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Ep 565: Building A Strategic TA Function

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Talent Acquisition is in a state of fast-accelerating disruption, and it has never been more critical for TA leaders to demonstrate the strategic value of their function. However, in the current volatile environment, many organisations are still struggling to get the essential elements of recruiting right.

So what should TA teams be focusing on to make sure they are fit for purpose in an uncertain future?

My guests this week are Kurt Bridge and Christian Le Loux from Macramé Consulting. Kurt and Christian are both highly experienced TA Leaders. They have much advice to share on building the right foundations for talent acquisition and implementing effective data-driven recruiting.

In the interview, we discuss:

• How do TA Teams innovate

• Fractional leadership and scalability

• Building a foundation to be strategic

• Operating models, workflows and experience

• What is data-driven recruiting?

• Proving strategic value to the organisation

• Combating short-termism

• What will TA look like in the future?

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.

Transcript:

Matt: Support for this podcast is provided by Paradox, the conversational AI company, helping global talent acquisition teams at Unilever, McDonald’s and CVS Health get recruiting work done faster.

Let’s face it. Talent acquisition is full of boring administrative tasks that drag the hiring process down and create frustrating experiences for everyone. Paradox’s AI assistant Olivia is shaking up that paradigm, automating things like applicant screening, interview scheduling, and candidate Q&A, so recruiters can spend more time with people, not software. Curious how Olivia can work for your team? Then visit paradox.ai to learn more.

Matt: Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 565 of the Recruiting Future podcast.

Talent Acquisition is in a state of fast-accelerating disruption, and it has never been more critical for TA leaders to demonstrate the strategic value of their function. However, in the current volatile environment, many organisations are still struggling to get the essential elements of recruiting right.

So what should TA teams be focusing on to make sure they are fit for purpose in an uncertain future?

My guests this week are Kurt Bridge and Christian Le Loux from Macramé Consulting. Kurt and Christian are both highly experienced TA Leaders. They have much advice to share on building the right foundations for talent acquisition and implementing effective data-driven recruiting.

Matt: Hi, Kurt. Hi, Christian. Welcome to the podcast. Please could you introduce yourselves and tell everyone what you do?

Kurt: Hey, Matt. It’s Kurt. We really appreciate you having you on your show. Looking forward to the conversation. So I’m the cofounder and head of search business here at Macramé Consulting. Believing and dreaming[?] everything talent acquisition in APAC for the last 20 years at Red Hat, Dell EMC and Cisco. Myself and Christian has recently set up Macramé consulting. So three main areas of focus, consulting, so helping organizations increase their effectiveness of a TA function.

Macramé search, as the name says, so running searches and doing deconstructed searches across the APAC region. What we’re also seeing a lot of growth in at the moment is Macramé embedded. We’re looking at organizations who are scaling [unintelligible 00:02:55] and looking at plug and play or embedded solutions, which allows them to do that a lot more cost effectively. So great to be here, looking forward to the conversation.

Matt: And Christian?

Christian: Thank you. It’s Christian Le Loux here. Lovely to be here, Matt, and thanks for the time. Originally from Australia, shifted to Singapore about nine years ago now. For me, a bit of a TA tragic, to be honest, I’ve been in the field for quite some time, nearly two decades. My previous role before joining forces with Kurt at Macramé Consulting was at Microsoft, where I led quite a large team across the Asia region. Focused on talent sourcing, talent intelligence, talent analytics, but also from a delivery perspective, we, 150 strong and accountable for upwards of 5,000 hires a year.

Prior to that, I spent five years at Apple, initially on the retail side, helping with their retail expansion across greater China. So again, developing their sourcing function, their sourcing strategy, bringing in team members, connecting it with the CRM. And prior to that, I’ve worked in professional services, I’ve worked in engineering, I’ve worked in government, I’ve worked in education. But many, many moons ago, when I first got into talent acquisition, I cut my teeth in agency and then RPO. So again, thanks for having us here today.

Matt: Fantastic stuff, and great to have both of you on the show. Now, I always start with a question about the market. We’ve had lots of information and opinion and insights into what’s going on in the US and what’s going on in Europe. But this year, not much insight from APAC. So delighted to be able to ask you about the trends and the challenges that you’re seeing in APAC talent markets at the moment.

Kurt: Yeah. Look, it’s a fascinating market, Matt, obviously one which we both enjoy, obviously you’re living here for so many years. Obviously, a huge region have over half the world’s population living here, extremely diverse, so 60 different countries make up the APAC region. Over 2,000 different spoken languages and dialects, many culturally different norms, nuances. I think when it comes to hiring, look, it certainly, we haven’t escaped the trends which have happened globally. But I think when you look at the APAC region and you look at the challenges around, obviously, the culture, the languages, the maturity levels, it makes it a really interesting place to be in.

I think for those of us who are operating here and certainly for those who work for large global organizations, I think there’s a big educational piece, what does work here, what doesn’t work here? Example of this would be, we were talking to a sales leader in the US last week, and they’re looking to expand and bring over a sales leader. Original plan was to have somebody covering Japan, ASEAN and China. When you trim this down, it is actually essentially about 12 different countries we’d be covering, all with our own languages, all with very different levels of maturity. So I think providing these insights, providing this education around what works and what doesn’t work in APAC is absolutely essential. So I think localization, dealing with the cultural nuances, having an affinity for those is absolutely key to how companies operate and succeed in APAC.

Matt: Now, this year, we’ve seen layoffs and downsizing in talent acquisition all over the world, it seems. They started to happen very quickly. I know that they’re still happening. There’s some talk that the market might be picking up in certain geographies. This comes on the back of a period where companies couldn’t hire enough recruiters. So there’s obviously not much long-term thinking or strategy behind what’s going on. So what are the unintended consequences of these TA layoffs that you’re seeing?

Kurt: Yeah, it’s a great question. So as I already said, we haven’t avoided unfortunately, but the big large TA layoffs here, obviously, especially in the back-office functions in APAC. But what I think is different with this downturn, certainly different from what I’ve seen before is we’re seeing a lot of senior leadership being laid off. Not only in TA, but within HR or operations or branding. I think this creates a big challenge, certainly about strategy level. I know from talking to a lot of TA leaders who have fortunately remained in their roles. They’re struggling, there’s a lot of pressure on them, generally under resourced at the moment. I think at times like this they’re getting forced very much into a transactional play.

So I think the question probably, Matt, at the moment is how do companies grow out of this? How do we get that innovation engine running again? How do we get it revved up again? As we said earlier, one of the areas we’re seeing a lot of demand at the moment is around fractional leadership. So if you like guns to hire or guns to rent, so how do you bring in expertise on a demand basis rather than committing to full time headcounts? What we’re also seeing is smart companies looking more to more embedded or RPO solutions as they plan for the future and they plan maybe for hiring spikes towards next year. So more fixed cost allowing more for scalability up and down. I think certainly for the companies which were burnt or had to lay off, unfortunately, a lot of people during the downtime, this is a really smart move moving forward. So yeah, they are some of the key things we’re seeing and some of maybe the differences which are happening this time around.

Matt: We talked about strategy– Senior TA people being laid off companies struggling to move forward and be strategic. There’s always lots and lots of talk about innovation and the future, and obviously, that’s what this podcast is pretty much all about. But do you think that most TA functions have got the basics right, and what’s lacking in terms of building that foundation to innovate and be strategic and move forward?

Christian: Yeah, I’ll take that one Matt. I love that question. It is very near and dear to my heart, in fact. You’d like to think in a galaxy not too far away a lot of TA functions are optimized are living at the bleeding edge of talent acquisition. Unfortunately, and certainly through my experience and the more I work with Kurt, his experience in certainly some of the client that we work with today, I think in a word, the answer is no. TA functions don’t have the basics right, which for me remains surprising and somewhat perplexing certainly in the year 2023.

I think as a discipline, TA seems to want to keep reinventing itself, chasing new sound block of trend. The recruiting fundamentals and the value of the function really haven’t changed much over the time. It’s about connecting people, the old adage of right person, right role at the right time. We seem to want to overcomplicate rather simplify. I think interestingly, the AI discussion that’s rampant at the moment. We are all tagging ourselves to that, and what will the future be with AI, and will it make recruiters roles redundant, what will it replace in part of the process? I think a lot of the time we’re asking the wrong questions, do we have our own foundations right? Liken it to maybe analogy of building a structure, building a building. If the foundations are right, we can continue to build up, we can level up, we can also place things around at the complement. But if we don’t get the foundations right and they’re wobbly, it makes it much harder to withstand the storm. I think, suffice to say, in the current environment, TA globally is certainly weathering a very big storm.

And so perhaps, a bit of a definition and maybe more aptly put in terms of the basics is, what is foundational recruiting? For me, it’s all of the things that allow for the structure to lead to great delivery, to lead to great reporting and analysis. It’s that entire recruiting lifecycle. So it’s things like old structure, operating model, role definitions, KPIs and metrics, processes, workflows, systems tools and reporting, maybe more pronounced and amplified post pandemic is the concept of experience and providing the right experience to each and every persona that interact throughout that recruitment lifecycle. You asked the question, is it hard to optimize or why is it hard to optimize? It could be a question of prioritization competing agendas. Perhaps, it’s more a matter of time or the money investment. I think in most cases, it certainly could be due to the underlying behaviors of the team members themselves, the sources, the recruiters and the TA leaders.

There’s a lot there to unpack, but perhaps, a quick example. Everybody has an ATS, and the people that use the ATS every day, they complain about it, “It’s clunky. It doesn’t have great search functionality. Profiles are hard to find. Sharing with the managers,” and the list goes on. As a result, we see recruiters spend as little time as possible in the ATS. The outcome, simply poor data integrity and hygiene, workflows that are used more like a choose your own adventure story and ultimately a significant number of missed opportunities with respect to our direct applicants. And so I’ve seen in companies up to maybe 70% of direct applicants and referrals just not actioned. They’re not reviewed, they’re not screened, they’re certainly not interviewed, they’re left on the shelf. Maybe that’s because we’re time poor, maybe that’s because we have ace candidates in the pocket, but there are very little instances and times when that’s truly the case. And so I say we’re time poor and don’t have time to do that.

But when we actually lift the lid and go and do some very simple analysis of the people that are warm, that are attached to the company, that are directly applying, there are people there that do suit the needs that are being called out in terms of skills or background or experience from the hiring teams, but we’re just not getting there. For me, that’s the ultimate goldmine at the end of the ATS rainbow. We ignore it. That for me is basics. That’s within arm’s reach. We don’t need AI, we don’t need a lot of money, we don’t have a lot of time to go in and properly vet those individuals and bring them to the fore. And so one example of many, but ATS for me in the context of foundational recruiting and the culture that should permeate through that delivery team simply isn’t there and simply isn’t prioritized.

Matt: I think that’s interesting, particularly in terms of companies seeking to have a great candidate experience, but actually, that’s being undone by some fundamentals that aren’t in place elsewhere, for example, if you’re just ignoring people who’ve applied or effectively ignoring people who’ve applied. You also mentioned data there. Keen to get your views on the role of data in this and your definition of data driven recruiting.

Christian: It’s a hot topic as well. How to use data to create efficiencies, how do you transform data into insights? We’re getting that question from a lot of our clients at the moment. We’ve actually put a working series together, some training and some workshops for clients. But let’s start with our definition. We thought about this, and here’s one that I prepared earlier. Data driven recruiting is an approach to the recruiting process that relies on the systematic collection, analysis, and utilization of data and metrics to make informed and strategic hiring decisions. It involves leveraging quantitative and qualitative data to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of recruiting efforts, enhance the candidate experience, and ultimately drive better hiring outcomes for an organization. Okay. So it’s just data. Yes? Well, no.

When you actually start to think about what’s involved in collecting the data, managing the data, assessing the data, transforming the data, there’s a lot there. It’s not necessarily a skill set that sits or rests within the current TA structure. We’re often looking to bring those skills in from the HRBI team. Perhaps, somebody in the TA Ops team is very adept with managing data. But really, it’s a full-time job, or could be a series of full-time jobs to get it right. And so what we’re really thinking here is, “Well, why do I need data and how do I use it in the recruiting process?” The answer is actually quite simple. The first trick we often miss, unfortunately, is data integrity and data hygiene. Again, it comes back to those behaviors. And so the inputs are testament to the outputs.

And so if we don’t have a team that has a foundational recruiting culture that is dotting Is, that is crossing Ts, we end up with very disparate systems, very disparate processes. There’s no way of collating, and ultimately you end up with recruiters sitting on their desktop opening up their Excel spreadsheet to run a search. And so there’s data, but it’s not data driven. It’s not transforming it. And so how would we consider data driven recruiting in the current context? Well, we think about all of the points that data exists, internal systems, external systems. The way that we bring that to the fore, the way that we clean it, the way that we make it accessible, the way that again we transform it for transform it for audience specific interactions to highlight pain points, challenges, opportunities, where the funnel is strong, where the funnel is weak, where we’re making the right hiring decisions and where we may be making the wrong hiring decisions.

I think, again, not to oversimplify, but the data is there, and so you need the requisite time to go in and again make it clean and ultimately accessible. And then you need an overlay. That could be a dashboard, it could be a Power BI, it could be a Tableau. Once you start to get that data into the system, you can actually start to see relationships that you couldn’t see before and you can automate a lot of that. Some of the companies that I’ve worked with have been, I would say, very much on the front foot had the tools in play, had the skills across the organization, albeit they didn’t exist within TA. We’re able to take data from the ATS, the CRM, the HRIS, put it within a Power BI system, and start to really see what are the insights that we want to drive. And so then and only then, can you start to inform the hiring teams, the HR counterparts, all the people that rely on us as talent acquisition professionals to be the subject matter experts. And that’s again, something that we tend to miss.

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[00:19:53]

Matt: Are there organizations that aren’t doing this? Because it sounds like a pretty obvious step to take. Appreciate that many people don’t have the specialist resource to do this. But is it something that a lot of organizations aren’t doing?

Christian: Unfortunately, it is. We see iteration upon iteration of a new workflow, a new process. A lot of that obviously reveals data or requires the input of data. It’s only as good as the behaviors of the team that are charged with the inputs themselves. There’s a very interesting nexus of saying, “Well, I can build the mothership. I can build the death star. But if people aren’t going to want to ride it or quite could to be part of it, then it often becomes moot.” And so yes, we continue to iterate, but we don’t get to that final output, and so it breaks down. Especially in large multinationals where you’ve got a lot of legacy systems, there’s high complexity, and people are time poor, and so they opt for the path of least resistance.

I describe it as very basic and very simple. Why couldn’t you just go and get all the data, and overlay it with a nice dashboard, and train the team on how to use those outputs and say, “Here are the one, two, threes of how to consult to your hiring teams and the business leaders?” But I’ve been on journeys where that’s taken two years. Half of that time was just to get access to the data. And so that’s part of Kurt’s experience and my experience. And so there’s a lot of negotiation through that. Teams within the organization want to maintain degrees of control over that data. They don’t want any kind of built in obsolescence to how they’re looking at it. But often those teams that are charged with the data management aren’t in the field, they’re not talent acquisition professionals. And so there’s a mismatch with what they’re producing to what the real needs of the teams are in terms of reporting. Combine that with a lethargy or time poorness, however you want to describe it, and we just seem to take one step forward and two steps back.

Matt: One of the biggest frustrations that I’ve heard from TA leaders this year is the difficulties they have in proving their strategic value to the organization. This has really come to the fore with the layoffs that are being made that do feel like organizations taking a very short-term view when it comes to recruiting and talent acquisition, and what talent acquisition does and what it’s for. What would your advice be to TA leaders listening in terms of how they can prove that strategic long-term value to their organization?

Kurt: So look, I think there’s a maturity model. Certainly, when you look at TA functions and obviously, a lot which Christian just talked about there. You know we often talk about this Nirvana or of everything squeaky clean and we’re after going after all the shiny new objects. As we said, getting the fundamentals is absolutely key and how you build on those. But I think when we look at the maturity model and we call it TA[?] 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, but I think if you look at the evolution of talent acquisition, let’s face it– Going back 15 years ago, obviously, it was all agency outsourced. And then LinkedIn came around. So it’s all great. We can save some money here, and reduce our costs from agencies, and build out an internal talent team. So those basics, very basics, is what we call TA 1.0. Saving money for the business, putting in some processes, probably an ATS, etc.

So TA 2.0 is obviously the more sophisticated. We’re getting more sophisticated here, so you’re saving money externally, you’re building out EVPs, you’re doing CRMs, looking at passive candidates, and probably having a little bit better measurement of success. But I think where strategic value comes from and where this proverbial invite to the leadership table comes from– I guess the magic is probably in TA 3.0. That’s very much what Christian just talked about. But having really clean data and being able to provide insights from that, and that’s absolutely key. We’ve written a few posts recently about keeping your leadership awake with data. What is a business strategy? What are you trying to solve? What is future talent? What does that look like? How to build future ready talents within your CRM, etc., is absolutely key, but also– So certainly that’s one, but a huge focus which should be for any TA leader.

Then I think other things we would say, obviously we’re very outbound focused in many ways, and we get the wreck and we jump on LinkedIn, and we do some headhunting. But I think obviously, as Christian mentioned, you have an ATS and more mature companies have thousands of people in there, how do we use that more effectively? But also, there’s a big move towards, and especially, obviously in resource when we’re resource stricken times like we have at the moment where, how do we create better internal talent marketplaces? I think a lot of this stuff is skill-based, focus on hiring more for potential than experiences, that takes a really, I don’t know, call it call strategic, but mature TA function to start working highly effectively across many different divisions. So having this wide lens partnering with your finance, with your HR, your marketing team, obviously your business, and really creating an overall view of a collective insights which allows you to upshoot the leadership team to future preferred organization.

We could talk for hours about that type of stuff, but the quality of your hiring or how tenured people are in their roles or attrition, etc. But I think the TA leaders of future are those who can work across all those different functions and pull all that insights together and provide that sort of business surfing, so I think they’re pretty key. I don’t know, Christian, have you got anything to add to that?

Christian: We spend too much time in a reactive model. We need to be more proactive, and so we can’t wait for the business or HR to define the strategy. We need to be part of that. I often say, we need to shift and transition from in service of to in partnership with how do you do that. You become a true consultant from the vantage point of talent acquisition to deliver those insights, to help inform the strategy, and ultimately make better hiring decisions. And so the ATS example is a great one. But we do, we see it every day. We’ll come to a hiring brief. We’ll ask, “What you need? Would you like fries with that?” Ignoring everything that’s within the arm’s reach, and then we go zero-sum approach.

We go out and we start an external search, we go to LinkedIn and we spend a week doing it. We come back and we realize that half the people that we’ve identified as suitable are already within the ATS, they’re already [unintelligible 00:26:47], they’re already gauged, perhaps they’ve already gone through a number of processes and have been deemed suitable for hire. So think about, again, coming from a point of simplicity, but turning up to that hiring brief, already have done the analysis, and have not just benchmark candidates, but candidates that are ready to interview. Doing that through ATS overlay of a Power BI, again, it’s easy, the search might take three minutes to four minutes rather than the week or 10 days that it would take for a more traditional search.

Instead of asking the hiring manager, “Well, tell me about the role. What do you need?” You already know what the role requires. You’ve hired against that for the last 6 months, 12 months, 18 months. And you say, “I don’t need to know about the role. I need you to open your calendar and find me some slots to schedule interviews for these five people.” They are the best, your hiring managers have already met with them in the past and they’ve deemed them suitable, they’re diverse, they’re from compete organizations, and we’re ready to rumble. We don’t do that. We’re looking in the wrong spots. And so we’re one hand tied behind our backs. And for me, it comes down to that reactive time poor focusing on the wrong pieces of the puzzle or the wrong outcomes, when we should be looking for shortcuts and the ability to compress that process into a better outcome through data driven recruiting.

Matt: So a final question to both of you. Huge amounts of hype about AI this year, and a lot of the short-term predictions haven’t come true yet. However, it is very clear that it’s a very disruptive medium to long-term force and the implications are enormous. What do you think TA is going to look like in this new AI driven age?

Kurt: Creativity, innovation, driving the value is obviously key, as we mentioned, to moving forward. AI will maybe get you 60% or 70% there. But as many people say, AI only gets you to good, it doesn’t get you to great. So I think if we’re in a world whereby everybody’s using AI for marketing comms and to push out JDs, we’re going to be in a world of just average very, very quickly. Everyone using the same content. So I think we say, obviously AI is going to help productivity and give us more time back, which is a fantastic thing to have. Just talking about some of the things we’ve mentioned earlier, we are time poor, extremely time poor.

But I think going back to the other point, what is it going to be? What drives the difference? It’s creativity, innovation, and whatever that looks like. There’s a whole list of things you could talk about, Matt, but I think it’s going from not good to great and having a time to do that which I think AI will allow that. So yeah, that’s where I’m at.

Christian: I agree with those sentiments. I think, for me, AI increasingly becomes more of an automation and efficiency play. AI is not new. AI is part of the emails we send. It’s part of the Netflix that we watch. I think with its current iteration and all the hype around ChatGPT, okay, great, what does that allow you to do? Write something, create prompts. Again, it’s getting to the output much more quickly. I think Kurt touched on there. Anything that provides sources to recruiters, TA leaders with more time back to focus on the high value tasks, the meaningful interactions with candidates with hiring managers and stakeholders is only going to benefit TA. It’s not going to take anything away.

But to an earlier point, you need the requisite skills. And so undertaking a huge AI project, we’ve got to bolt it to the existing ATS, CRM. That’s very clunky. Okay, there are tools like Beamery, there are tools like Eightfold, there are tools like Maya. I love Maya as it is a conversational AI. Been reading a lot about that of late. But again, it comes down to providing time back. And so yeah, you can get to the midpoint or the three-quarter way point much quicker, but it’s how you use those data points. You could sit there manually and get to the right outcome or even the same outputs in terms of the data that you’re analyzing. But AI doesn’t sleep. And so think about how many interactions conversational AI tool like Maya can be having with your candidates helping them feel seen and heard. I’m almost paraphrasing from a recent [unintelligible 00:31:06] article. Then you come to the office and you’ve effectively, as a company engaged 300, 400, maybe in the thousands of candidates that feel much more attached, their stickiness to your brand, rather than sitting in that black hole and never hearing from a recruiter again.

So a pragmatic approach is going to best. I think the hype dies down and we see what’s left. There are some great tools coming out, there are some great again efficiency and automation plays, but the leaders of these organizations need to be making those decisions on behalf of the team, and they need to be helping them. Again, probably a conversation at the time of the compliance aspect around leveraging AI within the recruiting model as it stands today. So I’m in favor of it, but I definitely recommend a pragmatic approach not to get swept away with the sound bite that is AI.

Matt: Christian, Kurt, thank you very much for joining me.

Christian: Thanks, Matt.

Kurt: Thanks, Matt. Pleasure. Absolute pleasure.

Matt: My thanks to Kurt and Christian. If you’re a fan of the Recruiting Future podcast, then you will absolutely love our monthly 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 get first access to new content that will help you understand where our industry is heading. For a limited time, subscribe to the Recruiting Future Feast newsletter and get instant access to the video recording of the recent Remixed Webinar on AI and Talent acquisition, featuring some of the smartest thinkers in the industry. Just go to mattalder.me/webinar to sign up. That’s Matt Alder dotme slash Webinar.

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. You can find and search all the past episodes at 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.

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