There’s no talent shortage, just a broken recruitment system

Recruitment processes too often serve to exclude talent in favour of those with the same skills and experience, so it’s time to change your approach.


Many of us have had the experience of meeting a much-lauded marketer in the flesh, working for an iconic brand and doing a role that you would sell your mother and grandmother for. Then, you have had a quick look at their LinkedIn profile and said to yourself: ‘I have better suited skills, qualifications and experience, so why does he or she have the job and not me?’

It is truly sad and maddening that you hear complaints about talent shortages when anyone who has applied for a job knows that the standard corporate recruitment process is broken. Indeed, the perennial skills shortage stems as much from firms’ sky-high expectations as it does from a dearth of manpower.

Let’s look at a typical recruitment process. First, job advertisements are so tightly written that there is possibly only one person in the world that can do the job – often that person is Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, but they are not available.

Or they are written with a 21-point list of mostly unrelated requirements: brand guru, combined with AdWords expertise, perhaps a bit of social media and, ideally, a whizz with email marketing too. If you were hiring a carpenter, would you expect them to be an expert at plastering, proficient at rewiring and competent at carpet-fitting? Even if someone were available with 100% of the skills needed to do the job, they’d be unlikely to apply for it, as there would no development opportunity.

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A sub-set of this is looking for an absurd amount of experience and skills for something that is brand new: a version of ‘only candidates with 10 years Snapchat advertising experience need apply’.

Your CV is then screened through some online recruitment sausage machine. Somewhere along the line, recruiters decided that we could tell the smart and capable people from the rest by means of keyword-searching algorithms. Now, clearing the algorithm hurdle is as important as being able to do the job.If you are lucky, a recruiter might have trawled LinkedIn (searching for keywords, of course) and stumbled upon you.

Let’s call it as it is: recruitment isn’t working. The vast majority of hiring decisions are made on gut feel, personal experience and corporate belief systems.

On the assumption things move on a bit and you get selected for interview, everyone has to be recruited according to the same template. Maybe the recruiter sets a test – the sort of ‘which square pegs go into which round holes?’ type of test that is supposed to show a level of intelligence. But these are a trap.

By setting the same task, we recruit people who are carbon copies of each other. They will have the same skills and think in the same way. We all tend to see merit in people who talk and think like we do. We hire candidates primarily because they have personalities similar to our own. Opposites do not attract in the corporate world.

The most pervasive idea is that the only way to hire great people is to poach them from competitors or specific companies: looking for great brand people? Only hire from Coca-Cola, Diageo or Unilever. Even the Googles and Facebooks are not immune to this, despite their much-vaunted recruitment programmes with ‘secret sauces’ for sourcing, analysing and evaluating potential hires based on data and statistical analysis.

Try this exercise: check out how many people at Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple have worked for one of the other brands in the list.

Finally, there is the straightforward bias regarding which university you went to – a sort of signal that you know stuff. But knowing things is overvalued today. You can find facts on Google; the trick is knowing which source to trust.

A new approach to recruitment

Let’s call it as it is: recruitment isn’t working. The vast majority of hiring decisions are made on gut feel, personal experience, who you know and corporate belief systems about the sort of person ‘hired around here’. ‘People are our most important asset’ is really an empty slogan.

It isn’t talent shortages that keep employers and willing and capable job-seekers apart; it’s the recruitment process, and making hiring decisions based on preconceptions. How many brilliant people are not given the right opportunity to fully realise their potential due to the craziness of the recruiting process?

What if we took all of these assumptions about recruitment and flipped them on their head? What would that look like?

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There are examples from sport: if you’ve seen the baseball movie Moneyball, with Brad Pitt, you know that that the ‘moneyball’ strategy for winning relies on analytics, statistics and numbers, rather than opinions, intuitions, or appearances. Moneyball player recruitment challenged conventional wisdom as to what top talent looks like and where it comes from – just like Leicester City did when they won the Premier League by better understanding correlations through new forms of scouting. They uncovered hidden gems that made the team winners.

So, where should we start to make changes? With ourselves. Marketing leaders who are serious about hiring great people need to examine their own internal practices and fix whatever is broken. Get involved early and often. Remember, you are going to spend years of your life working, coaching and guiding these people.

You have to read all the applications, not just the shortlist of HR or an algorithm. “You don’t put a team together with a computer” is a salient quote from Moneyball.

Look for potential. Ask the question: do I really have to hire fully formed employees from day one, rather than train them up on the job?

Think about the traits, accomplishments and information overlooked by traditional recruiting methods. With all the time you spend finding people with the perfect level of experience, you could have already trained someone who is eager and willing to learn.

As marketing leaders only we can truly understand the challenges of the brand and therefore only we can recognise the magical mix of attitude, drive and skills that make a great marketer. As they say in Moneyball, “the goal shouldn’t be to buy players, the goal should be to buy wins”.

Colin Lewis is CMO of OpenJaw Technologies