Recruiting and retaining talent: how to get it right (nearly) every time, according to Joëlle Warren MBE DL., founding director, Warren Partners, one of the UK’s leading executive search firms.
None of us is immune to the anxiety which comes with bringing new talent into our organisations. When we get it right the positive effects can be immediate, the impact energising and good feeling palpable.
When we get it wrong it’s like going for a long walk in ill-fitting shoes. Uncomfortable, frustrating and likely to do some damage. Even the most successful leaders and professional recruiters can remember a time when they’ve been kept awake by that nagging concern that just won’t be silenced… You’ve found what looks to be the perfect hire and it all seems so right, on paper and intellectually. All bases appear to have been covered - capabilities and fit assessed, references taken and colleagues consulted. You’re delighted, excited but for some inexplicable reason, disproportionately nervous. The head rules the heart and the paperwork is signed. After much fanfare your new appointee gets started and all seems well…
Two weeks in and your anxiety has not been allayed, four weeks in and your worst fears are being realised. Can you really have got it so wrong? After all the time and effort you committed to the recruitment process could you really still have made a terrible mistake?
Very often you will try to convince yourself otherwise, you might agree some coaching input, you give feedback and you try and try to make it work. Depending on your nature, the time invested in trying to make it work will vary but in the majority of instances the outcome will be the same. It doesn’t work! The reason it doesn’t is because you have indeed made a mistake and the consequences for the person concerned, your organisation and your psyche are considerable.
So what went wrong? If you have followed a robust process the mistake you’ve made has nothing to do with the experience or competence of the candidate. It is simply that you asked the wrong questions, if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll get the wrong answers.
And the right questions are? Well the reality is that much of what you have assessed will have been important but it’s likely that what you’ve overlooked is to incorporate values in your assessment. Think of values as your organisation’s blood type. If a patient’s ‘pre op’ questionnaire asks a hundred questions but fails to clarify blood type, the outlook could be grim.
It’s the reason why studies have shown that external recruits are up to twice as likely to fail in a role as those appointed internally. Of course if it were so simple we’d always promote from within but then we would miss out on the new perspectives, fresh thinking and energising shot in the arm that external talent can bring.
Get values aligned and the future is bright - all these benefits of an external hire with alignment to the values that make your organisation unique. Evidence shows that a team with shared values can tackle the greatest challenges and triumph, so it will only be a matter of time before your new hire is welcomed with open arms and hailed as a great success. In fact, you’ll not only attract the right people to join you but it will help you to retain your existing talent. .
Sounds simple? But to do this you must first start with understanding the values of your organisation. This is not as simple as trotting out the words you’ve (hopefully) put on your website and issued to your team on handy credit card sized plastic to fit in their wallet. You know, the ones you struggle to remember without the help of a mnemonic.
It’s deeper than that, an all-encompassing ‘what matters to us and how we do things round here’. It links the words on the website to actual behaviours and the culture of the organisation. So it’s not just what you believe but what you do as a result. If you consider the costs, both financially and emotionally of making the wrong hire, it’s worth taking the time to break down each of your values into three or four things you’ll see people doing if they’re exhibiting the value and importantly what they may do if they are not. Understand what both look like and assess against this. You can only asses the values ‘fit’ of the candidate if you truly understand the values of your organisation.
There’s no point jumping from all this work defining your values and what they mean in practice straight to recruiting to them though. You need first to ensure that they’re embedded within your organisation, at every level: that managers manage to the values; that leaders lead to the values; that they are discussed as part of your appraisal processes and that you regularly ‘temperature check’ that you’re consistently living the values within the organisation.
Former energy giant, Enron had a beautifully defined value of integrity: ‘Working with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.’ The behaviours that claimed to underpin this were ‘being clear about commitments made, ensuring promises are well understood by whoever they’re made to; not lying, stretching the truth, or withholding information from a peer, customer, or stakeholder; informing all those impacted immediately if a commitment cannot be kept’. History has shown that there must have been a considerable disconnect between the aspiration and the reality of the behaviours at play in their origination. .
For you though, once you are clear about your organisational values, what they look like in practice and they’re embedded within the way you work, you’re ready to make them the critical key to successful recruitment.
In practice that means incorporating your values into everything from job adverts to role descriptions, from shortlisting criteria to interview questions and reference taking. What it doesn’t mean is jettisoning all that good practice of assessing competency based knowledge and skills. It’s not ‘either/ or’ but ‘both/ and’. You’re looking for candidates to demonstrate both values and technical skills and competence. So you’ll still be using those ‘give me an example of a situation when…’ questions, you’ll be ensuring the skills and abilities to perform in the role (e.g. digital, marketing, financial or leadership skills) but you’ll be also asking plenty of evidence based questions about behaviours. You’ll be seeking to understand the candidate’s personality in action. You’ll be establishing if they will thrive within your organisation. These are questions about how they influence, their approach to collaboration, their attitude to risk, to customers and their integrity.
Then comes the tricky part: evaluating and assessing what they say. This will be much easier now that you’ve done the up-front work and defined not just your values but what behaviours lie behind these. So using our Enron-defined behaviours around integrity, we’d be seeking evidence of truth telling, keeping commitments, clarity and openness of communication…
A final word of caution. If you subscribe to the definition of personal values being a set of enduring beliefs which a person holds about what is right and wrong, what is good or undesirable, which dictate how they behave, then these tend to change very little over time.
Organisational values however can change and sometimes should, as the organisation finds that the culture which has served it well in the past is no longer appropriate for where it wants to be in the future. Many of our clients have over recent years recognised the benefits of greater diversity within their teams and have had to revisit their values, which in some cases were almost working against diversity as leaders recruited in their own image and unconscious bias crept in. It’s just another example of the problem we started with: if you ask the wrong question you get the wrong answer. But define your values and recruit, induct, manage and lead to those and you’ll find you can recruit and retain the right people, who will perform better and be happier at work – happy employees, happy customers, better bottom line.”