Thursday, March 10, 2011

Job Market Jingo

There is a lot more wrong with the job market than a weak economy. 

I’ve hired about a thousand people, mostly engineers, accountants, lawyers, and scientists over four decades.  Not recruited, but hired, out of my budget, my pocket, on my head be it.  
There is a big difference between hiring and recruiting.  A recruiter does pretty good if he or she gets one out of ten applicants accepted for interviews.  When you are hiring your own people, you are in seriously bad shape if one out of ten hires is a bad egg.  When people have to work together and trust each other to get it right, the team has a very low tolerance for screw ups.  As the guy who was responsible for a new product or the performance of the bottom line, my tolerance was even lower.  When something went right, it was just according to plan.  When it went wrong, as I said, on my head be it.  
Suppose you have a new department with goals and responsibilities, and you have no staff.  You have a budget.  You write a stack of job description, pray that they are somewhere in the region of what you need, and hand them to recruiters.  Recruiters rarely know anything about electronics, computer science, or putting together an SEC registration.  They work mostly on key words, academic credentials and a linear definition of job advancement.  The creative and out-of-the-box applicants will not pass through those pearly gates.  They even pride themselves on exactly matching the dumb requirements you gave them, much to the inevitable dismay of the hiring manager, who hasn’t even got a clear idea of the product yet.  There is some cultural expectation that the hiring manager actually has a crystal ball and that all these nice, geometric recruits will fit together like so many Lincoln Logs to achieve this vague goal.
Been there, did that, nope, it didn’t work.  Tried the Hay system, consultants, more expensive headhunters, and found a declining curve of expense vs. performance.  The next step, according to the MBA courses at the time, was to take a tinkertoy approach to building anything, a department or a new product.  It had to be made out of standard pieces, nothing really innovative, so you could go out and hire geometric candidates, squares, triangles and circles, to fit the geometric functions.  Then you used massive promotion and sales push to get your pretty ordinary geometric product or service out to market ahead of all the other geometric competition.  That method also has the benefit of predictability for the shareholders and banks, and puts the hiring manager on top of a far larger pyramid, to his or her glorification.  It is a way to make a potentially interesting project as dull, boring and essentially meaningless as everything else.  
So, having come to that conclusion after the first decade of bossness, I decided to try for improvement.  One thing I tried was giving the recruiters shorter, vaguer job descriptions with such phrases as “gestalt visualization” and “breakthrough technology” or throwing in requirements to be a musician, novelist, poet or other offbeat thing to attract the less geometric candidates.  But then I had to use my own eye to find a few bright sparks hiding in the paper pile.  I tried random hires of bright people, and got a few good ones that way.  It still wasn’t productive.  I was spending nearly all my time hiring and damned little time moving the goals forward.  
It occurred to me that a system tends to produce images of itself.  If I wanted a better group of innovative people, I had to find an innovative hiring model.  I already had a small nucleus of people who understood what we needed to accomplish, and we were not yet set on the means or the details.  So I gathered a number of top hands in the various broad categories containing our likely areas of expertise.  We sent out letters asking them to talk to us about our new jobs and their pet projects, paid their airfares and transport, and brought them in en masse.  We provided coffee and sandwiches throughout a long day.  
In the morning we all met together in one big conference room, against all the advice of the HR department who wanted me to interview one on one.  First I stood up and told them what we thought we needed to do, how much time we had to do it, and made everyone understand that we were looking at a landscape, not a railroad track.  Our pot of gold was out there somewhere, and our adventure was to find it.  Do you think you could contribute to this adventure, and if so, how?
Then each of my nucleus people stood, gave their brief backgrounds and interests, and their ideas of the lay of the land ahead.  I took notes.
Finally, I asked each invitee to give a similar, short presentation of their strengths and interests, and any ideas they had off the top of their heads about what they might do with us.  Of course, not everyone we wanted was a gifted extemporaneous speaker, so there was some encouragement and back and forth discourse.  I provided some light humor, set a tone of openness and tolerance, and, of course, took notes.  Then we broke for lunch.  I watched who talked to whom and took more notes.  
That afternoon I assigned each existing employee, as discussion leaders, and a few invitees to go off in a group for some free-form discussion.  I went from group to group with my notes.  When the discussion leaders sent back to me notes such as, “Hire Jill, she’s a great compiler designer,” or “Please convince Jack to work here, we need him to do compliance testing,”  I went after those individuals, did the cleanup part of the usual one on one interview and made an offer on the spot.  We got ten, twenty, even thirty excellent hires every time we tried this technique.  Those hires were already qualified as  good fits for the culture, already plugged into the project, fired up, mentored up and ready to go.  
Over the next few years, we had practically no attrition, only a few mis-hires who had to be let go, and that group produced a steady stream of hugely profitable, industry leading products. It also produced a new kind of leadership.  I was called on by universities and corporation to teach and lecture on the whole set of new techniques we developed,  which I called “Type 3 Management”.
To create a highly effective, truly innovative organization, don’t listen to the cult of personality gurus, the brick on a brick consultants, the personnel management types.  Watch the essentially self-organizing open source efforts, the low-budget social media engineers, the dropouts who become billionaires without benefit of an MBA.
Who does the world look to for innovation?  It all has to do with the quality of ideas and insight coupled to diligence, the desire to do something worthwhile and the openness to work with others to make it happen.  Richard Florida, an economist at the University of Toronto, calls this the "creative class".  After everything else is either automated or outsourced to China, these are the only people who will make a decent living, and their work habits are not exactly in the industrial mode. 
Why is this relevant today?  I see an awful lot of niche hiring, short term payoff positions, and even worse key word recruiting using acronyms with a half life of ten days.  I just know a lot of geometric hires are going to produce a wave of “me too” companies.  This is no way to grow an economy or to compete with Chinese workers living in dehumanized dormitories and getting less than $10 a day.  If that’s the best management model we have, that’s what we’ll become.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

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