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Ep 475: Defining Talent


Skills based hiring continues to be a growing trend as employers rethink how they attract and assess talent. So how do you define what good looks like and identify the right hires for your organisation?

My guest this week is Leadership Strategist and Talent Consultant Ginny Clarke, who formerly ran executive hiring programmes at Google. Ginny is a strong advocate of competency-based recruiting and has some invaluable advice to share.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Spotting competencies and demonstrated behaviours

• Talent reviews and performance evaluations

• How do you define and identify talent?

• Looking more broader to increase diversity

• Psychological safety and equity

• The relationship between leadership and culture

• Competencies as skills plus knowledge plus ability

• Deconstructing job roles

• Looking past employment history and education

• What does the future of work look like, and how should employers be preparing

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.


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Fountain (46s):
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Matt Alder (1m 15s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 475 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. Skills-based hiring continues to be a growing trend as employers rethink how they attract and assess talent. So how do you define what good looks like and identify the right hires for your organization? My guest this week is Leadership Strategist and Talent Consultant Ginny Clarke, who formally ran executive hiring programs at Google. Ginny is a strong advocate of competency-based recruiting and has some invaluable advice to share.

Matt Alder (1m 57s):
Hi, Ginny, and welcome to the podcast.

Ginny Clarke (1m 60s):
Matt, Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be with you.

Matt Alder (2m 3s):
It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Ginny Clarke (2m 11s):
Sure. My name is Ginny Clarke. I refer to myself as a leadership strategist. I have my own business after being an executive recruiter for 25 years. I was a partner at Spencer Stuart, one of the big global executive search firms. I had my own business as a consultant, wrote a book on career management, and then I went to Google for four and a half years and ran several of the programs in their executive recruiting function.

Matt Alder (2m 37s):
Fantastic stuff. So we’re going through a very interesting and disruptive time when it comes to talent acquisition at the moment. Can you give us your view on the market and what’s going on? I mean, there seems to be a combination of sort of short-term economic trends, but some deeper long-term ones as well.

Ginny Clarke (2m 56s):
Yeah, boy, is it ever a little confusing? You know, I think the great resignation caught everybody’s attention. It caused, as human nature, I think fear first, right? Once it became noticeable that this was happening, I think that was a good thing to get the attention of employers and then that’s not over completely, even though we’re facing possibly a recession, big question mark there. I read something this morning from, I think it was Goldman Sachs’ economist who was suggesting that they’re seeing not just job cuts, but a cut in job openings.

Ginny Clarke (3m 37s):
So if you think about it, that could be good news for those who are employed. They’re not necessarily looking at layoffs, but it might not be great news for those who are unemployed. You know, having said all that, I think it all depends on what industry one is in, what function one is in. I’m a big believer that you can find something if you’re resourceful. So I’m not a fan of sounding the alarm and causing fear among job seekers or for that matter, among employers who were seeking to hire new talent. There’s good talent out there. You have to know where to look, and you’ve gotta be assessing it on the basis of something that actually matters.

Matt Alder (4m 19s):
No, absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, I know that many employers that we speak to on the show are still really struggling to find the talent they need in all kinds of different areas. What is it that employers need to do? What foundations do they need to build to sort of really see them through the next few years?

Ginny Clarke (4m 41s):
Yeah, you know, I’ll say this, from my time at Google, I was separate from the greater talent acquisition. I was part of it, but we didn’t, we ran effectively an executive search firm within it. And so we weren’t relying on at the time the 4 million applicants, right? So the applicant tracking system was something that we didn’t make use of for the executive-level roles that we were working on. Having said that, one of the things that I was able to do that I’m proud of was to really have a conversation and model the use of competency-based assessment.

Ginny Clarke (5m 21s):
I know that doesn’t work as well when you’re talking about, you know, Google hired 20, 25,000 people a year, and so, you know, times 10, the number of applications that you’re actually actively processing. Not to mention those other, you know, what, three and a half million. So to me, I think we need to get better because I think that we’ve relied on algorithms, and I dare say that those are probably not serving everyone well, and we can talk more about that, but I’m in favor of looking more and training people to spot competencies. These are demonstrated behaviours, not just have they done it before and start, and not to mention the pedigree.

Ginny Clarke (6m 7s):
Everybody loves to look and say, “Oh, they went to Harvard, they must be smart. Oh, they went to, you know, San Jose State, maybe they’re not so smart.” I mean, these things make no sense anymore. And so I really want people to start focusing in on, and this is just in terms of getting best talent, and by virtue of that, you get greater diversity, which was one of my specialties as well. So I know that was kind of a rambling explanation and assessment, but those are the things that I think people are missing. And I think if organizations want to make sure that they are attractive, they need to make sure that they’ve got these systems in place that are being used by the managers and leaders in the organization, namely talent reviews and employee performance evaluations.

Ginny Clarke (6m 57s):
You know, all of these things that seem foundational to HR, those things matter because what we learned from the Great Recession, the number one reason, at least according to McKenzie, that people leave, right, they’re leaving their jobs, is that they don’t see any career advancement or development. And that comes from the manager or leader. That’s not an HR function, necessarily, it is. I get learning and development, but it’s the responsibility of the leaders who are seeing these folks day to day to help cultivate them and develop them. And if that becomes your brand and your reputation, much better chance of you attracting best talent.

Matt Alder (7m 37s):
There is so much there.

Ginny Clarke (7m 39s):
I know there’s a lot.

Matt Alder (7m 42s):
I really wanna kind of dig into some of the specifics of that.

Ginny Clarke (7m 45s):

Matt Alder (7m 45s):
So let’s start with best talent. People talk about attracting the best talent, recruiting the best talent, retaining the best talent, how do employers define and identify what best talent means?

Ginny Clarke (8m 0s):
So, you know, in terms of defining best talent, I think I was the one who just used the word first, but I don’t love the word. I think it’s a slippery slope because I think it tends to mean in many people’s minds, these are the people with the pedigree or the people who most sort of mirror the behaviors of the senior leaders inside the organization. So best, I think, is quite subjective and which is why I’m such a proponent of using competency-based assessment, especially when you get inside, right? It’s not just a hiring tool, it’s how are you assessing people throughout their employee life cycle.

Ginny Clarke (8m 40s):
And there needs to be consistency there so that you can define who’s quote-unquote, “good, better, and best.” Not to mention the complexity of roles and scope and the fact that I’m certain, I don’t know that I can’t quote any statistics, but I just know that there is so much sub-optimized talent and that there’s so much talent that people believe is good by virtue of past jobs that they’ve held who really aren’t as competent as other people might be. And I mean, that’s borne out from, here’s a stat, this is around leadership competencies. We talk in, I think in terms of both leadership competencies and functional competencies.

Ginny Clarke (9m 23s):
And there was a stat from a Gallup Poll that said that 18 percent of leaders, 18 by those poll were considered good at leading or managing leading. Meaning 82 percent, this is in the US, of leaders and managers aren’t considered good at leading and managing. They’re not demonstrating those behaviors. So when you put some of those pieces together, we are not assessing people to know what best is. We get locked into, oh, they’ve been here a long time. Oh, they manage up really well. Oh, you know, you have all of these excuses as to why someone gets promoted or gets hired. By the way, at the same time, you are absolutely losing some of the best talent because they’re sitting there going, “What about me?

Ginny Clarke (10m 7s):
Why am I not being seen? I’m raising my hand, I’m doing everything right, and yet I don’t seem to be the model of what best looks like.” So caution on the word best.

Matt Alder (10m 23s):
You mentioned that diversity was one of your specialties. What are you seeing employers doing at the moment that’s good in terms of, you know, attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce than they might have had before?

Ginny Clarke (10m 37s):
Well, I think they’re looking more broadly. You know, at Google, for example, they had a very intentional long-term plan that involved real estate, where are we going to put other offices so that we can tap into major metropolitan areas in the US, for example, where there is greater diversity, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. And so I think that’s great. I think, you know, in terms of identifying supplies of people who have here before and underrepresented, that’s a really good thing. Now, again, a caution because you can find the supply, but how are you managing this becomes an issue of culture and leadership and management once again because these are folks who, to the extent that you’re managing against a norm that might have been established in your organization, that is not diverse, that normative behavior might make it such that it’s not an inclusive environment or a psychologically safe environment for these folks who are underrepresented.

Ginny Clarke (11m 48s):
So again, I’m going back to you can find underrepresented people to hire, but if you’re not at the same same time looking at the other systems and some of the else foundational elements to ensure that there is equity, you’re not gonna have retention, you’re not gonna have parity and equity when it comes to rates of promotion, progression, rates of attrition. Historically, and most organizations, I think underrepresented folks have higher attrition rates. And I don’t know that people are looking at that to understand why that is.

Matt Alder (12m 18s):
I suppose there’s a related question to that. Talk us through the relationship between leadership and culture.

Ginny Clarke (12m 26s):
Oh, I think it’s direct, inextricably linked. I think one’s culture is the amalgam of the behaviors of the senior, most leaders in the organization. People think culture, at Google, for example, everybody’s like, “Oh, you know, Google, it must have been so much fun and this cool campus-like environment.” That’s an environment, right? The culture to me is sort of that invisible suit that everybody’s swimming around in every day. How are you made to feel by other people that you’re working with, by your leader, by your manager? How are the systems supporting you or not? And you can find sometimes packets, you know, sort of individual groups or functions or sometimes an entire organization that can have toxic behavior that is exhibited by one or more leaders or managers, people in influential roles that defines what a manager leader is, right?

Ginny Clarke (13m 25s):
Influence. Then you’re going to have– That’s your culture. You’re going to have a dysfunctional or toxic culture. So there’s got to be a level of accountability to make sure that your leaders are creating environments where people feel supported, where they feel valued. So that, to me, a culture can mask something that is not supporting your employees.

Matt Alder (13m 55s):
Circling back to what you were saying about competencies and how important, how important they are in terms of being able to sort of unearth the best talent, whatever that means. Talk us through that a bit more in practical terms.

Ginny Clarke (14m 9s):
Yeah, I see competencies as a couple things. I have two different definitions. One, I borrowed, I saw this somewhere because people think, “Oh, they’re skills.” Well, I think they are skills plus knowledge plus ability. So you can teach somebody how to read a spreadsheet or to run a machine, but do they have the knowledge of the greater system of which they’re a part? And I like to think of curiosity falling into that bucket, right? And then do they have the ability: mental, physical, emotional ability to know when and how to deploy that skill? So that’s one way I like to think of competencies.

Ginny Clarke (14m 50s):
The other way, the term that I use is that they are the deconstructed elements of how you do something. It’s not just what you’ve done. And it always fascinated me when I was doing more active executive recruiting and I’d be in interviews and I’d conduct 90-minute interviews when I was at Spencer Stuart. Google didn’t allow that long for, even for the leadership candidates, but I would say to folks, tell me about yourself. And they just kind of point to the resume and say, I did this, I did this, I did this. And my question would always be, give me an example when, explain to me how, so competencies are of the how. And I often like to say, you know, being educated doesn’t make you smart.

Ginny Clarke (15m 34s):
Being smart doesn’t make you competent. So I think people need to distinguish between the two that we get enamored with degrees and, you know, that pedigree that I was mentioning. But none of those things has ever been directly correlated to the competency or competencies because there are many of them. At Google, we had like a library when I first started of 60 of them. No one was expected to have all of them. These were simply references that recruiters and hiring managers could use to agree upon three to five specific competencies that they wanted for this role. And they tended to be leadership competencies, and then you would get into domain expertise.

Ginny Clarke (16m 15s):
So, yeah, competencies can be, it seems maybe a little intimidating, but I think to the extent that you can get hiring managers to focus on some of those things and not, I want somebody from this company or I want somebody solely from this industry. I think that’s a very limited mindset. And it’s holding, it’s not enabling organizations to see, quote-unquote, “best”, particularly if you’re a global organization.

Matt Alder (16m 39s):
And as a final question, and also by way of bringing this all together, we started off the conversation by just saying what a disruptive time is at the moment. And indeed it has been for the last three and a half years now. Obviously, a lot about work and how employers think about talent is changing. Perhaps not as quickly as we’d like it to, but what do you think the future of work and recruiting looks like and how should employers be preparing for that from a talent perspective?

Ginny Clarke (17m 17s):
It’s being upended right now, and I think I didn’t even talk about return-to-work, hybrid work environments and, you know, all of those dynamics that are shifting daily. I think leaders, in particular, whether they’re talent acquisition leaders or, you know, other leaders of different functions in an organization need to appreciate that you’re not gonna have all the answers right now. I think the ground is shifting far too fast. I think you need to poll people, ask the people who are gonna be impacted by some of these things, what they want. I think communication becomes essential to, particularly for employees, help them understand what’s going on, what’s expected.

Ginny Clarke (18m 0s):
Say things like, “Listen, this is an experiment. We don’t know for sure how this is gonna work and we’re trying to hear all of you. We want to consider your preferences. We’re not gonna please everybody.” And I think just that level of communication and that level of humility and vulnerability among leaders and managers is going to help figure some of this stuff out. I don’t think it’s a scary time at all for me. And when I think about it, and even I’m putting myself back into the Google environment, so to speak, right? And I think everybody needs to just go a little deeper and ask deeper questions.

Ginny Clarke (18m 42s):
How is this working? What is the impact of this? You know, if I’m a leader or manager and I’m looking to maybe change my TA approach, what are the implications? And just go deeper and deeper in thinking a more integrated way to not just what you do, but what is the impact on the rest of the business of what you do. And I think if leaders can adopt that mindset, then I think they’re prepared for all the uncertainty that exists out there. But it becomes a partnership and a journey that is shared and they’re gonna be wins. I think that evolve from that.

Matt Alder (19m 17s):
Ginny, thank you very much for talking to me.

Ginny Clarke (19m 19s):
Matt, my pleasure. Thank you.

Matt Alder (19m 22s):
My thanks to Ginny. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram where you can find us by searching for Recruiting Future and TikTok, where you can find us by searching for Recruiting Future Pod. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get our new monthly podcast newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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