Ideas The TalentQ Interview

Recruitment and Retention: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Two pioneers from opposite HR sectors reveal why joining forces is the key to solving several talent crises.

Interview By Eileen McDargh

Trying to make sense of the influence of AI, robotics, and rapidly changing technologies on your employee population? How can you keep your solid 80 percent base engaged while attracting the quick-to-rise (and quick-to-move) 20 percent? Is it about money or meaning? Is it about jumping ship or staying in place? What’s the role of reputation? Should HR join hands with internal and external recruiters—and how would that work? What does the future look like with a global skills shortage and a talent gap?

The answers to these questions and more come from two experts who have a combined experience of more than 80 years. And, as friends, they’ve been hashing out concepts and trends for decades over drinks and dinners.

DeeDee DeMan is the founder and CEO of Bench International, the first ever global search firm in the life sciences sector. Beverly Kaye, Ph.D., founded Career Systems International, one of the first companies to specialize in organizational career development. She’s the author of six books and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from ATD and the Thought Leader Award from ISA.

Bring together these pioneers in the areas of recruitment and retention and you’ll get the benefit of hindsight and foresight in a slew of critical HR issues.

TQ: What are the biggest shifts you’ve seen in your respective fields for the workforce today and tomorrow?

DeeDee DeMan: The technology and digital sectors have converged into life sciences and healthcare sectors, making retention and employee commitment more elusive. We think this is reflective of the fact that the life cycle of leaders in tech is often strikingly different from that of traditional pharma and healthcare. The degree of corporate commitment to retention of its employee base in life sciences and healthcare is facing the same revolving door we’ve noted in the tech sector.

Leaders are far more accustomed to moving every couple of years, thus creating a greater environment of employee free agency. We note that life sciences, like tech, has become a product of highly defined hubs. For example, in the greater Boston area, a high-potential leader can change jobs with literally a one-block or one-elevator commute differential. This makes retention vulnerability a major threat in a company’s own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis.

TQ: Sounds pretty cutthroat. 

DeMan: It’s reality. The truth is large companies know if one goes, there are plenty outside the door ready to get in. Recruiters understand this and take advantage of the newer free-agent spirit. Unfortunately, there can be a loss of wisdom and the holy grail of innovation. When it happens to the smaller, emerging growth company, it can have a significant impact on the company’s valuation.

In these companies, the HR professional as a strategic partner becomes critical in helping management decide who the keepers of the wisdom and innovation are. What’s it going to take to create the full-court press to retain such employees in order to sustain the business of the long term? HR can help identify intermediate and long-term retention plans that play to the passions of the “keepers.” That passion is more prominent in emerging growth companies versus larger companies that are looking for effective “synergies” as a form of corporate performance. So I see two very different patterns emerging in my sector.

Beverly Kaye: The counterpoint, in our work, is that we get called into organizations because there’s high turnover! It might also be the results of the latest engagement survey that says, “I don’t feel valued. I don’t feel engaged. I don’t see the opportunities here for me.” There’s a lot of money spent to recruit talent, more money to onboard talent, and even more to groom and support that talent. When you lose, you lose big in terms of dollars. While DeeDee’s work stays in that very specific sector and recruits the top 20 percent, my work has focused primarily on the 80 percent.

TQ: It seems like you’re at polar opposites in your work. Can an organization operate as a revolving door and a steady-as-she-goes practice?

Kaye: There’s a concept I learned about decades ago that clearly was ahead of its time. It was called the Stable Core/Flexible Ring. Basically, in every organization, there’s a stable core that remains and builds the organization. And there’s a flexible ring that expands or contracts depending on what the need is. This is the great paradox we’re now seeing: You have to drive speed and innovation while creating stability at the same time. You have to be resilient, reliable, and efficient while also being fast, nimble, adaptive, and dynamic.

DeMan: Let’s face it: Today’s needle has to keep moving. I think marrying the two is the pragmatism that companies need to come to grips with. With that 10 or 20 percent that is short term, you say, “Let’s agree that while you’re here, you’ll get everything you need to advance your career. And in return, you’re going to monumentally advance the business. Then, when it’s time to go, let’s make it clean and transparent. Let it be an open, healthy process of regreening that percentage.”

Kaye: Some organizations are saying, “I know we can’t keep you forever, maybe not even more than two years, but in those two years, how can we make this work for you so we all grow and develop the skills and interests that produce the results we need?” Forward-thinking organizations are holding managers responsible for development and tracking those managers who lose good talent. When employees feel devalued and like they’re just a random statistic on a payroll sheet, it makes recruiting from the outside easier.

DeMan: So true. That actually makes it easier for our company to pluck people out. So many disengaged people are envious of the independence and opportunity found in emerging growth companies. They want to be the authors of their own fate. That’s why we say we aren’t headhunters, but rather “hearthunters.” Work is an emotional issue. In my sector, we find a large number of people who realize they don’t have the runway to wait 10 years to advance. They understand that if they go into a smaller environment, they can accomplish more, build more, and be compensated well.

Kaye: From our vantage point, we see companies dealing with this mobility and advancement issue differently. The questions we hear are “How can we move people around in new ways? How can we apply some of the agile concepts in career development? How can we help our people grow rich careers?” 

TQ: Speaking of “richer,” the word on the street is that more and more people are looking for meaning over money. They want to feel like they’re doing something that contributes to a greater good. What’s your experience with this?  

DeMan: It’s actually what we say to draw people out. When people get out of bed in the morning to push that proverbial rock up a hill, do they want to think “Crap, I have to go to work” or “Oh boy, I get to go to work”?

Kaye: I think the hot word is “purpose.” Right now, I’m looking at a Harvard Business Review article that says nine out of 10 people are willing to earn less to do more meaningful work. This implies that our work in career development is to help managers find the meaningfulness in each employee’s assignments. I remember reading a great question: “If you were paid in units of meaningfulness, how rich would you be?” I once wrote an article about dollars and sense. We have to help managers and employees understand what makes sense in their own careers.

TQ: From your perspective as a recruiter, DeeDee, is this an issue you find prevalent?

DeMan: What we talk about is an intrinsic reward. Bev would call it “legacy”: What are you going to leave behind? From my vantage point, it needs to be a sustainable legacy. Specifically, it’s very demoralizing for people to build something up and have someone else come in and just demolish it in an attempt to create their own legacy without assessing the merits of what’s already in place. This is why we quite often see organizational structures and corporate missions exhibiting behaviors of “everything old is new again” as they attempt to return to their roots.

Kaye: I remember when my husband decided to take early retirement from 32 years as a rocket scientist. He came home with a big box of books from his office and said, “No one will ever know I was there.” I’m convinced there’s great importance in leadership and legacy. In a recent conversation with a client, they talked about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and how both were equally important in retention.

TQ: Does that mean there’s synergy between recruitment and retention? 

Kaye: There should be, but often there is not. Specifically, HR leaders who want to keep their talent need to link arms with recruiting. And that just doesn’t happen enough. Most recruiters don’t stay in the picture long enough, and many new hires are attached to their recruiter. We’ve also found people leave because the picture the recruiter painted just isn’t so. I rarely hear of a recruiter who links with a hiring manager and asks how an individual is doing.

DeMan: That’s the difference between an internal or external recruiter and a true business partner. From the HR standpoint, a recruiter needs to do a really deep dive into the very business they’re supporting so they can serve as an extension of that business when vetting a candidate.

I’d say that only 20 percent of HR leaders I work with are the kind of business partners who have deep knowledge of their internal clients’ responsibilities and a broad and deep knowledge of the business they serve. This is especially evident in the larger companies. We see a stronger business relationship between HR and the business in the emerging growth companies.

A true business partner must understand the business as if they were owners, and inevitably they are—as shareholders. This is critical in their ability to offer recruiting justice to the organization. Sadly, the other 80 percent of HR leaders are often disenfranchised and very transactional versus passionate about the business.

Kaye: I think it would be great if there are follow-up and check-in conversations between the recruiter and the new hire. Recruiters need to be kept in the loop as they know the new hire—hopefully—better than anyone. DeeDee, when you bring a new hire into an organization, do you stay filled in on how that candidate is doing?

DeMan: No. I have to call and ask. Nobody calls me to do a post mortem. I have to be assertive and check in with the candidate and the client. We need to know if the marriage isn’t working. It could be the candidate’s fault, the new hire’s fault, or the recruiter’s fault. In fact, it’s often that what they were recruited for and what they were handed had nothing to do with the other.

Kaye: Which brings up a great retention idea. At a large consumer product company, there’s a practice for new hires called “expectations exchange.” That exchange asks, “What did you expect, and are you getting what you thought you’d get?” The question is repeated in two months, in six months,and one year. The business wants to know if they’re delivering on what was promised.

TQ: There’s a global talent shortage, as reported in the latest Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2019 State of the Workplace white paper. This shortage is compounded by high competition as well as significant gaps in technical and soft skills. From your respective vantage points, how do you address the problem?

Kaye: I thought that paper was an important read for any recruiter or retention professional. I was captured by the subtitle “Bridging the Talent Gap with Education, Training, and Sourcing.” I loved that they combined all three. I think it’s precisely that interplay that isn’t being done to the degree that the serious shortage demands. 

Organizations are ramping up to educate their employees about the skills that will be needed and making accommodations for technical and soft skills training. Several research reports warn organizations that the competition will only get worse. It’s interesting that the article suggests science, engineering, and medical areas are among the top missing skills, and problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity are the missing soft skills. Organizations that find and train those individuals better have a plan for keeping them.

DeMan: It’s also a heads up for individuals who want to be seen as top recruitment potential. It indicates what degrees will be most valuable, but equally important will be how individuals can offer specific examples of their use of the soft skills. Don’t forget: Communication is among those soft skills.

TQ: What other insights can you both offer in this new-old world of recruitment and retention?

DeMan: Reputation among current employees is paramount to good recruiting. Most candidates these days, before they ever go in to interview, go online and see what current and former employees have to say about the company. It’s what has made Glassdoor so popular. And through LinkedIn, it’s possible to locate and have a conversation with people in that specific company.

Kaye: I’d recommend a recruiting team comprised of people in staffing, learning, and compensation. And I’d strongly recommend that managers become more accountable with their feet held to the fire for developing talent.

Eileen McDargh is CEO of The Resiliency Group. She’s the author of seven books, an internationally recognized keynoter, and master facilitator. In 2018, Global Gurus, a British-based research firm, ranked her among the top 30 communication professionals worldwide.