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How to Stay Ahead of Hiring by Building Up Your Talent Bench

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. You’ve probably heard that wise Chinese proverb before. Now let's apply it to the business world: The best time to start recruiting was before you had the job opening, but the second best time is now.

If you are a hiring manager, recruiter, HR professional, or the owner tasked with recruitment and selection for an agency, your No. 1 priority involves making sure you have the most talented people in the right places on your team. There is no doubt that matching talent to task in this way will determine the success, or failure, of your agency.

In most cases, managers don’t start their candidate hunt until someone leaves the company, and they are desperate. I understand: It’s hard to think about planting trees when you’re sitting in the shade. But waiting until you need to take action ... well, by then it’s often too late. At that point, the hiring process quickly turns into a frantic scramble of job postings, résumé piles, and prayer that the perfect candidate finds you and fast! And sometimes, the person hiring is the one who is tasked with doing the job of the person she is hiring for, which leaves little time to proactively recruit and vet candidates. 

This chaos will often result in the hasty hiring decisions of people who are “good enough for now” but lacking the kind of natural talent that will really lead to company growth. It's a never-ending, vicious cycle.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bench of talented candidates, all patiently waiting to come work for you? Already interviewed, references checked, ready to go? This is the biggest separator between those that are great recruiters and those that aren’t. If you want better results, you have to change your mindset from, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any openings right now” to “We are always looking for top talent to join our team -- let’s go ahead and talk.”

Building a Talent Bench

As I mentioned, recruitment can’t start when someone leaves. It is a never-ending process that eliminates the need for the hasty hiring of lackluster talent and saves you time and money. Recruitment needs to be happening every day as a part of your weekly activity. Even if you think you have the “perfect” staff in place, you never know when that will change. Your business might grow, which will drive you to need additional staffers. Someone might unexpectedly take a position elsewhere. Or even worse -- one of your current team members might plan to stay but perform below par. Strong recruitment ensures that you don’t have to settle for disappointing performance. When you fill the bench with quality, talented candidates, you are always prepared with someone ready, willing, and able to join your team when the opportunity arises.

Highly talented creatives, account managers, marketers, etc., usually have a pretty successful career already so they may not be actively searching for a job. You have to find them, and you need to give them a reason to talk to you --  even when you don’t have an immediate opening. Plan to sell them on your company, which can take time, and make sure you have these conversations consistently. Waiting for an opening will backfire because it is tough to convince stellar performer to come over on your timeframe.

Finding quality candidates is easy when you look in the right places. Here are a few best practices:

  • Talent loves talent, and a great place to start is with the talented people on your current team. Ask them for referral,s and if your company doesn’t have an employee referral program with a monetary incentive, create one.   
  • Find networks of people in the industry. These are great sources of candidates for you.  
  • Ask your clients for recommendations in the market that they think highly of and learn why.
  • Search LinkedIn for profiles of people in your industry that stand out. This will prevent you from having to choose from a stack of incoming résumés.

7 Steps to Follow for an Effective Hiring Process

Like with almost everything else in life, if you have a smart, effective, repeatable process, you will see greater and more consistent results. You’ll want to build the process that works best for your organization, but I’ll share a good one that has proven results for me. 

But first, here’s why I especially like this process: It eliminates the personal bias that is often the underlying culprit behind bad hires. Most good recruiters will agree that your lens becomes foggy when interviewing someone who has a sparkling personality -- you don’t see their true talents clearly. You also can have what many call “glare” if you have a lot in common, such as you went to the same high school or college or you grew up in the same neighborhood. Just because you share these common experiences, does not mean they will be the right person to perform the job. Always begin with a clear understanding of the talents and skills of the candidates and how they are innately wired to behave.

Follow these steps to stay ahead of your hiring needs:

1) Create job descriptions for key roles

Before you consider who you might interview, put your key job positions under the microscope. For example, when hiring an account manager, you will want to ask yourself which accounts you will assign, how much new business development you will expect, and the kinds of expertise you will need. Make a list of the specific talents, skills, and experiences that a person would need to be successful in this position. Create a shopping list, not a pie-in-the-sky “wish list.” Write down the must-have items that are non-negotiable so you have specific minimum requirements to compare your candidates against.

2) Fill your funnel

Share your list with others so they can get a clear picture of exactly what someone will need to be successful in this job, and ask them for the names of people that sound like the right match. Do this through email, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media. Use the nominator system in which you ask those you respect and trust to consider specific behaviors. For example, “Who do you know who is extremely buttoned-up and able to handle highly complex accounts without making mistakes?” or “Who do you know who is highly persuasive and somehow seems to always get you to see things from their perspective?”

3) Reach out to interesting candidates

When you reach out to your prospective candidate, remember to state the behaviors you were looking for and the reason why you are calling her. For example, “I mentioned to John Smith that I needed someone to join our team who was extremely organized, able to handle complex accounts without making errors, and highly persuasive. He recommended that I contact you because you are a natural at those things. I would love to set up a time to give you some more information about our company and get to know you better as well.”

Collect a résumé if it feels appropriate but consider the résumé as only one of many resources you have available during your selection process. It’s a good initial filter to help you sort through many candidates by looking at their past experiences, but after this initial step, you will want different types of information. Be sure to check the person out on social media and search results. 

4) Plan an initial meeting or phone screen

This step is the beginning of your talent detective work and how you proceed will depend on the candidate’s level of interest. If there is more information to exchange, or a comfort level needs to be established, a quick meeting over coffee or lunch is a good idea. The next step should be a talent screener -- asking preplanned questions that help to uncover evidence of innate talent. I recommend that the structured screen be conducted over the phone to better eliminate "glare."

5) Set up a face-to-face interview

After the phone screen, jot down additional questions and areas of concern so you can formulate specific questions to address in the face-to-face interview. Then, set up another meeting in person to dig deeper and learn more. Ask open-ended questions that allow you to learn about your candidate’s patterns of behavior. Once you have a good understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have been consistent for the candidate in the past, you will have a much better idea of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you can expect from her in the future. People are “wired” at a very early age, and how they behave rarely changes over time.

This is also a great opportunity to introduce other managers to your candidate, and if things go in the right direction, you should be prepared to address salary requirements and fit for the position.

6) Conduct a talent assessment

Most managers are pretty good at inspecting a candidate’s experience. The problem is that experience is a surprisingly poor indicator of future success. A far better indicator is underlying talent, and managers are rarely effective at assessing sales talent without a reliable assessment instrument. A strong standardized talent assessment will ultimately determine if this person has the right combination and intensity of talents to be successful in your open position, provide a detailed analysis and hiring recommendation, and share specific information on the behaviors you should expect if you were to hire the candidate. The very best instruments will also provide you with actionable coaching strategies to maximize the individual’s abilities and help them achieve maximum performance.  

7) Consider the candidate for your talent bench or an open position

At this point, you can either add the candidate to your talent bench or extend an offer. 

Talent is out there. You just have to look in the right places and have an ongoing plan to getting high quality candidates introduced to your company. The larger your funnel, the better because you need to talk to a large number of candidates to find those select few with the specific talents you need.

It takes time in the front end, but it is much easier than speeding up the process, hiring the wrong person, and getting stuck in the hiring cycle when that person leaves (or is helped to the door).  

Turning Talent Into Performance

When you have the right people in the right positions, your agency can be more effective and efficient. You'll exceed your goals and spend your time creating opportunities with your clients, instead of solving problems that don’t have anything to do with increasing revenue. Talented people want to learn. They want to be trained and coached, and most importantly, they come to work happy and ready to do their very best every day.

When you start with talent, you end with performance -- and a growing agency.

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