Rethinking Recruiting

People of different generation have the same goals

In an attempt to manage risk tightly, most organizations still have an industrial approach to hiring.

This involves the formulation of increasingly more detailed task-oriented long descriptions of to do things for individual positions, which are then entered into systems still configured to spit out form letters in response to input.

Sometimes the content of the letter is out of sync with the actual experience —for example, when a note says:

“Thank you for interviewing with Vanguard. Although we were impressed with your background and qualifications, we have interviewed other candidates who more closely fit the needs of the position for which you interviewed.

Your resume will be kept on file, and if there is interest in your qualifications for other positions within Vanguard, you may be contacted for further consideration.

If you have any questions, please contact your recruiter directly as this mailbox is not monitored.”

And there was no interview. When a quick search pulls up that same position still open two months later, the best possible explanation is a glitch in the system.

Anyone curious about operational aspects of companies can run these kinds of experiments to see if what a company says in one conversation —as investor or customer, for example— is the experience it delivers in another. Like product and service reviews, recruiting is an area that can provide a lot of useful behavioral data.

This kind of research is useful to learn to be less wrong when we configure systems.

The problem of right or wrong

Right and wrong are not absolutes.”

[Isaac Asimov]

Thinking in absolutes, as in right or wrong, hides a more interesting question and opportunity. Which is what gets things right enough to matter? What boundaries should we explore in our systems to make them useful in understanding how the organization makes decisions? What's the impact of these decisions to its future?

An example of this type of question comes from John C. Bogle himself, founder of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group. In Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life Bogle explores the boundaries in our relationship with money. He talks about the values we should emulate in our business and professional callings, and what we should consider as the true treasures in our lives.

The book came out at the culmination of the 2008 financial meltdown; timing matters to impact even when the principles are timeless. Enough communicates Bogle's investment philosophy and is the culmination of his talks over the years.

Why the title? For the curious among us, enough is the punch line from a delightful Kurt Vonnegut/Joseph Heller story:

“At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, 'Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.'”

“Central to the effective functioning of capitalism,” says Bogle, “was the fundamental principle of trusting and being trusted”—and that is disappearing:

“As I have earlier noted, the most important things in life and in business can’t be measured. The trite bromide 'If you can measure it, you can manage it' has been a hindrance in the building a great real-world organization, just as it has been a hindrance in evaluating the real-world economy.

It is character, not numbers, that make the world go ‘round. How can we possibly measure the qualities of human existence that give our lives and careers meaning? How about grace, kindness, and integrity? What value do we put on passion, devotion, and trust? How much do cheerfulness, the lilt of a human voice, and a touch of pride add to our lives? Tell me, please, if you can, how to value friendship, cooperation, dedication, and spirit.

Categorically, the firm that ignores the intangible qualities that the human beings who are our colleagues bring to their careers will never build a great workforce or a great organization.”

Why can't we just blame the system? “On balance, the financial system subtracts value from society,” says Bogle. But it is people who configure systems. When it comes to value and impact there is no such thing as an internal client that is not also an external one in terms of consequences. 

Moving beyond obvious uses of technology

No, big data should not replace thinking.”

Systems stop being useful when they don't evolve to serve their purpose over time. They become circular, serving to keep things inside closed to the outside, or to prevent outside influences from making their way in. Increasingly, however, knowledge activates through interaction.

The “CrewCentral_noreply” email address added to the reference to a nonexistent recruiter in the email above clearly discouraged follow up. A dead end, a closed system designed to be one way.

Yet, there is abundant evidence of how open systems benefit from the collective input and exchange. Take Quora, for example —a question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users. The platform continues to demonstrate we can learn much from interaction and feedback.

When we focus on being right all the time, we miss the opportunities we have to learn how we can be less wrong. We are information-rich, yet theory poor. This is what Duncan Watts calls a frame problem. Hard questions are worth pursuing to learn something new.

This is not about picking on any one organization, best practices make their way into too many of them, still. But the example above was the most interesting because it seemed to be a follow up to something that never happened.

Lest we think startups get these kind of things and the value of building culture right, I have enough examples collected over the last few years that show how we are still learning to walk the talk. Which is another way of saying connecting ideas with executions.

Rethinking recruiting

“In their efforts to avoid making a bad hire, organizations have created longer interview processes, with more meetings and steps along the way.”


Although better interview formats are helpful, and algorithms are getting better at hiring low-skill service-sector jobs, for senior position many organizations still rely heavily on outside consultants. Recruiters are in turn somewhat limited to what they and their systems know.

This is why getting to the interview is still most of the battle. Candidates fight it in an evidence free environment where keywords and all to often politics are all there is to master. Asking a question when we know the answer doesn't help us learn something new.

In addition to personal and organizational biases, we have the disconnects that happen in communications. “The main difficulty of thinking is confusion,” says Dr. Edward de Bono, father of lateral thinking. “We try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope, and creativity all crowd in on us. It is like juggling with too many balls.”

Things are still this way because looking at skills more holistically is hard, and our systems are not configured to think. People are. Were we to ask any number of people whether they think of themselves as spare parts, we would likely learn most people see themselves as whole beings —skills and experience as part of a continuum.

Further, corporate life in an increasingly complex environment where rapid change is the norm is more about learning together and becoming comfortable with improvisation, a prerequisite to exploring new territory.

Building capacity rather than fitting people into a narrower definition of work holds enormous benefits for organizations. Systems are built on self-fulfilling premises tend to flag data that fits similar patterns rather than find novel combinations —to discover more of the same rather than identify new opportunities.

Many organizations are thus literally stuck into repeating what used to work with little to no possible variations. It's possible that some enlightened business leader or hands-on hiring manager steps out of automation and goes direct. It is also possible that they are experienced in interviewing.

Stepping out and going for it is doing something that doesn't scale. Possible, but all too rare. The prevalent metaphor in business is still that of getting on the bus.

When we seek exponential results, we should also become more open to doing things differently.

Most fits that seem obvious looking back are anything but when we look into the future. While we embrace innovation as a concept, we often overlook the impact of small and simple tweaks in the way we do things. What does success look like? When we put more thought into defining the problem we're trying to solve, our results improve even as the process may still be wanting.

A job is not an island. Adding the context from diverse inputs and points of view from the groups and teams that benefit in adding a member to their network can make it easier for people to get a sense of the connections to what is important. Roles evolve, but there is usually a starting point. Gaining insight into what matters most can contribute to stronger matches.

Technology is transforming the career market, yet many organizations seem to be missing the action. Identifying the whole thinkers and doers who can help imagine the organization's future while they do today's work well is not easy.

At around the same time Bogle's book was published, technologist Clay Shirky argued that information overload wasn't the problem tech journalism made it out to be. Information failure is filter failure, he says. 

Some things —for example the past— can be more easily measured and defined. How we go about setting the filters says a lot more about the organization and its culture than it does about the skills and talent of potential candidates.

Where can algorithms help? Algorithms, says Esko Kilpi, “can create enabling constraints in four areas: (1) the volume and (2) the value of contributions, (3) the reputation of contributors and (4) diversity of thinking.”

But not when we use them to search a database of resumes that become history and old news the moment they are archived. Our contributions are all over the Internet.


[image via myths, exaggerations, and uncomfortable truths. There are considerably less Gen-X people than Boomers. There are many more Millennials even than Boomers.]

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