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Losing Your Fight For Talent? – Shift To A “War For Talent” Strategy

It’s naïve to think you’ll win a talent war without the elements of a war strategy.

I am continually surprised when I encounter seemingly smart recruiting leaders that admit that they are engulfed in a “war for talent.” However, when asked, they openly acknowledge that they haven’t made a single significant change, either in their overall strategy or their standard recruiting approach. During my decades of helping companies win their war for talent, I have also found that many in HR dislike the phrase “war for talent” because it conjures up thoughts of violence. However, it is factually true that the battling for talent that most of us face today contains most of the elements of an actual war. In this business version of war, if you continue to use the tools and strategies of yesterday, you are (perhaps unknowingly) hurting your company and dramatically reducing its capabilities. 

Of course, a war for talent requires a complete shift in both recruiting strategy and tools. Because when you are actually in a war for talent, most of the standard assumptions about the recruiting environment change. And because of these changes, the traditional recruiting strategies and tools you have relied on for years will simply stop being effective. So first, you need to shift to a recruiting strategy specifically designed for the war for talent. Next, as part of the shift, you will need to adopt strategic elements and tools that are often 180° different from your normal approach. Like the military wars, you can’t win 21st-century battles with 20th-century recruiting tools. So your recruiters will also need a toolbox full of “competitive advantage recruiting tools” that are designed not just to work but to beat the competition more than they beat you.

A Quick Definition Of A War For Talent

A “war for talent” (WfT) is defined as any time when extremely few of the qualified top talent prospects are actively looking for a job. While at the same time, an extremely large number of firms have begun to use new, extremely aggressive recruiting approaches to land the little available talent. It turns out that when talent becomes dramatically scarcer, the level of competition will increase dramatically. And this aggressive competition will encourage most organizations to utilize bolder and more aggressive recruiting tools that they have previously been reluctant even to consider.

If you can only do one thing© realize that just like with military wars, you can’t win 21st-century talent battles with recruiting tools designed for a 20th-century business and recruiting environment.

Use A Checklist Of Indicators To Determine If You Are Engulfed In A War For Talent  

It makes little sense to make this dramatic shift in recruiting strategy unless you are sure that you’re actually in a war for talent. So rather than making assumptions, why not use this checklist to determine if your organization should be classified as being engulfed in “a war for talent.” Below are the six indicators to determine if you are entering into or are already in a WfT.

  1. You will experience a dramatic drop in applicants – the percentage of active jobseekers (those that apply without being contacted) for each open job will drop dramatically (by at least 50%). The number of passive prospects will likely also fall. So in a war for talent, if you want even to maintain your current volume of applicants. You will need to reach out and find “passive ones” (those that are not actively looking for a job) through direct sourcing and an increased focus on employee referrals.
  2. When you find qualified talent, they will be hard to convince – because during a war, “the power in the relationship” between the candidate and the recruiter will have shifted over to the candidate. Realizing that they were in power, many prospects and candidates will become arrogant (which will at least initially confuse and frustrate your recruiters). In part because each prospect and candidate will have so many job choices. So that convincing those prospects that you do find to apply. And then not to ghost you and to stay engaged in your hiring process will become extremely difficult (candidate dropout rates will increase by at least 30%). As a result, convincing/selling will become the #1 most critical recruiting capability.
  3.  The intense competition will cause offer acceptance rates to plummet – because your finalist candidates will now get at least two offers. It becomes essential that you pre-identify their job acceptance criteria. And then, throughout the recruiting process, you will have to proactively convince them that your job opportunity meets the majority of their expectations (finalist offer acceptance rates will drop by at least 50%).
  4. The percentage of open jobs that are never filled will increase – perhaps for the first time in years, many of your open jobs will never be filled in the traditional time frame (never filled jobs may increase by more than 75%). 
  5. You will lose many more head-to-head recruiting competitions – A dramatic increase in intense competition for top talent will mean that (if you track it) you will notice that you will lose a much larger percentage of your head-to-head battles with your chief talent competitors (more than 50% more losses).
  6. Important projects will be delayed because of the lack of talent – The war for talent will have numerous measurable business impacts. Including the most powerful one, which is that many strategic projects will experience painful delays (as many as 30% of projects).

If your organization meets three or more of these benchmark indicators, it’s time to realize that you are in a war. And that means that you must immediately shift away from your common everyday recruiting strategy and approaches. Instead, adopt an alternative recruiting strategy that’s “specifically designed to win your talent war.” 

You Must Shift To Strategies And Tools That Are proven effective in a WfT

Once you use the above checklist to verify that you are now in a “war for talent,” it’s essential that you identify and then implement the required changes in strategies and tools that will allow you to gain a competitive advantage during a talent war. The top recommended actions are listed below, with the most impactful actions listed first.

Part I – The Top 6 Essential Strategic Actions

  1. Add an external focus, which includes competitive analysis – because the primary goal of a war strategy is to achieve and maintain a competitive advantage in recruiting. Literally, the most important strategic war footing shift required is to begin to track and respond to what is happening externally. The increased competition level means now everything you do in recruiting will likely be copied or countered by external players. This external focus on what your talent competitors are doing is a major shift (Note: talent competitors may not be in the same industry, but they are successfully recruiting for the same skills). Most recruiting functions are 100% focused on internal processes. However, during a war, the perspective must be expanded so that you spend equal time focusing on 1) the changing external environmental factors that influence recruiting success (like the unemployment rate). And 2) specifically what your talent competition is both doing and planning. That external competitive analysis must include each major talent competitor firm’s recruiting and branding strengths and weaknesses. You will also need to develop “a talent map” which identifies their most valuable employees at the best firms. And finally, you must also identify the “right times” when each competitor is not actively recruiting so that you can recruit for jobs when there is markedly less head-to-head competition in the marketplace. 
  2. Mobilize everyone for war – if you expect to win a war, literally everyone must chip in and do their part. In recruiting, mobilizing means that you must alert all managers and employees that we are in a war for talent. And that war mobilization requires that everyone be 100% committed and ready for recruiting. It also means that everyone must be mentally focused, prepared, trained, organized, and fully resourced. This is partially accomplished through a “collaborative recruiting approach,” where every employee contributes to every aspect of recruiting, including providing quality employee referrals, being more available to sit in on interviews, scheduling one-on-one assessment sessions with candidates and directly contributing to the candidate selling process. Recruiting leaders should also begin strengthening their organization’s recruiting culture, whose goal should be to make every employee an active 24/7 talent scout.
  3. Aggressiveness wins wars, so direct poaching is the primary sourcing tool – winning a war for talent (WfT) requires a strategic shift toward significantly more proactive and aggressive recruiting tools and approaches. In that light, one of the primary WfT goals is to help your firm while simultaneously hurting your competitors. To meet this goal, the primary source of new talent must be “direct recruiting” (some call it poaching). This means targeting the best employees that currently work at each of your main competitors. And because during a war, these targets are currently employed and are likely treated well. Overall, it will take a more aggressive, personalized, and higher-risk recruiting approach. First to get them interested and then to land them. 
  4. Improve the quality of decisions by moving towards a data-supported approach – both generals and smart talent leaders strive to make all major decisions faster and more accurately by making them with supporting data. In a war, you must demand that everyone and every process utilize metrics to measure their results. Finally, you must insist on measuring and using “the performance level of new hires” (a.k.a. quality of hire) to determine which recruiting approaches are working and which ones are not.
  5. Hiring speed is essential when your offer must be the first one – because there will be intense competition for top candidates. Your hiring process will need to be streamlined. So that it produces your offer to top candidates before they get a matching or superior offer from one of your competitors.
  6. To win a war, you must have bold warrior recruiters – because the war for talent usually comprises head-to-head competitions for top talent. It’s critical that whenever possible, that you train, hire and retain aggressive “warrior recruiters.” They have business backgrounds and an executive search mentality that is carried over from their executive search experience.

Part II – Additional Lower Impact Recruiting Shifts To Consider

Although each of these recommended actions is important, each is less impactful than those on the previous list.

  • All war strategies must prioritize – because of limited resources, leaders must prioritize their battles in almost every war. The same is true in recruiting. Where you must utilize data to identify which of your positions, when open, have the highest business impacts. Candidates that are innovative or diverse might also be prioritized. Finally, the recruiting department must allocate the most resources to those high-priority positions and prioritized recruiting tools.
  • A personalized recruiting approach is required – it’s important to realize that every top candidate is different. So that a personalized or customized approach will be required to get them to apply, remain interested, and accept your offer.
  • A pipeline approach extends the time for finding/selling – with the low rate of unemployment that typically accompanies a WfT. You must avoid what I call “panic sourcing,” which primarily focuses on active candidates. Instead, what you need is a pipeline process for pre-identifying talent for future openings. This pipeline approach (known as a pre-need approach) allows more time for building trust and more effective assessment and selling of the fully employed prospects that already have a job. 
  • Recruiting diversity is still essential – because of the high competition. The difficulty in recruiting top, diverse talent may become more than 50% more difficult. However, still, remind everyone that during a business growth cycle. The business contribution that diverse recruits will make actually increases.
  • Don’t forget a retention component – in a war for talent, your own best employees will, of course, be targeted by your talent competitors. Develop a data-driven retention program that targets your most valuable employees and those most likely to leave. 
  • Remain technology-focused – just like in all modern wars, you must utilize the latest technology to win. That recruiting technology will usually include both predictive and prescriptive metrics and machine learning for continuous improvement. 
  • Release some of the recruiting pressure by facilitating internal movement – because even with an excellent war strategy, there will still be recruiting shortages. Talent leaders must work with their internal movement leaders to increase the percentage of open jobs filled internally.
  • Build a powerful business case – fighting a war requires an exceptional amount of resources. So talent leaders must make and continually update an exceptionally strong business case. One that compels both executives and hiring managers to invest in a war for talent strategy fully. 

Final Thoughts

Once you have committed your organization to shift to a war for talent strategy with its accompanying battle plans steps next, begin to look at every existing recruiting process and step as one that will “soon to be obsolete.” Finally, use frequent experimentation and hypothesis testing to identify the most effective replacements. 

Author’s Note 

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