Brand Power: Alistair Comyn from Convergence Partners explains how it might persuade passive top talent to make a move...

Alistair Comyn

It’s 20 years since McKinsey & Company consultant Steven Hankin coined the phrase “the war for talent.”

He was referring to the battle to recruit and retain talented employees, which was also the core theme of a 2001 book with the phrase as its title. Two decades on, the quest for management talent remains a challenging one. In New Zealand at least, for an increasing number of senior and specialised roles, the supply of available candidates is extremely thin, and even in the more popular sectors of business, demand for exceptional employees well exceeds available supply.

As a consequence, organisations looking for high-quality candidates in senior positions can no longer simply advertise the role and expect a surfeit of applicants to respond. Employers now have to compete for the best performers.

Surveys indicate possibly up to 20% of employees in any organisation are looking actively to change jobs. Another 20% are relatively new to their role and workplace, and not motivated or likely to changes jobs again soon, or “lifers”, employees who have committed long-term to the business and will see out their working life there, if they can.

The remaining 60% aren’t actively looking, and may be quite content to stay. But they are potentially available if an approach is made to them, and if the right opportunity presents itself, they could be persuaded to move.

In our experience, job advertisements only very occasionally draw out the best talent for long-term roles - advertising works much better for locating candidates for contract or interim roles. Advertising tends to reveal the employees who are unsettled or unhappy in their current situation or unemployed - and who are actively searching the Internet for a new job. The top performers, however, aren’t generally looking at the recruitment advertisements or scanning online; they’re too busy pursuing their career goals in a supportive environment and achieving impressive results for their employers.

By bypassing the conventional advertising route, executive search seeks out those busy, talented employees who aren’t actively looking for another position, via networks and referrals. But simply identifying candidates that meet the position description is only the first step. The executive recruiter may have located them and made contact, and they may be intrigued and interested, but they now have to be persuaded to pursue the new role.

Power of the brand

At that stage, the brand of the new organisation has to be attractive and compelling. But what makes up a brand? Almost everything about the organisation contributes to it. Brands used to be the domain of the Human Resources department but now Chief Executives and Marketing and Business Development Heads relentlessly monitor and measure their organisation’s brand impact in the highly competitive business space. Strong brands attract sales - but also employees. Brands need to be much more transparent; today’s employees quickly discern anything false, pretentious or inconsistent about how their organisation is depicted.

Brand attraction starts with the external perceptions of the organisation: Is it a strong brand? Does the organisation have a good reputation and inspirational leadership? Do its website, media presence and social media activity reflect that?

The most critical moment in the executive search process occurs when the candidate walks through the door to meet the hiring managers. This is a completely different proposition to an interview with a prospect arising from an advertisement; this candidate is content in their current position - the hiring company (through the executive search team) has approached them. They don’t have to explain why they are seeking a new role because, as yet, they don’t want to move. The hiring manager has to persuade them to make the change, and be prepared to be thoroughly interrogated about their organisation. Many interviewing managers aren’t expert at “selling” the merits of working at their organisation, unless they’ve come from a sales role - but at that moment, their prime task is to convince the person to join their organisation by “selling” its merits and the opportunity.

What will do that? Our experience and the available literature tells us that better remuneration isn’t the main driver. Instead, top talent is principally interested in four things that might persuade them to make a move:

  • Will the new role provide them with opportunities to advance - further and faster than their current company?
  • Will the work be interesting and exciting - and considerably more so than their current work?
  • Who will they report to, and what’s that person like in terms of track record, leadership style and coaching or mentoring abilities and aptitude?
  • And what’s the office environment and culture like? How flexible is it?

Curiously, in our business we see companies that have a huge amount to offer that struggle to secure the right type of talent, and conversely, companies with much less to offer who experience strong demand from high performers to join their organisation. The difference between the two is the selling job they do (or don’t do) to attract exceptional talent. That may also have nothing to do with how glamorous the business is either; a company with the dullest products can out-compete its competitors for the most talented candidates simply by recognising what the talent wants, and delivering it.

Conveying a strong brand and making a persuasive pitch to win top talent to the team is also just the first stage. Once they’ve signed up, you need to sustain the attraction. That comes from good on-boarding and paying ongoing attention to the art of retention - which is a story in itself. The promises made at the negotiating table have to play out in the weeks, months and hopefully years of faithful service that follow.


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