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Hiring Lessons from a Man Who Made Mistakes

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  • 17 August
  • by Tim Keith
  • Attract

Do you want to find and employ the best talent in the market for your business?

You believe in the value of a diverse workforce, are trying to lead change but are failing. I’ve been there myself. It’s hard despite your best efforts and intent.

As you’ll see from our approach, ‘How We Create Change’, the system needs to change to make real progress on diversity and inclusion. The first part of the workplace system and the most obvious is ‘Attract’. How do you attract the right people to your business?

Here’s some common mistakes and feedback that you might have experienced. I know, I’ve committed all these errors.

Your firm has a reputation as a great place to work, yet you still can’t attract a broad range of talented people.

Your brand gets people to apply and provides a list of candidates, usually from the same industry. You’ll need to look outside your usual sources to fish in different talent pools.

Additionally, you need to consider your own shadow. Some of the best applicants I received needed to be convinced that working for me was an exciting prospect. The main reason people stay with a company (or leave) is the impact of their people leader. If you don’t have the applicants’ best interests at heart, they will go elsewhere. Especially the good ones!

Think deeply about alternative talent pools. Research the 2-3 key things your target talent pools want in a workplace and what might turn them off about your team. There is an unprecedented shift in what’s important towards focusing on meaning and purpose, clear career progression or a team with a family-like culture.  Change the conversation you have with candidates to get them excited about your business.

For our business, we found out creating clear career progression, constant investment in personal development and empowering people to get on with their jobs was what resonated.  We also had to do some work around demystifying what we actually did.

No one different applies for your position. Does your job ad suck?

Left wondering why no one different to the usual crowd has applied for your fantastic position? It’s likely that your job ad is awful and outdated. That is, it talks about how important the role is, all the experience required, the technical specifications and that you are an equal opportunity employer (but are you really?). This type of ad appeals to no one. You will need to start again and build a job advertisement that explains why your business is a great place to work and encourages people of different backgrounds to apply.

How do you start again? Think about what your customers or stakeholders need in the future, consider where you can add additional value that your competitors can’t.  Where do you want your team to play in 18 months?

List what’s important that can’t be taught and add to what can be as a nice to have. The more requirements, the less likely women are to apply.  Interestingly, more women apply when the application process is clear and the pay is non-negotiable.

Be sure to sell your team, run your job ad through Gender Decoder, and advertise in new places and through specialist recruiters.

Looks like me, sounds like me, thinks like me, is it me?

You have assembled your short list of candidates. Somehow, they all seem to have been to the same schools, universities, worked in similar businesses and enjoy the same pastimes. You feel the pull to have something in common, and your gut feel is they will be a good fit for your team. Don’t get me wrong, you are good, but do you really need another one of you in your business? Probably not.

I made this error for a long time as a business leader. My hiring choices led to short term benefits but over the long term the impact was detrimental. We fell into not just group think but blinkered vision.

When you do bring in talent with a different background, run air cover and bring your team into line if they cling to the past.  I worked hard to bring in several talented women, who all left within the first 12 months.  At the exit interviews, I learned they were treated badly by the teams they went into. I learned some very capable, generally nice team members could do awful things when threatened. Interestingly, the women all went on to be very successful in other organisations. My mistake was trying to be impartial, when I really needed to lead.

Technical expertise, will that make the difference?

Do you need to have the same prerequisite set of qualifications and 5 years of technical training? It’s probable that the other 90% of your team already has this capability or are on their way to it. Sure, every business needs to have that sort of expertise but how much is too much?

The common mistake is that by requiring technical expertise your team looks like every other team in the market and your business delivers similar or worse results than the market. Is hiring the same type of people just from different companies the definition of insanity?

Don’t set someone up to fail by putting them in a role where technical expertise is necessary, but do question how you can modify roles to bring broader experience into the team.

Previous experience, does it matter?

Relying on experience or track record leads to homogeneity. There is only one way to obtain the necessary experience you expect, and that’s by working in businesses just like yours! It’s also hard to hire differently when all the candidates within the industry are men or have similar backgrounds. You shouldn’t rely solely on track record or experience for future business success. If you do, you can be sure a disrupter or entrepreneur will take your market share.

Within financial markets there was a small pool of talent amongst all the banks and other providers. We generally hired from each other until we were basically all the same. It wasn’t until we broke this mould and I looked elsewhere for great people that we delivered market leading returns.

There’s no boys club, we’ve signed up for diversity. Huh, how come there is no change?

The research* shows four important things:

  1. Everyone has bias, we use it as a shortcut to make decisions in a complex world. Don’t think you have it? Check yours here Implicit Bias Test
  2. Bias leads to errors in decision making. By including data from our stereotypes into decisions we ignore the real situation and don’t get the best outcome
  3. Being aware of your bias makes it harder to counter (which is why unconscious bias training is ineffective); and
  4. Those organisations that stridently proclaim they are meritocracies, usually aren’t.

I ran one of those teams. The simplest lesson is, if your team still looks the same, you are a boy’s club. Until your team make up changes you cannot shed this tag regardless of how many lunches you attend sponsoring diversity.

Given we can’t take bias out of people, we have to design it out of the recruitment process.  The good news is a few simple changes to the recruitment process can significantly reduce bias. These include:

  1. Have a clear weighted set of criteria for your role. These criteria will be different to your old job ads. It involves work and discussion, but will have an enormous impact
  2. Take names and gender clues off CVs, there are several great tools to facilitate this
  3. Ensure there are two female candidates on any shortlist
  4. Hold a series of 1-on-1 interviews. No panels. Score candidates real time and have interviewers meet to discuss and decide the same day.  By letting the data decide, we take much of the bias out of the process and finally,
  5. Have an independent review process for the decision. The hiring manager should meet with an objective leader (from another part of the business) and talk through the rationale for the decision.

Who you hire is the biggest decision you will make in your business. Don’t settle for second best.

People make all the difference. Technology, disruption, new products, innovation and strategy are all critical to success. They are all driven by people. The business with the best people wins.

Once you make the decision on who to hire, it’s hard to change course. I’ve made this mistake especially within senior leadership roles. Average appointments produce average performance. Generally, that’s good enough for them to keep their jobs. What about your above market performance? Well, quite simply, it’s gone.

You will need to hold vacancies open until you get the right candidate.  This creates pressure on the team, but can force people to search more widely.

Bring hyper care in for your hires.  Create immediate role clarity, measures of success and highlight the path for the first six months.  Meet with them every week and offer all the support you can through coaches, mentors and great inductions programs.  Their success in the first year says more about your leadership and team culture than their capability.


For more insight into how to avoid these common mistakes and genuinely attract the best and most diverse talent to your organisation please contact us.


* (Source: Iris Bohnet – What Works Gender Quality by Design 2016 Harvard University)





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