27 August 2010

Reconsidering recruitment

Filed under: Accenture, Psion, recruitment, Symbian — David Wood @ 5:12 am

The team at ITjoblog (‘the blog for IT professionals’) recently asked me to write a guest column for them.  It has just appeared: “Reconsidering recruitment“.

With a few slight edits, here’s what I had to say…

Earlier in my career, I was involved in lots of recruitment.  The software team inside Psion followed a steep headcount trajectory through the process of transforming into Symbian, and continued to grow sharply in subsequent years as many new technology areas were added to the scope of Symbian OS.  As one of the senior software managers in the company throughout this period, I found myself time and again in interviewing and recruitment situations.  I was happy to give significant amounts of my time to these tasks, since I knew what a big impact good (or bad) recruitment can make to organisational dynamics.

In recent weeks, I’ve once again found myself in a situation where considerable headcount growth is expected.  I’m working on a project at Accenture, assisting their Embedded Mobility Services group.  Mobile is increasingly a hot topic, and there’s strong demand for people providing expert consuItancy in a variety of mobile development project settings. This experience has led me to review my beliefs about the best way to carry out recruitment in such situations.  Permit me to think aloud…

To start with, I remain a huge fan of graduate recruitment programs.  The best graduates bring fire in their bellies: a “we can transform the world” attitude that doesn’t know what’s meant to be impossible – and often carries it out!  Of course, graduates typically take some time before they can be deployed in the frontline of commercial software development.  But if you plan ahead, and have effective “bootcamp” courses, you’ll have new life in your teams soon enough.  There will be up-and-coming stars ready to step into the shoes left by any unexpected staff departures or transfers.  If you can hire a group of graduates at the same time, so much the better.  They can club together and help each other, sharing and magnifying what they each individually learn from their assigned managers and mentors.  That’s the beauty of the network effect.

That’s just one examples of the importance of networks in hiring.  I place a big value on having prior knowledge of someone who is joining your team.  Rather than having to trust your judgement during a brief interviewing process, and whatever you can distill from references, you can rely on actual experience of what someone is like to work with.  This effect becomes more powerful when several of your current workforce can attest to the qualities of a would-be recruit, based on all having worked together at a previous company in the past.  I saw Symbian benefit from this effect via networks of former Nortel employees who all knew each other and who could vouch for each others’ capabilities during the recruitment process.  Symbian also had internal networks of former high-calibre people from SCO, and from Ericsson, among other companies.  The benefit here isn’t just that you know that someone is a great professional.  It’s that you already know what their particular special strengths are.  (“I recommend that you give this task to Mike.  At our last company, he did a fantastic job of a similar task.”)

Next, I recommend hiring for flexibility, rather than simply trying to fit a current task description.  I like to see evidence of people coping with ambiguity, and delivering good results in more than one kind of setting.  That’s because projects almost always change; likewise for organisational structures.  So while interviewing, I’m not trying to assess if the person I’m interviewing is the world expert in, say, C++ templates.  Instead, I’m looking for evidence that they could turn their hand to mastering whole new skill areas – including areas that we haven’t yet realised will be important to future projects.

Similarly, rather than just looking for rational intelligence skills, I want to see evidence that someone can fit well into teams.  “Soft skills”, such as inter-personal communication and grounded optimism, aren’t just an optional extra, even for roles with intense analytic content.  The best learning and the best performance comes from … networks (to use that word again) – but you can’t build high-functioning networks if your employees lack soft skills.

Finally, high-performing teams that address challenging problems benefit from internal variation.  So don’t just look for near-clones of people who already work for you.  When scanning CVs, keep an eye open for markers of uniqueness and individuality.  At interview, these markers provide good topics to explore – where you can find out something of the underlying character of the candidate.

Inevitably, you’ll sometimes make mistakes with recruitment, despite taking lots of care in the process.  To my mind, that’s OK.  In fact, it’s better to take a few risks, since you can find some excellent new employees in the process.  But you need to have in place a probation period, during which you pay close attention to how your hires are working out.  If a risky candidate turns out disappointing, even after some coaching and support, then you should act fast – for the sake of everyone concerned.

In summary, I see recruitment and induction as a task that deserves high focus from some of the most skilled and perceptive members of your existing workforce.  Skimp on these tasks and your organisation will suffer – sooner or later.  Invest well in these tasks, and you should see the calibre of your workforce steadily grow.

For further discussion, let me admit that rules tend to have limits and exceptions.  You might find it useful to identify limits and counter-examples to the rules of thumb I’ve outlined above!

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