In the Essex village of Tiptree, they’re making jam fit for a queen. Wilkin & Sons have held Royal Warrants since 1911 and supply their ‘Tiptree’ preserves to over 65 countries worldwide. If you’ve stayed at a premium hotel recently, chances are you’ve been served their jam or marmalade for breakfast.
Unusually, at Tiptree they always appoint joint managing directors. When Ian Thurgood and then Walter Scott took the reins, they resolved to set inspiring business targets and to appoint only managers they deemed better than themselves. Brave or naïve, their policy was viewed simply as an extension of the benevolent paternalism fostered by the Wilkin family since the business started, in 1885.
Over the past decade, the business grew from a £17million preserve-maker to a £40million premium food group; Thurgood is now embarking upon a new career as a business consultant. He summarises some of the challenges facing businesses recruiting at managerial level:
Irrespective of whether a business recruits for itself, or uses a professional advisor, there’s always the issue of who prepares and agrees the brief. Let’s say an appointment at management level will cost £50,000 a year. A 35-year old manager could cost £1.5million over 30 years! She’d better be good in her role but more crucially; she needs to be right for the business. A capital investment on that scale would usually require far more than just a phone call to an agent.
To begin the recruitment process, there has to be a real need for the additional resource. Thurgood remembers a time when an advertising agency advised him not to spend so much of his company’s money on advertising, even proposing a complete review of the marketing budget, thus doing themselves out of a hefty chunk of revenue. As it happened, their candid appraisal ensured a long-term relationship, albeit with less annual income. Who recalls a recruiter ever suggesting to a client they may not really need that new manager?
Let’s have a closer look at that point, whether the client actually needs a new recruit. It’s fundamental to Thurgood’s thinking on Hidden Talent and should be the starting point of the recruitment process. Although Wilkin & Sons do ask employees about their aspirations and skills, it’s still work in progress. Well-known brands such as Expedia and John Lewis may be great at looking after staff, but do they conduct employee audits to search out hidden skills within their organisation? If, as happened to Thurgood, a farm worker wants to become transport manager, how likely is it to happen? Moreover, although existing staff can normally apply for vacancies, is it genuinely encouraged, given the potential for failure and consequent disruption?
Thurgood turns next to the CV. What does the term even mean? The curriculum vitae are a brief account of a person’s qualifications, occupation and education, but it’s ‘all change’ now. Conventional wisdom on CV creation has largely been superseded by computers and the internet; words like “passionate” and “team player” have become practically meaningless; and most applicants have a graduate or better qualification. Of course a good MBA has value, but it’s more difficult than ever to filter management-level applications. Worse still, if an otherwise promising applicant has no formal qualification, can they ever make the first cut?
For now, one final point on the recruitment process: defined in the brief and used during interviews, the appointment criteria are intended to uncover the candidate with the best ‘fit’ for the role. Maybe it’s time to start thinking more in terms of best ‘fit’ for the business – get that right and the role will follow. Typically, the average successful candidate will get an on-line application, then a few minutes of the employer’s time for her CV, followed by up to three face-to-face interviews; let’s say 2 hours of her employer’s time. It doesn’t make sense does it? There again, savvy candidates understand the value of personal branding and a range of bespoke CVs; many can come across well for two or three relatively short interviews, yet this is not a robust method to ensure the best applicant wins.
Getting back to the point, what if anything, can be done to unearth our hidden talent and how can professional recruiters lead the revolution? Thurgood suggests five key areas:
Seriously challenge the need for a new recruit. Recruitment is an expensive process with on-going costs so let’s genuinely exhaust existing resource opportunities.
Check the brief and check the right person wrote it. Brave professionals will be more proactive in the early stages.
Advocate engagement on the basis of organisational ‘fit’ before role suitability. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it longer-term.
Place more emphasis on the person behind the CV, who they really are and what they can do for the prospective employer – their personal brand.
Suggest employers review the coarse filters – the proscriptive on-line application form, the cursory dismissal of CVs that don’t fit the norm. In fact, pay particular attention to those who don’t conform, they’re often where the real talent lies.
Thurgood closes with the case of an exceptionally talented but somewhat introverted business graduate seeking her first career move; she was about to participate in an on-line interview with a multinational company. When asked what background research she had done, what her interview strategy was and what results she wanted, she replied that she had done nothing, nor did she plan to. Rather, she intended to be herself, answer questions frankly and assume the interviewer would decide on her merit. Now there’s someone surely worthy of further investigation!