Are people playing it safe in recruitment?
We live in conservative times. Fewer people, it seems, are prepared to stick their necks out as they once might. In the executive recruitment world, risk aversion manifests itself in numerous ways: tighter, highly-proscriptive candidate specifications; rising interview rounds; slower decision-making; vacant positions taking longer to fill. Candidates in one sector, wary of moving to another, less familiar one, stick to what they know.
We were reflecting on all this after reading a recent Financial Times article on HR by celebrated management thinker Tom Peters. Now almost 70 years old but just as prescient as ever, Peters asserts that faced with ever increasing competition from emerging markets, companies in more mature markets have only one choice: “imaginative brain-work is de-facto the only plausible survival strategy for individual enterprises of consequence and higher-wage nations in their entirety.” He goes on to add that: “development of ‘human capital’ should always be the top priority – albeit a commandment all too often honoured in the breach…… this is an inescapable imperative of our age.”
Peters, of course, was writing for the FT’s senior general management audience; whereas these comments will (or at least should) feel instantly familiar to Changeboard readers. ‘Imaginative brain work’ is what managers, after all, are primarily paid for, although that doesn’t sit well in the current conservative period.
How important is sector diversity?
Take your current organisation’s approach to hiring, for example. In order to attract the very best talent, how imaginative are you and your organisation prepared to be? Are you doing enough and what can you change? If you’re looking for your next role, how might your skills and achievements transfer over to other, perhaps entirely different sectors?
Much is written about the importance of cultural, gender and ethnic diversity, but much less about sector diversity. We believe, when all around you are doing the same thing – often vying to attract the same people – sector diversity presents a great opportunity to secure superior permanent or interim management talent with better ideas and fresh approaches to problem solving.
This is not a call for clients and candidates to be sector agnostic, simply more open to the opportunity of moving to, or hiring someone from, another sector. As Tony Bainbridge pointedly reminds us, “you don’t gain competitive advantage by following the crowd.” Bainbridge is currently HR director at Rexam Plastics, a division of the FTSE100 global packaging business:
“I think it’s a fallacy that hiring from the same sector is lower risk. Depending on which point on the business cycle your company is at, you could actually lower risks much further by hiring from outside your sector. Whether an organisation is shrinking or expanding, the important thing is to have the right mix of HR skills and experiences – people who’ve already trodden the path you’re about to begin,” he says.
Bainbridge himself has moved across four very diverse industries in his career to date, which spans FMCG, pharmaceuticals, hospitality and, most recently, packaging. Timing, he believes, is crucial:
“If you want to move into another sector, look for those that are about to go in a direction you’ve already been, and try get in there at the genesis of the planned change; it’s not much fun having to unpick and correct someone else’s unwitting mistakes. When I moved from FMCG to the biotech sector, for example, I had emerging markets and greenfield site HR experiences that were just right for biotech at that time. I found myself working with other non-biotech executives who brought complementary experience that the company needed to deliver its innovation and growth strategy. For hiring managers, a better question than: ‘Do they know our sector?’ is ‘What have they done; what’s relevant?’”
Why recruiters need to take a risk
Julie Wright is another HR director who believes in the value of diverse sector experience. Currently HR director of Callcredit Information Group, a credit referencing, marketing/consumer services information business, she also has a multi-sector career path ranging from construction, manufacturing and outsourcing services to insurance and information technology. Julie believes it’s given her a much richer, more rounded blend of HR knowledge and experiences:
“There are huge learning opportunities for people who move around different sectors and the experiences you accumulate as you do give you a much deeper perspective on HR challenges. But it’s not for everyone; you have to enjoy being challenged, and you need to be agile and adaptable.
“I think it also depends on which sectors you’re moving between. Someone moving into financial services, or another highly regulated sector, might find the amount of process and structure quite stifling. Similarly, moving between public and private sectors in either direction could present challenges; they’re often very different environments.”
And there’s the rub: there are different horses for different courses. But one thing is more clear-cut: it doesn’t take much of Tom Peter’s ‘imaginative brain work’ to see that a judicious mix of sector diversity could be just what’s needed to reinvigorate your HR team or your HR career.