Hiring is broken. Here’s how to fix it.

Posted on November 13, 2014.

Walking through my financial services client’s Austin offices 3 years ago you quickly got a sense of what the hiring strategy was for the group — fill the seats, quickly and cheaply. Quality was not an issue as tool-specific job reqs were explicit. As long as certain skillsets matched, they had a fit. And it’s this staff — unfocused, unchallenged and hired to fill a chair and push buttons — that was driving this company straight to the muddy middle of their industry. At that time, this hiring strategy was encouraged. It matched the company’s product development process — automated, serial and wasteful. The only focus was efficiency, reflected in the HR org with time-to-fill as the core success metric.

Things have changed. Software-driven businesses are becoming the norm. Companies of all sizes are recognizing that scale can only be achieved with technology at the center of their business. This may sound like ancient news but it’s not. Sure, software has been around for decades and has transformed everyday business practices but never before have the capabilities of software and technology-based tools been as powerful and game-changing as they are today. And yet, my client — reflecting a broad trend — continued to hire for the old way of doing business.

The client’s typically long delivery cycles led to process-based paralysis giving these teams little incentive to produce great work. But now, in an increasingly continuous world, these same products and features that took weeks and months to launch 3 years ago are being deployed incrementally on a daily basis. Systems that once were laborious to install, use and optimize are now web-based — looking more and more like the consumer tools we use to do our shopping, banking and photo sharing. As more companies adopt technologies like continuous deployment, big data analytics, sensor technology on hardware products and responsive designs optimized for all screen sizes, their ability to sense and respond to their customers’ needs grows exponentially. Yet the staff my client had hired wasn’t ready to collect, much less react to the amount of customer insight now available to them.

How much had changed in just 3 years? All they had to do was look at Amazon.com. The retail giant now has the capability to change its website every 11.6 seconds. While these changes are small (a copy change here, a button shift there) they allow Amazon to try new things quickly, gauge customer response and decide whether this is an investment worth pursuing further. This generates a ton of new information for the teams to process. The influx of all of this data powered by these new tools necessitates a different way of working. And, naturally, a different team. This changes the hiring profile of the candidates needed on these teams.

Traditional organizations, like my client, are siloed. Designers sit within a design or marketing organization. Software engineers sit with other engineers while product managers have their own area. Often these silos are geographically distributed. For example, there’s American Express who maintain a large portion of their technology teams in Phoenix while product, design and marketing reside in New York City. My client was no different. Each silo had managers that drove the hiring for those discipline and sought to grow their practices. Job reqs traditionally flowed from these managers and described the ideal person to fill the gap within those siloed organizations. The work then flows from silo to silo in what is lovingly known as a “waterfall” until it is finally deployed. This is often a lengthy and wasteful process that can only determine success and value at the end of the process. The increasing adoption of technology-driven continuous conversations with the market put the team in a position that kept it from being able to respond to the data. They simply weren’t structured (or incentivized) to work this way.

They had to change who and how they were hiring. No longer could they afford to hire practitioners who fit into a silo. Instead they had to start looking for individuals who thrive in cross-functional structures — collaborating daily with their colleagues in various disciplines. They sought out those candidates who were inspired by (and inspiring to) their colleagues but displayed the agility needed to change course based on the continuous inbound flow of customer data. At their core, these new hires are entrepreneurial. Generalists are preferred. Fitting them into a box becomes a challenge. Their hiring organization had to understand this new profile. It is dramatic and it is starkly different from the specialists they had been hiring.

Today, my client’s hiring practices have evolved. Instead of hiring for a checklist of tools or technologies they’re hiring for personality traits that encompass curiosity, a thirst for learning, strong collaboration and facilitation skills and genuine interest in other disciplines (not just the ones in which they’re employed). This is culture change — but from the bottom up. This next gen HR org is laying the groundwork for that company to ultimately embrace continuous learning. By changing the hiring profile they are setting themselves up to build teams that can take the best advantage of this influx of new inbound data and insight and that will display the agility needed to react to markets that shift at an ever-increasing pace.

Want to discuss this further? Have a good example of hiring in practice? Let me know.