The Single Biggest Hiring Mistake I’ve Seen This Year

Posted by Kurt Rakos on 12/28/20 8:30 AM
Kurt Rakos
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Hiring Decisions

This is a tale of two companies. 

You could call it a cautionary tale. It’s about two companies that are Twin Cities clients of mine. (But the truth is, I’ve seen this story play out so many times this year that I think there’s a lesson here for all of us.) 

In February, both of these organizations had much in common: both were (and still are) respected brands, run by highly competent, caring leaders. Both were on the cusp of launching executive searches to fill critical leadership roles. 

By March, each had decided to put their searches on hold, with understandable reason: COVID-19 was an instantly, profoundly destabilizing surprise. It seemed unwise to proceed with hiring investments during such uncertainty. In addition, though, I heard a lot of talk about “conventional wisdom” suggesting that recruiting during a pandemic would be futile. Top tier “passive” candidates wouldn’t be interested. In uncertain times, don’t most of us stick with the “devil I know” vs “the devil I don’t?” 

For a few weeks, that’s where most executive searches in the Twin Cities sat: on the back burner, slowly simmering away. But in April, these two clients’ decision-making paths started to diverge.

As a result, they find themselves in very different places today. 

Let’s start with Client A. 

In February, this organization was tackling C-suite decisions. Their CMO, nearing retirement, was ready for a different role within the company. In replacing him, the company wanted me to find a candidate with the strategic skills necessary to expand the CMO role and grow the company. When they changed their minds in March, they didn’t see their hiring freeze as particularly catastrophic. For them, sticking with the status quo until the pandemic and economic dust settled seemed like the smartest, safest choice. 

But at some point in April, as the CEO and the rest of the leadership team was reviewing strategic goals, they had an epiphany of sorts: 

Recession or not, COVID or not, the company’s long-term mission hadn’t changed. Their market was changing. Their customers’ needs and priorities were changing. But they were standing still. And without a fully staffed, fully functioning leadership team, they were undermining their ability to meet these emerging market needs. They couldn’t afford keep kicking the can down the road.

So we initiated the search. They hired an exceptional candidate in July who is now onboard and up to speed, ready to tackle 2021.  

And what about Client B? 

We stay in close touch. They know their open position is critical to their plan. The commitment is there. The budget is there. But unlike Client A, they’re still not sure when they’ll start the search. As of today, it looks like they’re going to wait until after the holidays. They’ll revisit it in January, probably start the search in February, which means they’re still 6-8 weeks away from onboarding. Add to that another 4-6 months of ramp up period (best case scenario) to a more realistic 8-12 months. 

The difference between these two companies?

Client A is more than a year ahead of Client B in their leadership transition. They’re poised and ready to pounce on every market opportunity as the economic recovery picks up speed.  

And what about that conventional wisdom?

Here’s what I’ve learned this year.  

It’s true: nearly everything did come to a screeching halt in March. But during that strange, isolating, work-from-home quiet that followed, I think that, for some, there was an (inaccurate) assumption that everything was in a sort of suspended animation, as we all waited for everything to “get back to normal.” 

That wasn’t the case. 

Within a few short weeks, I was seeing businesses leap into action. They were sizing up potential losses, sure, but they were also assessing changes in market dynamics and customer values, needs, and priorities. Using that information, they were working rapidly to figure out how to best meet shifting market demands. 

These businesses, like Client A, realized they couldn’t afford to keep key roles empty. 

The same is true for candidates.

Yes, employed people were largely disinterested in pulling up stakes and trying out new jobs. But, by April, many talented individuals were responding favorably to recruiter contacts, eager to learn about new opportunities, interviewing and yes, accepting offers.  

In other words, a growing number of Twin Cities businesses are finding ways to forge ahead. They’re hiring. To keep up with it all, SkyWater Search Partners is growing and hiring, too.

What does it all mean for your business?

These past several months have been a high speed, often painful, crash course in managing through change. But among the all the new lessons this year, I’ve been reminded of this enduring principle of leadership: when you have an unresolved staffing challenge, it doesn’t just go away when another, bigger problem – like a recession or a pandemic -- comes along. It doesn’t disappear when things get put on hold. It just sits there and festers, weakening your team. When the market starts heating back up, are you ready? Or are you stuck having to handle that problem you ignored? 

If you know that filling those critical open positions is inevitable, what are you waiting for? If you’d like to talk about your hiring needs and how to get started, SkyWater Search Partners is here to listen, plan, and help you find the right person for your team. Reach out! We would love to talk.
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