand for talent across all industries. The Internet bubble burst was behind us. 9/11 was still fresh in our minds, but industry was not going to be held down. The economy was in full expansion mode and talent was once again being sucked up out of financial services and consumer goods and heading west to join technology companies. The domino effect had companies with more openings than they expected, and they called on all types of recruiters to come to their aid: retained search, contingency, contract hiring, internal recruiters. It was all hands-on deck and it became a “whatever it takes” game.

And then, in late 2007, the music stopped and the Great Recession began. Those big recruiting teams went the way of Lehman Brothers and it became a buyer’s market. A mindset of “arrogance of supply”—a term that Hank Stringer and I coined in our 2006 book, Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business—took over.

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Those were dark days for talent. We worried whether we’d have a job the following month. The Glassdoor Employment Confidence Survey (confidence level as to whether you could replace your job and salary within 6 months) results yielded the lowest confidence percentages to date.  And, employment churn (changing jobs) seemed almost non-existent. To recruit someone out of their current company was like chiseling them out of concrete.  It was just too risky to move.  Those who were still recruiting had to use new muscles, all the while combatting their own company employment brand image as pay was cut, perks eliminated and the response from the boardroom on the need to continue to work on retention was too often, “Where are they going to go?”

During the contraction, we learned a lot.

And now, we’ve been at full-growth throttle for almost 10 years. It’s been so long that we might have forgotten that pre-2008, we didn’t have the transparency that sites like Glassdoor brought to the market. We didn’t have many of the technology tools and platforms that make our efficiency better but our talent-acquisition jobs harder because the talent has more and more control over the direction of their careers, right there, in the palm of their hands. Much has changed, but much hasn’t, and I’d argue that the basics of our roles as those who bring talent into our companies has never been more important, or more critical, to the health and well-being of companies and people.

Each day, we feel the pressure of more and more growth and less and less people available to fuel the expansion in new jobs and responsibilities. The last thing we want to hear is the government touting the numbers of fewer people looking for work than the number of jobs we have open. We’re getting pressed to fill the roles while, at the same time, not letting quality slip and keeping hiring costs down. It’s truly harder than any of us can remember. But, what we know for sure is that it won’t last. And to that, we must ask the question, “Are we ready?”

I said above that the role we play in talent acquisition is important and critical, and I mean that in the most stringent of ways. Of course, we don’t want our businesses to stall because we can’t deliver enough of the right talent at the right time, but more importantly, how we hire is in the spotlight. I would go so far to say that our roles are as important to the future as any other role in the company. However, if we are in the role today, do we realize that? And if the role reports to us, do we recognize, reward and support these people accordingly? These are my reasonings for all of us upping our game.

We supply the fuel. I’ve already stated that we can either further, or stunt, the growth of the company by our ability to keep the supply of quality talent coming and delivering that talent at the right time. Talent are the fuel of the company and, by being the discoverers of that talent, we must keep the octane level high. If we let our standards slip and let talent flow into the company that is not the best of the best, we run the risk of having a sub-standard person make their way in. We all know the problems that can create, so we must make sure we keep raising our own bar, too.

We can cause lots of problems. Part and parcel of being good at talent acquisition is the ability to sell candidates and sell hiring managers. We have to be able to sell a candidate on the company, the job and the culture. If we’re good at this, which we must be, we can also end up selling someone into something that they shouldn’t be sold. Many times I’ve acted as the counter-person to those who tell me how excited they are about a new opportunity that, as I listen to them, makes no sense whatsoever for them. Why is it so important to take this into consideration? Because the stakes are so high: Picture an executive who leaves a great company and a great job and relocates her family somewhere else to take on a new position. If she loses that job because it wasn’t the right fit, she can’t go back to where she was—she’ll need to find another job, possibly move her family yet again and will have to explain for a long time (if not for the rest of her career) why that job didn’t work out. And what about generationally, when a child sees their parent not happy, or worse, feeling mistreated by a company? What impression of work, and trust of others in the workplace, does that leave on a member of the next generation? It’s a big deal when someone takes a new job—we can be the ones to ensure that it’s as right as it can be before we put on our selling hat.

We can be the antidote to bias. We are already the first screen of talent into the company, and we have more power over bias than anyone probably recognizes. We can sway the makeup of the company through our own unconscious and conscious biases by who we let into the interview pool of candidates. If we wanted everyone in the group we recruit for (the whole company, in some cases) to all be people who wear glasses, we could make it happen just by screening in those who wear glasses when they interview. We wouldn’t always be right, as sometimes people who wear glasses also wear contacts, but it’d probably take a long time before someone noticed that all the candidates were (at some time) glasses wearers.  Of course, this is silly, but think about the power we have and how we need to work against our biases.  I happen to like people who have a sense of humor, and I gravitate to them. Do I need to check myself each time I like someone over someone else? I think I do. I think we all need to. And, when it comes to the predictive analytics and AI applications that the future will bring, we must be the guardians of keeping bias out of the system. None of this is easy, but then again, nothing that’s worth anything comes easy!

We must be ahead of the curve! To touch on my last point about technology and talent acquisition, we must find a way to be ahead of the curve, not behind it. I’ve always said that one of the greatest traits of successful people in functions that might be behind in the adoption cycle of technology is to be curious about what other functions (marketing, sales, finance, etc.) are doing tobe better and more productive. We need to be good at pattern recognition, to understand what might be applicable to our functions and to understand the technology better than anyone else would ever imagine we could. It’s called staying ahead of the curve! When we’re ahead, we can be creative and adaptive. But when we aren’t pushing ourselves to learn new ways, try new technologies and break out of our set ways, then we aren’t growing—and the company and the talent we serve needs us to be growing.

We are needed!  If all the above doesn’t scream that we’re needed, I don’t know how else to say it more clearly. We have awesome jobs, with awesome responsibility. Even though we may not get all the recognition as such, we’re important, and we need to remind ourselves of that. I often like to use the analogy that when you’re in the business of human capital management, it’s a bit like being a catcher on a baseball team. It goes this way: The game can’t start or go on without a catcher. The catcher is the only person on the team who has a full-field view and can see the faces of all the teammates on the field. The catcher is the one on the team who needs to know both their own team and the other team so that the defense can be shifted. The catcher is the only person who meets and interacts with all the players of the opposing team (just like in recruiting). The catcher can stop the game and call the plays with the pitcher (the pitcher can brush off the catcher’s pitch calls, but if they do and then a hit occurs, it isn’t the catcher’s fault). The catcher knows all the rules because that person called the umpire is right over their shoulder. It’s an important role and is thought of in baseball as beyond critical. Sounds pretty good, right? It should, because that’s us! We are the catchers! The bad news? Well, like a catcher, we need to be willing and able to have someone throw balls at us, all day long!  Ha!

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So, if today there’s any doubt that what we do in talent acquisition isn’t part art, part science and a whole lot of business impact, put that wondering aside and head back out on the field. Because there’s a team that needs you … and needs you at your best!

Rusty Rueff will deliver the opening keynote at the upcoming Recruiting Trends & Talent Tech Conference on Feb. 20 in Las Vegas. He is a long-time talent acquisition leader (having served as executive vice president for HR at Electronic Arts and in senior HR positions at PepsiCo and United Technologies), business leader (serving as CEO of SNOCAP Inc.), founding board director of Glassdoor and author of the best-selling book Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business.