A Unicorn Recruiting Function – Learn From Those With No Talent Shortages

Learn why a unicorn recruiting function can end its talent shortage, while every other function suffers with one.

A unicorn recruiting function is the rare recruiting function in an industry that is no longer facing a talent shortage. It is one that builds a competitive advantage over other industry firms by using unique outside-the-box recruiting tools to end any talent shortage that it may face. You might assume that these unicorn recruiting functions are rare. I have found that there is almost always at least one in every industry. However, you’re less likely to know about these unicorns because smart recruiting leaders keep the fact that they have solved the talent shortage problem a secret. Being secretive also likely delays their competitors from copying this unicorn’s successful recruiting approach. So, a corporate recruiting leader must spend less time whining about talent shortages and instead constantly be on the lookout for these Unicorn recruiting functions and how they recruit differently. Finally, it’s important to avoid the outright dismissing of any unique recruiting approach simply because it is practiced in other industries. 

Corporate Recruiting Leaders Can Learn A Lot From This Bold Unicorn

Most corporate recruiting leaders aren’t the least bit interested in public school recruiting. They probably assume that the approaches that are used for recruiting public school teachers would be antiquated. In most cases, they are right. However, the Peoria Public Schools would be an important exception. Peoria’s recruiting function has transformed itself into a unicorn function through the use of unique recruiting strategies and tools. They have effectively eliminated their talent shortage, even though at least 75% of other Illinois school districts have reported that they are still suffering severe talent shortages. The recruiting results produced by Peoria this year alone have been spectacular. By this Fall, they will have hired 100 new teachers, and while it is still mid-summer, they have only three remaining job openings.

A Snapshot View Of Peoria’s Bold Recruiting Actions 

Here’s a snapshot of the bold recruiting actions that they took and that you should also consider implementing (bold when compared to the rest for their industry). 

  • They hired a new executive that prioritized outside-the-box recruiting – In 2015, the Peoria School District hired Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat as superintendent. She brought a sense of urgency, the need for innovation and prioritized eliminating their talent shortage. 
  • They implemented a strategic plan that prioritized aggressive recruiting – They developed and implemented a five-year strategic plan to focus their efforts. The plan had five major pillars, which included long-term strategies for recruitment and retention. 
  • They hired an associate superintendent for HR – To kickstart their recruiting effort, they hired an HR executive with expertise in leading aggressive recruiting and hiring efforts.
  • They have implemented a multipart recruiting strategy – Rather than relying on a single recruiting approach. They are “utilizing at least eight different strategies simultaneously”  to increase their chances of success. They also committed to using aggressive recruiting approaches, which I can only describe as “quite uncommon” in school districts, the public sector, and even in many traditional corporate recruiting functions.
  • They added a sign-on bonus – Realizing that potential recruits face harsh economic times and the added costs associated with changing schools. The district boldly added sign-on bonuses to encourage reluctant candidates to accept. 
  • They offer a matching pay counteroffer – To stop the loss of veteran teachers for slightly more pay. The district implemented a modest “salary matching program” designed to stop this expensive loss by matching any affordable salary increase that the current employee would get by leaving. 
  • They encouraged referrals – Not only have they emphasized employee referrals (which are almost always the #1 most effective recruiting source). But they found the budget to offer compensation to employees for successful candidate referrals. 
  • They targeted their student teachers – They had many soon-to-graduate student teachers working the last semester. The district targeted these student teachers for continuous recruitment. And instead of delaying offers to the very best among them, “they offered them jobs early.” So that the students could decide quickly before they had even seen other offers.
  • They rebranded themselves – They proactively shortened and simplified the name of their organization to Peoria Public Schools so that the name would stand out and be easier for candidates to remember.
  • They recruited internationally – The US talent pool of teachers was limited without active poaching. They recruited internationally, utilizing their Visiting International Teachers Program, which supports cultural exchanges between countries. This year they sponsored 27 teacher recruits from three different countries. 

Illustrating how Peoria took advantage of this talent shortage crisis – “Our thinking is never to let a crisis go to waste. We had to reinvent our approach to recruiting and retaining because you can’t just wait for people to apply for jobs.”

An Illustrated Example – There Are Many Explanations For A Lack Of Applicants 

In my experience, a fishing analogy is one of the best ways to illustrate why most firms suffer from a talent shortage while a single other firm doesn’t. 

Let’s start by assuming that if you are walking down a fishing pier, you notice that no one among the fishing group had caught any fish. At this point, most would conclude that there were no fish to be caught near this pier that day. That would be true until you ran into the one fisherperson that had caught a bucket full of fish that day. The fact that one has succeeded where all others failed would quickly force you to rethink your initial “no fish are interested today” conclusion. Instead, plenty of fish was caught, but the problem was not utilizing “the right tools.” This illustrative case would be the most attractive bait, the best location on the pier, and the most effective catching tools would be the approaches taken by the person that caught a bucket full of fish. 

The key recruiting lesson learned from this “no fish are interested today” story is that you can’t get a significantly better recruiting competitive advantage if you continue to use the same recruiting tools and approaches as everyone else. This is especially true because almost every recruiting function can be classified as “a copycat function” in almost every industry, which means that almost every firm in an industry uses strikingly similar recruiting strategies and tools. So you shouldn’t be surprised when you learn that almost everyone is also facing a similar talent shortage. And that the unique and highly successful unicorn recruiting functions are using a completely different mix of recruiting tools. Each tool would have data supporting the fact that it continuously produces superior results.

Action Steps For Becoming A Unicorn Recruiting Function

You can become a unicorn recruiting function and maintain a competitive advantage. While at the same time eliminating any talent shortage by taking the following steps.

  • First, you will need to benchmark the recruiting approaches used by your industry competitors. 
  • Next, you must commit to differentiating your approach by using a mix of recruiting tools that are significantly different and better than the ones used by your competitors. 
  • During step three, expand your benchmarking to include the best firms across all industries known for their recruiting effectiveness. 
  • And once that you have identified these unique best practices from the top firms. Put together a list of the aggressive ones that best fit your organization’s situation. 
  • Then use this best practice list to begin your experimentation gradually. Add a few “new to you” effective recruiting tools to your recruiting mix. Simultaneously, remove traditional tools the data indicate are no longer effective (i.e., newspaper ads).
  • Then gather data on the effectiveness of each implemented new tool. Use the data to cover the “superior performance level of new hires” (a.k.a. quality of hire) to determine if you should continue using this tool.
  • Finally, over time, as the recruiting world changes and your competitors copy your current recruiting approach. Continually subtract and add to your recruiting tools mix to maintain a unique but, at the same time, more effective overall recruiting approach. 

Some additional recruiting tools that Peoria should try – in addition to what the Public Schools have already implemented. Given my extensive experience in education. I would suggest that they should also consider trying any of the following recruiting tools and approaches.

  • Direct poaching – The best candidates are almost always working at one of your competitors. So it’s a mistake not to use this tool. Unfortunately, many recruiting leaders don’t have the courage. But if you can, develop a plan to approach and recruit any employed prospects directly. Especially those that you know are currently reconsidering their career. Also, target those that are working in a district or company that is presently undergoing some turmoil.
  • Proactive referrals – Rather than simply wait for employee referrals to come in instead, proactively approach each of your well-connected top-performing employees. Directly ask them to give you the names of the five best prospects that they know. Also, ask them to help with the recruiting of the five individuals that they recommend. Next, encourage college hires and interns to make referrals of other graduating students. And allow nonemployees to make referrals (i.e., parents and vendors).
  • Boomerang rehires – Revisit top former employees that have recently left your organization and try to convince them to return gradually.
  • Silver medalists – Revisit employees that came in a close second during a recent job opening. Because some time has passed since they came in second, they are now likely to be much more qualified.
  • Qualified candidate dropouts – Many top prospects drop out of any hiring process for a variety of reasons. However, dropping out doesn’t make them less desirable. So revisit the highly qualified candidates that previously dropped out because those previous reasons for dropping out may no longer be valid.
  • Ask the top references for additional great names (reference referral tool) – The reference givers that accurately described one of your effective new hires could likely be counted on for some additional names. So during your standard reference call with them, ask them for a few additional names.
  • Ask your new hires to refer names during their onboarding process (onboarding referral tool) – Make it a standard practice to ask all top new hires during their onboarding process, “Who else is really good at their previous organization?” Also, consider asking the new hires to help you recruit the people that they recommend.
  • Use videos to reveal the excitement – Let potential applicants see and “feel” the excitement at your organization through the use of videos. These videos might include individual testimonials, a day in the life videos, or “how-to instructional videos” that demonstrate the superior knowledge of your employees.
  • Spread your employer brand on social media Today’s social media is extremely impactful. So encourage every employee to spread positive stories about what it’s like to work at your organization through their social media. 
  • Recruit at certification and learning events – The best professionals are always trying to improve themselves. So encourage your employees that are attending advanced training or certification events to take the time to identify and then begin recruiting the best performing attendees and speakers. Also, offer advanced learning events on your campus and then try to recruit the best attendees.
  • When possible, offer remote work – If you have jobs that can be done from anywhere, you can overcome any local talent shortage or reluctance to relocate. Advertise these remote jobs in other regions where there is a more abundant supply of talent for this job.
  • Hire them both (buddy hiring tool) – Hire two at once approach is effective simply because most of us have at least one close colleague, relative, or friend that “we’ve always wanted to work with.”
  • Select a hiring team to become experts in recruiting (hiring team tool) – Peers are likely to be better at assessing and selling candidates. Instead of letting individual managers conduct the hiring, put together a hiring team made up exclusively of members that excel at recruiting. 

Final Thoughts

In my experience, I have found several additional recruiting departments that I would classify as unicorn recruiting functions. They include Sodexo, Nestlé Purina, Google, Amazon, and the U.S. Army. If you are committed to providing your firm with a competitive advantage by eliminating any talent shortage, I find that a critical and essential first step is to become a data-driven recruiting function. Experiment with several outside-the-box recruiting approaches. Then, use the gathered data to determine which employer branding, sourcing, candidate assessment, or candidate selling approaches are the most and the least effective in providing your organization with a competitive advantage while at the same time eliminating any talent shortage.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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