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Talent Acquisition is Surprisingly Harder in this Recovery -- and What You Can Do About It
by Barry Shulman


One of the most surprising outcomes of the 2007-2009 recession is that talent acquisition —particularly top talent -- is actually harder, not easier, than before the downturn.  Despite the fact many well-respected, out-of-work executives are clamoring to get back in the game, surveys show companies are failing to find the right talent to fill reinstated positions.

In a recent study by the Corporate Leadership Council, 72 percent of companies predict they will have a large number of leadership vacancies over the next three to five years.  Even more surprising, 76 percent said they are "less than confident" in their abilities to adequately staff these positions. 

This phenomenon is worldwide. The chief executive of global recruitment agency Manpower recently told the World Economic Forum that 30 percent of companies across the globe continue to struggle to fill available positions.

My recent global searches confirm the increased difficulty getting candidate’s attention.  The situation is pervasive and clearly a result of a miserable economy, high unemployment and a rampant sense of anxiety and insecurity among the well-employed executives. The “Dot Com” era was tough but this is an even tougher time!

There are several reasons why companies are struggling to fill their empty positions.  In addition to the impact of retiring Baby-Boomer executives and the lack of qualified replacements ready to assume strategic positions, here are some other key reasons: 

1.  It’s harder to identify talent -- to separate the wheat from the shaft.  With so many talented executives sidelined during the recession, one would think it would be easy to post an ad and bring in a plethora of good candidates.  Not so. In fact, the task of identifying the right talent for open positions has become more and more daunting.  It’s a little like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. If you want to find that unique individual with the perfect experience, background and management style to fill your position, you better have strong market intelligence and a compelling story to tell candidates. Your recruiters must know everything about the position and come from a place of credibility. The “gates” are more heavily guarded now than ever before as candidates have their guards up and are less motivated to think about moving.

2.  It takes twice as much effort to attract the right candidate. One effect of such a long recession is that qualified candidates are more cynical and skeptical – and afraid.  Therefore they are harder to attract and entice.  For example, if a prime candidate is currently employed, it may take you twice as long to get his or her attention, let alone convince him or her to walk away from a secure gig to look at your opportunity.  Most employed executives are keeping their heads down and their noses to the grindstone.  Candidates believe venturing into the great unknown in a volatile market makes far less sense then staying in a familiar surprise-free job.

Even unemployed candidates require a great deal more handholding than in the past.  This means more face time to answer concerns, sell the position, and discuss long-term goals for both the candidate and the hiring company. Search has become a much more time-intensive process in the past few years.

3.  It takes more creativity and flexibility to land the necessary talent. Contrary to popular thinking, companies with open positions do not have the upper hand in the negotiating part of the executive search game.  Wages are starting to spike up again as competitive companies begin looking for similar talent.   What’s more, if prospects feel poorly treated or short-changed on compensation and benefits packages, and consequently walk away from the opportunity, the company’s reputation can take a hit in the marketplace. This will make hiring good talent now as well as in the future harder and harder.  The ability of individuals to share their negative reactions via Twitter, Facebook, eBoss, BadCompany and other social media should give companies enough reason to create positive experiences with every potential candidate, even those they know they don’t want to hire from the onset.

4.  People are redefining and repositioning their experience in order to compete in the race and be attractive to more companies. What they are doing, in many cases, is recreating and repositioning their history to be more generally applicable to a broader range of job specifications. As hiring companies get more focused on finding the right fit for their new strategic plan or top-level replacement, individuals are presenting their backgrounds with broader and more general strokes. This compounds the problem of matchmaking.

5.  All of a sudden, everyone is a “digital expert” talking about cloud computing and content – terms one should really never use because of their ambiguity. So sifting through well-written “marketing collateral,” – the new term for “resume” -- takes more time, a keen eye and, ultimately, a face-to-face meeting to sort fiction from reality.

Given this changing landscape for finding, attracting and landing new talent, it’s time for companies to take a closer look at the processes they are following -- and the resources they are using -- to fill their talent gap.   Here are two key questions you should ask: Who is responsible for meeting your company’s talent shortage and do they have the right resources to get the job done?

If your company is still operating in its recession-beating mode of minimizing expenses, you may be tempted to engage your already overworked Human Resource department to find, attract and hire individuals for every open position.  But if you do, you may find yourself adding their positions to your list of open recs!  Don’t forget, strong recruiters are constantly being recruited!! A better solution would be to give your staff the tools they need to fill your open positions. 

One of these tools or resources is the services of an industry- or discipline-specific professional search firm that concentrates in placing individuals in the exact discipline you seek.   A boutique firm that offers “principal participation” will provide a greater level of focus, and ultimate success, as opposed to the larger multinational search firms that complete only a small percentage of all their assignments.

Here are the top reasons for bringing in a boutique search firm to fill key positions during this recovery:

  1. Increase overall resources and talent to maximize your search efforts.

    If you retain a well-regarded industry-specific search firm that concentrates in the areas you are hiring, such as corporate communications, IT or HR functions, you will have a running start at the search because these experts already know the candidate pool.  They go right to the talent.

  2. Take advantage of their market intelligence.

    No search should take place without market intelligence.  This is what executive search firms bring to the table.  They track candidates both personally and electronically, relative to their title, status and years of experience and compensation. This creates a complete mosaic of players in any specific vertical. I call it “mapping.”  If a search firm doesn’t know who is sitting in specific positions, then they can’t be optimally effective.

  3. Reduce the overall time it takes to fill open positions. 

    The executive search firm can speed up the overall process dramatically and add value to your internal recruiters who are probably working on anywhere from 20 to 50 assignments at one time. Ask your HR team, and the executive search firm: “Who will be doing the actual work?” and “How many assignments is the consultant conducting concurrently?” Hedge your bets by hiring a search firm that provides you the most attention and coverage.

  4. Optimize the interviewing process.

    Candidates must be met.  One cannot just look at a resume and present the candidate to the hiring manager.  The preliminary interview, for example, is important in getting a full understanding of prior experience as well as a read on the chemistry and cultural fit.  Oftentimes, internal recruiters forget to sell their companies reputation as well as its “personality” and culture in the recruitment process. Passive candidates -- those who have strong backgrounds but must be persuaded to move positions -- always need to be sold. An executive search firm can do this in a shorter period of time with a concentrated number of candidates.  In addition, they provide a broader perspective and more current information about the competitive marketplace than in-house recruiters who don’t have as broad a reach and network. Your in-house staff will be challenged to meet the same timeframe, given their multiple searches.

  5. Free up your HR staff.

    Recruiting is just a small part of what an HR team does. Allow your HR team to concentrate on other mission-critical duties -- on-boarding new hires, researching and bringing in-house best practices in compensation and benefits, conducting reviews, surveys and evaluations as well as training and development of current staff and providing other HR services.

  6. Send a positive message to the marketplace.

    When you hire a specialized executive search firm that has a good reputation, candidates instantly know you are not window-shopping and that you are serious about finding the best candidate for the position. They will be more receptive to considering your position.
The competition for talent in this recovery should not be underestimated.  Those companies that take it seriously and engage the right resources to meet their needs will have armed themselves with the competitive edge to thrive in the years ahead.


The Author

Barry Shulman

Barry Shulman is founder and principal of Shulman Associates Executive Search, Incorporated, a globally recognized boutique executive search firm retained by corporations and consulting firms to find and attract senior communications and marketing communications executives.  In addition to completing hundreds of successful searches, he writes frequently and is often quoted on corporate communications and marketing communications issues as well as recruitment and executive search best practices.

For additional information visit Shulman Associates.

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2010 by Barry Shulman. All rights reserved.

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