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Think differently to find the best talent: Recruitment in a disruptive digital age

Recruitment. It’s a word that inspires many feelings. Though it’s not my profession, it is part of my job. And there is so much on LinkedIn about recruitment, I feel compelled to put in my constructive 10 cents.

Recruitment has changed incredibly over the past 10 years, and accelerated the last five years. Technology has been a great tool, but also an obstacle. Add the enormous disruption in many industries, it increases the complexity. How can we find really terrific people?

We have to take a very serious look at encouraging organisations to think differently. To challenge mind sets about what makes a good candidate, and how to identify them. There are many good people on this platform opening these sorts of conversations and stoking debate, but I don’t see any shift from companies themselves. Some, many, really seem stuck in a long-ago time when telephones were attached to a wall. Happily, I am also increasingly seeing articles challenging conventional ideas.

One I saw just last week, made the suggestion that past performance is not necessarily an indicator of success in a role. I see truth in this. I’ve seen senior people with big CVs, from equally big brands, join other organisations and flounder. While no doubt they are successful and highly capable, some of that success is because the company they come from had incredible systems and infrastructures to help them be amazing. Put them with different or no systems, how well do they fair?

Another article I saw differentiated between what the author called “architects” i.e. people with longer tenure in the same role in a company, and “astronauts” i.e. those who moved around more frequently within the company and for shorter periods, and in roles in other companies, that revitalised and drove change. I see truth in this too. Both “types” are essential, and work well together with good leadership.

I’d preface all this by saying that I am naturally an holistic and divergent thinker. I’m the guy that in a meeting, when everyone is agreeing, am likely to think it all through, and say, yes, it all sounds great, but have we thought about these other things no one has mentioned? It manages risk, and helps find solutions, including for recruitment challenges. Best of all, it stimulates conversation.

What I find so negative, is the conventional thinking and fixed mindset of people who supposedly understand people, armed with a filter biased by their own experience. That career paths must go like X. That you need to have a profile exactly like X to do Y role. It’s to deal with some of the changes in recruitment earlier referenced, and companies are risk averse, I get it. But another thing I find negative, and I understand it might be a generalisation, is the determination to hire like for like. Why would I want to hire someone doing exactly the same thing in another company? Why would they move? How they perform on day one is potentially the best they’ll be. Maybe they’ll perform worse, if systems aren’t what they’re used to working with, as mentioned above. Again, case by case – I get it may be an urgent fill, you want a mix of “architects” and “astronauts” etc. But I sometimes prefer to hire someone who’s maybe 80% there, where there’s evidence of high performance, perhaps they bring other capabilities and from different categories not specific to the role. They might feel they have something to prove, will work a little harder, and you get uplift through that, while their focus on learning elements of the role generates even more value add than someone simply moving across, not to mention revitalisation of the broader team from the new hire’s higher engagement.

Further, with so much emphasis on diversity these days, this must surely extend to skill sets too: it brings new ideas and can avoid Group-think. One might argue it’s expensive to hire the wrong person if they don’t work out. True. But I’ve also seen businesses underestimate the cost of not hiring someone – strained teams, absenteeism, poor morale, lack of decision making, delayed projects. And in my experience, delays are caused by those least impacted by them.

So, how do we find the best talent when it appears scarce? We challenge conventional wisdom. We get away from the idea that you need to have exactly X,Y,Z to do the job; that you need “X” years to progress to the next role for “Y” years to get to the next, and so on. Such an approach to me is more about looking for comfort in sameness, and almost snobbery to join a company, or selling a candidate to a company that is more “comfortable” with a “certain” profile. This breeds sameness, and in my view is asking for average. We should also be especially critical in our thinking and judgment, and most of all – seek to identify and disrupt our biases. Confirmation bias, halo effect, similarity bias, and others.

Of course, the recruitment model is tricky, because recruitment professionals are dependent on the sale, and if the client’s hiring team are closed minded, this is a block. When working with recruitment professionals, while briefing on the role, I always make clear that I am open to their expert judgement and candidates from different industries. If they know a terrific person who is left field, I definitely want to take a look!

I had a great relationship with a recruitment business partner. We had a fairly clear view of what we needed to fill roles, but I always got excited when she came to me and said “look, I’ve got this candidate, they don’t have the usual experience, but they’d done this and that, and they had great energy on the telephone, I think we should meet them”. I’d always say yes. Occasionally we were wrong. But nothing lost. We were often right, and found a fantastic new recruit who revitalised our teams. She also spoke up and disagreed with me, and told me when she thought I was wrong. It worked really well, and we did hundreds of interviews together.

In one role I hired someone with no sales or jewellery experience. However, they had worked with wealthy individuals in a highly demanding service environment, had progressed through their career to roles they aimed for, and had some really responsible positions. They faced challenges when they couldn’t do the role anymore due to personal reasons, and started their own business. To me all this showed goal orientation, high performance, resilience, and they had worked in an environment of high service so they understood our customers. We were right. We hired the individual, and they immediately outperformed team members with a more conventional background, consistently, and on every level.

I was looking to fill another critical senior role. We met one candidate. The fit for the particular role was wrong, wrong, wrong. But their energy, the sheer number of people and volume they had handled, and their problem-solving ability and joy of doing so, were terrific. I just saw them in another role. I thought of the broader head office team, and saw them being a great addition. After some encouragement from a wonderful HR director, I got the candidate in to top management, and they joined the company. Sure. They had to learn some industry specific things, but they were well on their way to success. In fact, their learning involved asking lots of questions, that freshened us all up!

So, next time there seems to be no talent, and you are endlessly posting the same job ad over many months, receiving 600 applicants, can’t seem to find the profile that fits the 3 page job ad with 47 essential skills and 5 steps with at least 7 ½ years experience in each plus post graduate degrees and with no salary mentioned, perhaps think through your approach. There is amazing talent out there. We just have to be a little smarter, and braver, to think differently.

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Stephen Francis

An experienced leader with expertise in international brands as retail General Manager, Country and Regional Manager, in Australia and Middle East, with complete end to end business management responsibility. He has a track record of commercial success by driving business function engagement, influencing across an entire organization through a highly credible and authentic leadership style, to optimise retail and exceed financial objectives. He is experience leading transformational infrastructure and CAPEX projects with international teams.