#134 - Recruiting Means Talking To People
Plus: Talkative people in quiet groups; Years of experience is a bad proxy; Working with difficult stakeholders
Teams are having a hard time hiring - or even getting people to apply for their jobs.
Unfortunately, the approach of hiring we learned in academia - post a templated job description on a website and wait for the candidates to find the job and send in an application - doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work anymore in academia; even what used to be highly competitive postdoc positions just aren’t being applied for.
We have to be more active in searching for job candidates. That means a lot more work, but it’s upfront work which will make the hiring and onboarding earlier.
(We also have to be more active and put more work into retaining team members - I’ll talk about that next week)
The biggest problem with the passive approach is that it can only possibly reach that small fraction of people who happen to have started an active job search right around the time your job ad went up. Even then it’s just one ad, probably not very well targeted, marketed, or compellingly written among a sea of others.
In the meantime, other recruiters are actively contacting possible candidates, in every industry, before they even get to the point of actively looking. You probably know this already; if your LinkedIn page is even remotely up to date, you’re getting cold contacts fairly routinely. (If you’re not, and you’d like to be, email me). The junior people who are doing more hands-on work are getting inundated.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Quite the opposite! But it does mean we need to put in some effort.
I’ve written elsewhere about job ads (#126, #127). I’ll assume that you have a good job ad, one that effectively conveys the positives and challenges of the job, that describes expectations about accomplishments, and that doesn’t list as requirements things you don’t actually require.
The next task then is to get that job ad in front of people you want to read it.
Understand the personae you’re trying to reach
To do that we need to figure out where those people might already be in their careers, what they’re reading, and how to get our ad into what they’re reading.
Who are the people who would have the combination of interests and prerequisite skills to be able to do this job with sufficient onboarding? Start coming up with some candidate personae - at least three - that would describe different situations and backgrounds of people who might make good candidates. Do not limit yourself to people on fairly traditional paths into your team - look a little beyond this.
Once you have these, for each candidate persona, where are those people likely to be? What would they be reading? The best way by far to find that information out is to talk to members of those groups (or people who were recently members) and just ask them. That includes members of your (or other) teams, if relevant.
You’re aiming for targeted broadcasts - mass media but carefully aimed at groups that might contain strong candidates. This is much better than just putting up an ad and sending it to an email list you’re already on (since you aren’t likely the ideal candidate for this job, you already being on a list is actually evidence that it’s not a great fit). But there’s stronger approaches to move to next.
Directly contact individuals
The above targeted but still broadcast-based methods are better than nothing, but it’s important as much as possible to directly contact individuals wherever possible. How many email blasts to mailing lists do you delete unread, or after a cursory scan, each and every week? You’ve worked hard to get the job requisition open for your new position, and spent real effort hashing out your job ad. Sending a mailing list post exciting job opportunity is just adding another piece of email jetsam to the choppy, junk-filled seas of good candidates’ inboxes.
Start with your existing professional network, prioritizing people working in the field - including people managing the kind of work that would be done in this role, but especially including people you’d secretly like to hire for this job. In an individual email, ideally referencing something specific about them, tell them you’re hiring. Give them a cool one-sentence description of what this job is and why it’s different from a generic job of its sort. Tell them you know they’re really strong in this area, and ask them if they know anyone who you could contact about the job. They may well have people in their own network who are actively looking that you don’t know about; or they may have been thinking about new opportunities themselves.
After those direct contacts from people in your network, will come directly contacting strangers who might be interested. The place to start there is with the personae descriptions you created above. That means searching online for people who might make good candidates, on the public web with your favourite search engine, and using paid tools like LinkedIn Recruiter Lite. (Yes, LinkedIn pro costs money, and more importantly, these approaches take time. But as a manager, you are in part a recruiter; that’s part of the job.)
Given your personae, it’s time to start crafting searches that will identify those people, and then sending the same kinds of emails you sent to your network. Short, customized emails, identifying the job, making the connection to things they do, and asking that since they’re quite knowledgeable about this sort of work if they know anyone who would be interested. The response rate for these emails will be much lower than in your network, but won’t be zero.
Your organization may have some internal recruitment people who can help with this. It may even be possible to get some budget for external recruiters. This isn’t a panacea - we’re typically hiring for super specialized roles - but people who do something day in and day out get good at it much faster than we can if we’re doing it in dribs and drabs. Find out from your organization, or HR, if such support is possible, and how much it would cost. (Multiple months of salary for the role is a common). The work you’ve already done in preparing persona will make it much easier to work with a recruiter.
Whether you’re putting in the time or paying for someone else to, this is a lot of work. Is there an easier way? Well, there’s good news and bad news…
Make it easier the next time
There are some things you can start doing now that won’t help right away for any current opening you have, but will make finding people easier for your next job opening. They all involve increasing the visibility of your team, and developing a bench of contacts and possible candidates. And they all have knock-on effects well beyond just hiring.
First, make sure your team’s work is as visible as possible. This is valuable for career development of your team members, for attracting possible clients and collaborators, and provides concrete things you can point to when describing how awesome working in your team is:
Post success stories to a team (or organization) website, and share widely. These success stories are real work to write up as they happen, but they are incredibly valuable. You can reuse them again and again in different advocacy contexts. Trust me on this; once you have a small library of them you will wonder how you ever managed before. A couple extra hours writing up an accomplishment is peanuts compared to the benefit you get. Make sure you get a visual of some sort and a good testimonial quote along with some text. The text doesn’t have to be particularly long! A few hundred words can be enough. Just make sure it focusses on the impact, not the details, of the work .
Whatever knowledge-sharing activities happen in your organization - they are important, please encourage them - work on leveraging them to share that knowledge to the broader community. This could be blog posts, recorded talks, podcasts for the adventurous, whatever works for your team. Again, share far and wide.
Arrange for as many opportunities as possible for your team members to give talks about their work; this has never been easier with the wide range of virtual events.
Next, as part of you and your team’s normal professional conversations with people, build a network, and keep a constantly updated list of people you’d be interested with working in the future. Get everyone in the team to contribute
After conferences, talks, etc., make a team practice of flagging people who are doing interesting work. (If you have people who go to events or work on projects debrief the team afterwards regularly, which is a good and useful thing to do, this can be part of that). Make sure everyone knows not to be biased about what “good technical people” look like. Ask probing questions about people in groups who face bias in academia and tech, and make sure you uncover people quietly doing good work but aren’t showy about it.
From that list and elsewhere, maintain a roster of interesting people, ping them quarterly or a couple times a year about relevant work the team’s doing and keep abreast of their own work
Find out from them people they think are doing good work, and build your network transitively
People in research are disproportionately introverted, so some of the communications and networking tasks above may not come naturally. That’s ok; I wouldn’t have to keep advising people to do it if it came naturally. Managing people well and with professionalism takes work, some of it uncomfortable.
Finally, grow both your hiring muscles and your network by having a regular practice of hiring interns, summer students, co-op students, or whatever they’re called in your organization; not only does this improve processes around recruiting and hiring, it builds a network of smart capable motivated young people, people who have friends and networks of their own, who can apply for or at least help share the good work about your job.
Do you have questions about hiring, recruiting, onboarding, or retention? Send me an email (hit reply if this is in your inbox, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org) or schedule a call.
With that, on to the roundup for this Hallowe’en weekend. I hope this week goes well for you and your team dismembers, your meetings are (re)animated, and you achieve all your ghouls.
Group Dynamics: Very Loud (and Very Quiet) People - Ed Batista
This is a pretty common problem in research, in my experience - on average our teams tend towards the quiet, but it’s pretty common to have one or a few team members or visitors who are very talkative. Without meaning to — and without any ill intent necessary — an outlier on the talkative side will completely dominate group discussions. Similarly, if the team were tilted the other way, an outlier quiet person would go completely unheard. Either way, resentment can build up, on both sides (“Why does X always hog the discussion”/”Why does Y never contribute, do they think our team meeting is beneath them?”)
The approach I preferred early in my career, hoping the problem goes away, turns out not to work! The alternatives require intervention of some sort. Batista goes through the options:
Raising the issue one-on-one with the outlier, pointing out the impact it’s having, and nudging them towards other behaviours (either actively making space for others to contribute, or preparing to contribute more themselves). This is a strong management 101 move, using the relationship you’ve built up to facilitate them developing new behaviours, for their own growth and that of the team.
Direct intervention by the person (often you) who is facilitating and charing the meeting; (“Thanks, X. What do other people think?”/”Y, we haven’t heard from you yet; what are your thoughts?”). Good and important meeting charing skills.
Group metadiscussions about how the group wants their discussions to happen. This is classic management 201 stuff, arranging for what’s basically a meeting retrospective, and getting the team to design structures to improve their own work.
Structured meeting process - this can work well in connection with the group metadiscussions, or for meetings where you aren’t in a position to give feedback, intervention, or arrange for the group decision process,
One of the points I want to drive home in this newsletter is that people study what does and doesn’t work in management a lot; of course they do, there’s a lot riding on it! It’s not all opinions and just-so stories.
Here the authors do a metastudy looking at what most and least correlates with future job success for job candidates. Years of experience is a pretty definitive second-last of all the options. Boringly professional things like structured employment interviews and job knowledge tests are top.
I don’t want to know whose fault it is - Jonathan Hall
Blameless isn’t only for incident reports/postmortems! As a technical leader, the responsibility for the structure and context in which a mistake happened is yours. Assigning blame for something that went wrong short circuits the real work that has to happen, improving the structure and context. And besides,
Except perhaps in some cases of malicious action, no single person is ever at fault.
How to work with difficult stakeholders - Neil Turner
The context here is product user experience, but the approaches here are pretty widely applicable:
Keep track of the various players in your community - those that have high/low influence on your outcomes and high/low interest in the day to day of your work, and treat them at least according to this two-by-two matrix (high influence/high interest: manage closely; high/low: keep satisfied; low/high: keep informed; low/low: monitor)
Find common goals with them
Agree on roles and responsibilties
Use a RACI matrix to handle decision and information flows
Earn their trust
Show, don’t tell - true whether you’re talking about prototypes or drafts or anything else; this minimizes miscommunication
Use their language for things (ditto)
Work with difficult stakeholders individually (this prevents a number of problems)
Don’t shy away from conflict when it needs to happen
I’m having fun going through Xanadu’s Quantum Codebook tutorial. I’m learning a lot, for sure, but also on a meta level admiring the technical and pedagogical work that’s gone into the resources. It’s quite nicely done.
And that’s it for another week. Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share about the newsletter or management. Just email me or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and good luck in the coming week with your team,