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Ep 553: The Strategic Value of Talent Acquisition

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The talent acquisition landscape is changing rapidly. 2024 has been difficult for many people in the profession, with many layoffs and an incredibly tough job market for recruiters. At the same time, advances in AI and automation technologies are driving types of change that we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, and post-pandemic labour shortages are still a reality in many talent markets.

All this disruption is forcing employers to think differently about jobs, work, skills and recruiting, creating an incredible opportunity for talent acquisition to illustrate its long-term value to the business. So what role does TA play in the future, and how can TA leaders prove its strategic value when many of their teams are being downsized?

My guest this week is Jessica Zwaan, COO at Whereby. Jessica is a cutting-edge HR thinker and has written a book detailing how People Ops should be run using product management principles. In our conversation, we talk about the future role of TA, and Jessica offers practical advice on how TA leaders can prove their strategic value.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Talent market challenges

• Building a people team like a product team

• Work as a subscription model

• Output metrics and funnel thinking

• Why businesses cutting TA teams are getting it wrong

• Building tools and products for the employee subscription lifecycle

• The shortcoming of working in silos

• Closing the gaps between TA and People Ops

• Can existing HR functions evolve towards this model?

• A COO’s advice to TA Leaders on proving their strategic value

• What TA can learn from marketing

• The impact of AI and what the future might look like

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcast.

Transription:

Matt Alder: Support for this podcast is provided by Hackajob, a reverse marketplace that actively vets engineers. Hackajob flips the traditional model on its head. Meaning, companies apply to engineers versus candidates applying to jobs, with companies getting an 85% response rate to the candidates they reach out to, as well as exposure to tech talent that directly meets their organization’s diversity objectives. After all, the ability to attract, hire, and retain tech talent from all backgrounds is critical to every organization’s success. Companies such as S&P Global, CarMax, and Sensor Tower are all using Hackajob. So, why not join them? Go to hackajob.com/future to get your free 30-day trial today. That’s Hackajob dotcom slash future. And Hackajob is spelled H-A-C-K-A-J-O-B.

[Recruiting Future Podcast theme]

Presenter: There’s been more of scientific discovery, more of technical advancement, and material progress in your lifetime and mine than in all the ages of history.

Matt Alder: Hi, there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 552 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. The talent acquisition landscape is changing rapidly. 2024 has been difficult for many people in the profession, with many layoffs and an incredibly tough job market for recruiters. At the same time, advances in AI and automation technologies are driving types of change that we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, and post-pandemic labour shortages are still a reality in many talent markets.

All this disruption is forcing employers to think differently about jobs, work, skills and recruiting, creating an incredible opportunity for talent acquisition to illustrate its long-term value to the business. So, what role does TA play in the future, and how can TA leaders prove its strategic value when many of their teams are being downsized?

My guest this week is Jessica Zwaan, COO at Whereby. Jessica is a cutting-edge HR thinker and has written a book detailing how People Ops should be run using product management principles. In our conversation, we talk about the future role of talent acquisition, and Jessica offers practical advice on how TA leaders can prove their strategic value.

Hi, Jessica, and welcome back to the podcast.

Jessica Zwaan: Thank you for having me back. It’s very exciting to be here again.

Matt Alder: It’s an absolute pleasure to have you back on the show. I think you were on quite some time ago when the show was quite a few episodes less than it is now, but great to talk to you again. Could you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Jessica Zwaan: Absolutely. So, my name is Jessica Zwaan. I’m currently the Chief Operating Officer of a company called Whereby. We are a fully remote video communications platform. We create video communications APIs that integrate into products you’re building. So, if you’re building a mental health app or a telehealth app, for example, and you wanted to have video calls built into what you’re building, you would purchase Whereby, and we’d do all of that backend work for you, so that you didn’t have to do all the heavy lifting in your engineering team.

We also have a B to C product that is similar to a Zoom, Microsoft Teams type thing, except obviously, much nicer and easier to use. Of course, goes without saying. I have though, which is why you and I know each other and I’ve spoken on the podcast before, have a background in people operations despite now being in just general operations.
So, I have built my career in People Ops, mainly in Europe and now in the US.

Matt Alder: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve had a really interesting background, haven’t you? Were you a recruiter originally as well?

Jessica Zwaan: I wasn’t really ever a pure recruiter, but I think I was always one of those startup people that did it all.

Matt Alder: Absolutely. So, speaking of People Ops, you recently wrote a great book about it. Tell us about the book. Why did you write it and what do you cover in it?

Jessica Zwaan: Thank you for the kind words, by the way. Yeah, so, I wrote a book recently called Built for People. It was published earlier this year. It is a book all about how to approach your people operations, product management principles in mind. So, it’s really talking about how to think about your people experience as this third product that you’re building. I believe that every company is building three products. One is the product you’re selling to your customers. So, it’s razors, if you’re Harry’s razors or it’s videocoms platforms, if you’re Whereby. That is something that your product engineering team spend an awful lot of time working out how best fits for your ideal customer profile and thinking about the product strategy.

Then you have this investment vehicle that the company exists for within the VC community or private equity or even if you’re bootstrapped, there is still an investment vehicle there that you as a founder of buying ito. And then finally, you have your employee experience, which I analogize to be like a subscription product, like, a wine subscription or some subscription food box, whatever you want to call it. Every month your employees are choosing to subscribe until they don’t and they decide to churn and leave the platform or leave the product when they hand in their resignation.

So, I talk about how to use that analogy to build your people team structurally and philosophically to work like a product team. How to think about things from first principles thinking, how to operate in sprints and design thinking, and yeah, basically how to be maybe a little bit more commercial, I would say, in the way that you approach your people operations, and that’s the philosophy of it.

You also asked why I wrote it, which is, [giggles] I don’t know if anyone has a straightforward answer to this that they’ve written a book. I don’t know what you would say to yours, but I wrote a blog post in 2020 about the idea of People Ops as a product. It obviously struck a chord with quite a lot of people. People really enjoyed reading it and had a lot of questions to ask about it. I think both of our friend of the pod, Lars, he reached out to me and said, “Would you be interested in being introduced to the Kogan Page team? They’d love to hear about potentially you expanding this into a book.” And then, stupidly, I was like, “Yeah, what’s, like, 10 blog posts? It’ll be easy. I’ll just do it on the weekends.”

Of course, two years later, I was writing 1,500 words a week and finally finished it. So, that is, I guess, a really practical reason why I wrote it. But I also just thought people seemed to enjoy it and have a lot of questions, and I wanted to expand a bit more on the writing. So, yeah, it was interesting process.

Matt Alder: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think our first book started as a white paper that got picked up and it expanded from there. Yeah, it is immensely challenging writing a book, but at the same time, it’s such a great way to really think about a methodology like this. I love the subscription idea, because I think that chimes so well with how people think about their jobs and their careers, or how people probably should think about their jobs and their careers.
I want to dive into it in a bit more detail in a second. But before we do, just give us a bit of context, because it’s been a very disruptive year, particularly in the tech sector when it comes to employment and hiring. What are the biggest challenges that you’re seeing in the talent markets at the moment?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah. I think I personally am not a huge fan. It’s in the book as well about really having this huge operational split between TA and People Ops. I think TA has always been so good at actually really what I talk about in my book. Very, very good at thinking about output metrics, really good at this funnel optimization of funnel thinking and being really commercial. If you have a conversation with a TA leader about what they’re tracking, what they’re thinking about, I’ve often found that I get a much more commercial and succinct answer than I do from a lot of People Ops leaders.

I think the last couple of months, businesses have made a mistake of letting go of TA people because they’re not just doing the operational process work, so just filling roles, filling roles.
But there’s actually so much benefit that your TA team has to your entire People Ops journey. So, many great TA leaders are really, really good at understanding. For example, how to assess behaviors when it comes to performance, and how to amalgamate large quantities of feedback and get something fairly quantitative out of it? Sorry, I said qualitative and quantitative mixed up there.

I think businesses at the moment are making really drastic cuts to their recruitment and TA teams, which is, of course, in response to the fact there’s not an awful lot of recruitment going on. But I do actually think that what we’re ending up losing is a lot of the really good product thinking that the TA teams bring to People Ops, and maybe this could have been a better opportunity for us to really lean on bringing those skills into our full People Ops funnel rather than just stripping it all back and focusing on the admin of the People Ops world.

Obviously, the challenges we’re seeing with that at the moment is just the market is really tough for recruiters and I think that there’s a lot of value that they can bring. Maybe businesses aren’t really feeling the pain of that right now, but I think we will start to soon when there’s all of this work that hasn’t been done over this course of time and we have to play catch up for it.

Matt Alder: Yeah. No, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s been a crazy time of hiring lots of recruiters, letting lots of recruiters go, and just the consistency over the years in terms of strategic talent planning, and things like that would just be out the window in many organizations. So, I suppose that brings me on to my next question. So, slotting TA into this People Ops as product structure. What does that look like in terms of data that goes through the model? How does it bring to TA? You’ve touched a bit on the benefits that TA bring to the rest of the business. But how does it fit in and flow through as it were?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah, so, I think people roles, and I call everyone people partner, regardless of whether they’re doing talent or more traditional HR work. You have two sides to your role. One side is the softer advisory work, the discussions that you have with managers when they’re trying to give difficult feedback. It’s speaking to people directly about difficult circumstances they’re having– the work that an AI algorithm can’t take over yet. Yet. That work exists, obviously, in every part of the people operations function.

Talent leaders have to be spending a lot of time having detailed, influencing conversations with hiring managers about what’s going on in the market and understand how to give hard feedback to candidates that really need to hear it, or give constructive candidates to feedback in a way that guides them in the right direction. And people have the same challenges. They have to give feedback to people who need some guidance on performance, give feedback to managers that are maybe having a difficult time in their team, etc., and then advise them on strategic ways forward. That work, I think, remains pretty much unchanged in my model.

The other half of what People Ops and talent people need to be doing, I think, is what I call people operations or more of the product management side of things, and that is building the tools and products that your businesses use throughout the entire employee subscription lifecycle. I think TA folks have a part to play in every single element of that subscription lifecycle. So, I would put a TA person in a squad with People Ops, people that are maybe a little bit more experienced in comp and ben, a little bit more experienced in HRBP advisory work, to work on a project around a compensation philosophy, for example, which I think traditionally has been seen very much as a–

That’s a pure people operations responsibility. TA folks very rarely have very much to do with those kinds of pieces of work. But my argument is actually that the work becomes better and richer if you have somebody that has experience in all different elements of that human operations or the more qualitative piece of work and able to give that feedback back in and say, “I’ve been speaking to people in the market. And actually, a transparent salary framework is something that’s driving a lot of our closed offers. So, I think we should be taking that on board as we build this product.” And then the comp and ben person would be the one that’s bringing in the data piece, and understanding where we need to draw this information from. The HRBP might be writing the policy in a way that the team can really understand it.

That work, I think, always exists, even when there’s no recruitment that needs to happen. That’s what I mean with the challenges that we’re facing at the moment is what we’re seeing is that voice of the person that’s actually out there doing the top of funnel work for your business, really advocating for not only your employer brand, but able to advocate for what’s happening in the market. I do believe that your culture exists within a marketplace, right? That voice at the moment, I think is worryingly missing from a lot of these products that we’re building. That’s what I mean when I think there’s going to be knock on effects in a couple of months, not just because the strategic talent planning hasn’t happened, but because we’re building things without the voice of the person that actually can really advocate for the top of funnel.

Matt Alder: I think that’s really interesting. Really, TA is playing the marketing role in this, isn’t it? It’s like the full marketing role. It’s not just sales and advertising. It’s product fit pricing and all of the intelligence, market research, all those things that a marketing department does that’s really TA’s role in this, isn’t it?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah, absolutely. That’s absolutely the way I think about it is TA is marketing. Your traditional HR teams are either going to be project management or legal or some element of the funnel later on, like, the product lifecycle. But the TA marketing angle is really, really important, because even if your team are all employed and you have no open roles, you are still constantly advertising back to your own team. If you’re selling a product, if you’re thinking about, I don’t know, Zipcar or something like that, if anyone subscribes to Zipcar, I still receive all of their marketing emails. I still receive information telling me, “We should still subscribe even if you’re not driving Zipcar.” And those direct and indirect messages need to come from somewhere in your team. I don’t think at the moment that just having an employee experience person necessarily captures just how broad that marketing role is within the people team.

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So, in terms of structuring something like this, traditional HR has been broken down into very distinct silos for a very long time, lots of people listening will work in organizations where talent management, L&D, talent acquisitions are under some umbrella somewhere, but essentially very, very separate. How do you set something like this up? Does it need to be done from scratch or can an HR function evolve towards it?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah, I think the majority of HR functions can evolve towards this without so much heavy lifting. I’m not a huge fan of the centers of excellence model, even like the Ulrich model necessarily, but the people that I’ve seen and worked with in those models, I think generally understand their shortcomings. And particularly, for businesses under maybe 2,000 people, the patchy nature of work and the lumpy nature of how the work comes out, which is exactly what we’re talking about now.

Like, a couple of months ago, recruiters were absolutely overwhelmed. And now, all of a sudden, we have nothing for them to do, in air quotes. But of course, that’s not the case. And that’s actually one of the biggest shortcomings of this siloed model. People are aware of that. They feel that pain. Whether or not they’re cognizant of it and complaining about it or trying to give the feedback on it, people do feel the pain of, “Goodness me. If you’re a comp and ben person, then performance review process is a really, really intense piece of work.” Whereas if you’re a recruiter, the second you get fundraising, all hell breaks loose. That can’t surely be the way that businesses should be operating, because it’s definitely not the way that things operate in product management teams.

Of course, there’s highs and lows of work depending on what’s happening in the market, but it’s by no means as lumpy as HR teams have managed to build it in. But for me, I think I’ve met so many people in my life. I think sometimes I get the criticism of describing the model and my book and the way that I think things could work better as being that I don’t respect HR teams or I don’t think that HR teams should be structured in the ways that they’ve been structured, because they’re bad in some way, which is just not the case. I have actually a huge amount of respect for HR folks.

I come from this world. So many people that I’ve met actually really get the commercials of the business and want to be more deeply involved in the strategy from beginning to end. And particularly, TA people. I’ve met so many folks that have worked in recruitment that say, “I’d love to be able to give advice on probation process, because I see the same mistakes happening over and over again.” I do so much work on getting great quality feedback and I feel like, it goes nowhere. They have all these great ideas, but these silos have prevented them from doing it. I know a lot of really great TA people that have gone and done coding boot camps to do better interviews for engineers. So, it’s not like they’re not trying to seek the skills that I’m suggesting that HR and TA teams can and should have. I think it’s just that the structure has been so traditionally in place that it’s hard to break it.

I think you can do one of two things. I think you can find your team strengths and say, “Okay, what we’re going to do is we’re going to align you in a role that’s a bit more TA focused, and you in a role that’s a bit more comp and ben focused, and you in a role that’s a bit more L&D knowing that we’re all T shaped.” You’ll be doing multiple things. Maybe some of you will be recruiting at the same time, and some of you won’t and some of you will be doing more HRBP work, and some of you won’t and just accept that it’s going to be a fluid transition until you find out where those strengths work. Or, you can do what I’ve seen some other teams do really effectively, which is, start aligning people in those squad functions and then bringing experts in to really help your team on big spikes of work.

So, for example, if you are doing a big piece around maybe your ESOP or your EMI program, if you haven’t got someone in your team that you confidently say, “Well, they’re a comp and ben person for the next six months,” there’s nothing wrong with bringing somebody in to help upskill your TA team and your people team in this squad formation to say, “While we’re working on this project, everyone’s going to be doing a bit of the building and a bit of the advisory.” We’ve got this consultant that’s coming in for six months to level you up on what needs to be happening, and this person’s going to be the lead because they have the most experience in this space during this time. I think you can shift in that direction over time.

Matt Alder: I think that makes perfect sense. I really share the thoughts you’ve got there on the TA leaders that I speak to, and I’m sure many of the TA leaders are listening to the podcast are very frustrated at the moment, because they are really trying to find ways to prove the strategic value of talent acquisition to their business. Some of that’s to do with the market, some of that’s to do with technology in terms of the fear that lots of TA could be hollowed out and replaced by AI and lots of good things could be lost. So, as a COO, what would your advice be to a TA leader in terms of how they can make that case to the business?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah. I give the same advice most of the time, which is– I feel like for TA leaders, I think it’s always going to be like, yeah, obviously. I really focusing on output metrics and how to solve problems that the business is facing. I actually see this a bit more on the HR side than the TA side. Like you said, I do think the TA teams generally are very, very good at output metrics and focusing more on these marketing esque metrics. But if you can identify a problem that exists within your business, rather than just applying a solution to it at the beginning and saying, “Well, we’re going to implement this tool or we’re going to build a workforce plan for the next five years to give us something to do,” instead, really try and find a problem that’s currently existing that’s chronic, even if it’s further down the funnel than you usually would be comfortable with.

So, for example, if it is probation, don’t be afraid to say, I think there are TA solutions to this and some metrics we can put in place in probation that I think we can produce a project or produce a product or produce a piece of work that will help solve that problem either pretty quickly or a bit further down the path. Don’t be afraid of looking for those output metrics further down the funnel, because that’s something that marketing teams actually do sometimes really effectively in times where there isn’t a huge swell in the market in terms of new business. They will confidently say like, “Well, in that case, what we’re going to do is try to improve our retention or our customer lifetime value rather than just our acquisition metrics.”

I think maybe speaking to your marketing team about that could be really helpful. Say, if there was a down market and you weren’t acquiring a lot of new customers, what metrics would you focus on to try and help the business and see how you can apply that to TA and then partner with the people team to solve those problems together.

Matt Alder: That’s absolutely fantastic advice. I mentioned AI just then. So, what impact does AI have on all of this? How does it benefit or change this approach? What do you think the impact is going to be on People Ops?

Jessica Zwaan: Yeah. I think I’ve got this like wacky. I spoke on a podcast recently. I was like, “This is my hot take.” This is going to be the hot take section of the podcast today, Matt. I think at the moment, there’s a couple of things that are happening, of which AI is one. So, AI is really helpful in alleviating the need for folks to be doing busy administrative repeatable work. That’s not a very controversial statement. If you need to write outreach emails, it can do it 50 times faster than I could ever write an outreach email. There’s the other thing, which is at the moment, and this is, I guess, part of what we’ve already spoken about is there’s an awful lot of really, really talented people out there in the market that are really experienced. And many of them, for the first time in a very long time, are from FAANG companies, really big tech, very experienced folks.

Then the third thing is there’s this big push and very public conversations about companies moving to sustainability and profitability. So, if you have all those three things working together, what you have is roles that are by their nature a bit more senior than they were a couple of years ago, a bit more strategic, maybe a bit more focused on the current planning, resourcing, strategy side of things, and less on the admin repeatability. You have really senior people that have the experience that are ready to get stuck in for potentially a lower salary for a smaller team, or for more exciting mission. And then you have CEOs and founders that are publicly talking about how they’re profitable or moving towards profitability.

I think what that means is we’re going to start seeing people expecting changes in the way that they’re compensated. I personally believe that we’ll start seeing people talking more about higher equity ownership, maybe profit sharing, performance bonuses. I think you’re going to see some really senior teams popping up with a lot more fluidity in the way that they’re staffing their team, so, more consultants, more advisors, and much fewer admins and maybe junior roles. Although, I don’t really believe junior roles will be wiped out. I just think they’ll change like they did when cloud platforms came in.

I think it’s going to have a really interesting and positive effect on the people teams. I think people teams will have to think more strategically, because they’re going to have more strategic colleagues and stakeholders, but also because they themselves are going to be hopefully much more commercial and strategic in and of themselves and not spending so much time on just producing templates and making comms and really having to push the envelope a little bit more.

Matt Alder: Ah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. Final question, and I suppose this is a summary of everything that we’ve talked about so far really, but what do you hope the future looks like? What are things going to be like in two year or three years’ time?

Jessica Zwaan: There was this article, oh, God, years ago now, but it was some chap wrote an article. I think it was in HBR about how people teams of the future were going to be staffed completely by MBAs and management consultants, and then all of the admin would be given to the HR teams that would process payroll, and send outreach emails, and do all the repeatable tasks. I am pretty confident that that future is well and truly not going to happen. I actually think what we’re going to see is what we are seeing now, which is that more and more people leaders and TA leaders will start shifting into broader operational roles that they’ll really start focusing on T-shaped skills and fully knowing the commercials of the business and how that impacts the marketplace that they exist in from a culture perspective and from a USP who is their customer perspective from an employee point of view.

I think that people leaders will really start thinking about much more commercial metrics. We’ll be able to start looking at things like employee lifetime value versus acquisition costs, and thinking about those marketing metrics and how we can influence them and start, I think, becoming the function that we’ve been talking about having a seat at the table, which I hate that sentence so much. I think that now all of the kindling is there for that to finally, I think, really be ignited. I’m starting to see it happen more and more. Like, so many TA and people leaders are moving into COO roles and starting to take over broader responsibilities, and I’m really excited to see where that takes businesses.

Matt Alder: Jessica, thank you very much for talking to me.

Jessica Zwaan: My gosh, it’s my pleasure as always.

Matt Alder: My thanks to Jessica. If you’re a fan of the Recruiting Future podcast, then you will absolutely love our newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast. Not only does it give you the inside track on what’s coming up on the show, you can also find everything from book recommendations to insightful episodes from the archives and first access to new content that helps you to understand where our industry is heading. Sign up now and also get instant access to the recording of my recent webinar on the future of talent acquisition.

Just go to recruitingfuturefeast.com/webinar. That’s recruiting future feast dotcom slash webinar. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. You can find and search all the past episodes @recruitingfuture.com. And don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

[music]

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