With more Baby Boomers retiring, a small pool of Gen X’ers, and many Gen Y’ers and Millennials having left the A/E/C industry during the latest recession, the scramble for talent is on.

If you’ve done a good job identifying and cultivating your rising stars, the key talent you need may be right under your nose — waiting to be tapped. But now that the industry is rebounding, even those who’ve retained talent are soon likely to be looking outside for practice builders, seller-doers, a CMO, or technical experts to name a few.

Our executive search consulting practice specializes in high-level marketing and business development professionals and that holy grail of A/E/C professional — the rare individual who is both technically competent and possesses high emotional intelligence (often referred to as EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient). Already added to the threatened species list, these folks have the complete package of technical, interpersonal, communication, and BD skills. They are practice builders — and often our current and future leaders and owners.

As I watch firms try to land this key talent as part of their strategic growth plan, I’m surprised that so many take a tactical, rather than a strategic, approach to recruiting. Our industry tends to leap to the “we need someone” mode without thoroughly thinking through the strategic rationale, desired candidate attributes, and why our organization is the superior choice. Just as many firms begrudgingly cut poor-performing staff and eliminated wasteful practices during the recession, others are being caught equally flat-footed in an increasing competitive search process. These firms’ recruiting practices are stuck in an employers’ market mentality. They’re waiting for candidates to find them.

While there may be many potential candidates, the number that possess the unique mix of technical skills, high EQ, hunger, and drive, is actually quite small. They’re often not the ones who are unemployed, have responded to your recent job posting, or sent an unsolicited resume to your firm. More often, they’re hidden under a rock that can be easily uncovered through detective work.

Answering the Question, “Why Our Firm?”

The ingredients for successfully landing a strategic hire share a number of similarities with winning an important project. Most critical is developing a convincing response to the question, “Why our firm?” This requires that you develop compelling responses to the following questions prior to starting a search:

  • How would you describe your firm’s culture? How is it unique?
  • Specifically, why do clients hire you? What value do you confer?
  • If the position focuses on a particular client type, what story do you have to tell in this client sector, including premier clients and projects?
  • What differentiates your firm with respect to:
    • Onboarding new staff
    • In-house training and development programs
    • Opportunities for advancement (including your track record of developing women leaders)
    • Technology
    • Project management/delivery
    • Marketing and business development

If your firm has not developed a compelling story to tell or has not anticipated the questions a bright, inquisitive candidate will ask, you’re starting your search behind the eight ball.

Don’t Forget the Basics!

A successful candidate search starts with a robust position description, including:

  • Title/functional role
  • The background, attributes, and skills you seek
  • Responsibilities
  • Key performance metrics
  • Reporting structure
  • Compensation and benefits package (typically not shared with the candidate until an offer is extended)

Tools to Identify Potential Candidates

Good old-fashioned networking — including in-house staff referrals, networking at industry events, and discussions with colleagues — still plays a vital role in identifying potential candidates. However, technology (particularly social media) has made focused, intelligent networking more efficient than ever. My favorite tool is LinkedIn for a number of reasons. It enables you to:

  • Electronically post a hiring need within a targeted LinkedIn user group
  • Use key search strings (e.g., discipline, title, firm name, geography) to identify potential candidates with laser focus

Don’t underestimate the value of hiring a smart, well-connected, articulate recruiter who knows how to identify robust candidates and sell your firm’s unique culture, story, and benefits. Such recruiters are difficult to come by and rarely work on a contingency basis. The good ones treat your search as a consulting project — walking you through the steps and working with you as a partner throughout the process by gathering and sharing intelligence throughout the search and interviewing and negotiation processes. Be wary of contingency recruiters who rely too heavily on re-circulating resumes of those out of work or unemployable for various reasons, simply because they want to fill the position as soon as possible. Most strategic-level positions take 4-6 months or more to complete.

The Interview: A Bird’s-Eye View

In reality, the interview process is your chance to see how a how a candidate would represent your firm in a BD setting. Do you get a positive interpersonal vibe (including direct eye contact)? Has the candidate done his/her research and come prepared with thoughtful questions? Is the candidate a good listener? Does the candidate follow-up after the interview, and how? In addition, more firms are employing personality tests to predict how a prospective employee would function in a team setting and gain a glimpse into their work styles. One such tool I’m impressed with is the P.I., or Predictive Index®, which I’ve taken. This test is used by 550-person firm Haley & Aldrich, and some firms even administer it to prospective consultants they’re considering engaging.

When President & CEO Larry Smith and other Haley & Aldrich leaders recruit technical professionals, they look for people who are natural “systems thinkers.” They want professionals who recognize that when problems arise, they are often not generated by technical issues. “Systems thinking is the most valuable skill when it comes to BD in our industry. If you can do that, then you can sell the firm, solve client problems, and bring the right people to the table,” says Smith. Another attribute that’s critical to engaging the client, he says, is curiosity. “If you’re not curious and you don’t ask a lot of questions, then you’re not going to be good at BD.”

Want to pick my brain further on this topic or get assistance with your strategic recruiting needs? Call or e-mail me at 508-276-1101 or rich@friedmanpartners.com.