#WorkTrends: Build an A Team

Companies want to hire experts who can jump right in on day one and add value to the organization. But that recruiting strategy may be flawed. Could hiring and training inexperienced workers be a better approach?

This week on #WorkTrends, we’re talking to Whitney Johnson. She’s a seasoned leader and business coach and author of three of my favorite books, “Disrupt Yourself,” “Dare, Dream, Do,” and her latest book, “Build an A-Team, Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.”


Johnson is also a coach for Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, a LinkedIn influencer and host of the weekly Disrupt Yourself Podcast.

You can listen to the full episode below or keep reading for this week’s topic. Share your thoughts with us using the hashtag #WorkTrends.

Johnson explains how the S curve can help companies make better hiring decisions.

The S Curve

When Johnson was working with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, they were looking at disruptive innovation using the S curve (popularized in 1962 by Everett Rogers to figure out when an idea is going to get adopted) to decide whether to invest in a company or not. “The big ‘aha’ that I had as we were applying this is that this S curve or learning curve could also help us understand people,” Johnson says. “If you can picture in your mind the bottom of the S, you know that when you first try something new, a lot of time’s going to pass and very little’s going to happen.” And this is what you would expect at the bottom of the S.


However, when you start piecing things together, you’re moving into the knee of the S; this is the steep part where everything is starting to coalesce. You stop feeling discouraged and wondering whether you know what you’re doing. “In fact, now you’re feeling increasingly competent, and with that comes confidence. And this is where you’re fully engaged in the work that you’re doing.”

After two or three years, you get to the top of the S and once again, nothing is happening. “Now it’s not because you don’t know anything, it’s because you know too much: You’ve become a master. And once you become a master, you become bored. So you need to do something new.”

The Organizational S Curve

Johnson says your organization is a collection of learning curves, and you build an A-team by managing where people are on those curves. “At any given time, you want to have 70 percent of your people in that sweet spot, that steep part of the curve,” she says. “You want to have 15 percent of your people at the low end, the ones that are inexperienced, the ones that are a little bit discouraged.” These are the people who ask why you do things a certain way.

She says you also want 15 percent of your people at the high end. They’re not necessarily learning a lot at this point, but they’re the pace-setters. “They’re the people who have this perspective, they’re on the top of the curve and they can give you a sense of what has been done and what hasn’t been done.”

By embracing the S curve, you’ll have an engaged organization where everyone is learning, and this will allow you to be innovative and competitive.

Hiring at the Wrong End of the Curve

Companies should be willing to hire at the bottom of the curve rather than at the top. We’re afraid to hire inexperienced people and train them because we think they will leave. “We know from the data and the research that one of the things that people most prize is being able to be trained,” Johnson says. “When we’re trained, that builds loyalty. So, people who are trained are less likely, not more likely, to leave.”

The Boston-based security company SimpliSafe used this approach. They hired people with no industry experience. “They wanted to train their people in-house — from their call center workers to their engineers.” By taking this approach, they sought to avoid having bored employees, because bored employees get lazy. “So, hire for potential, not for proficiency.”

Continue the conversation. Join us on Twitter (#WorkTrends) for our weekly chat on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 10:30 a.m. Pacific or anywhere in the world you are joining from to discuss this topic and more.

How You Reject a Job Candidate Defines Your Recruitment Strategy

An organization’s HR team can create advocates out of any applicant—even the rejected ones—by ensuring each candidate has a positive experience. But too many organizations ignore, or blunder through the potentially unpleasant part of the recruitment process in which hopeful candidates must be told “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Delivering bad news can be a daunting task, said Diane Nicholas, a consultant at WK Advisors, a division of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Oak Brook, Ill. “When companies fail to provide feedback and close the loop with unsuccessful candidates, they miss out on the opportunity to end the process on a high note and ensure that the candidate walks away with a positive lasting impression.”

When candidates are rejected in a dismissive manner—or worse, if they never hear back from an employer at all—that news travels fast, said Brin McCagg, the CEO and founder of RecruitiFi, a crowd-based recruiting platform in New York City. “Whether it’s through social media or word of mouth, potential candidates will get wind of your hiring process. Even a generic response is better than no response.”

Experts agree that HR should be trained to consider the candidate rejection process a vital piece of the company’s recruitment strategy, with immediate and long-term benefits to the company, if done well.

“Your response is a direct reflection on your company’s brand,” McCagg said. “There’s plenty of reasons to put as much time into considering your rejection strategy as you put into your hiring strategy.”

The Medium Is the Message

Experts agree that if candidates have taken the time to actually interview for a role, they deserve a phone call. “You owe it to finalists to speak with them directly,” said Chad MacRae, the founder of Recruiting Social, a social recruiting firm based in Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada. “Don’t hide behind an e-mail. When the candidate answers the phone, inform them you have an update, ask if it’s a good time to speak, and if it is, rip the Band-Aid off and get it out.”

Nicole Belyna, SHRM-SCP, strategic recruitment business partner at Thompson Creek Window Company, in Lanham, Md., lives by hard rules when turning down candidates. If they have interviewed in person, they receive a call. If they went through a phone screen they receive a personalized e-mail. If they’ve applied, but did not interview, they receive a general e-mail letting them know that they were not selected. “I have never declined a candidate via text message,” Belyna said. “Call me old fashioned.”

To Be Safe or to Be Honest?

There are varying schools of thought on what recruiters should say to rejected candidates—for example, whether to give a general, neutral reason for not moving forward or instead offer constructive feedback.

The safe option goes like this: “Thank you for applying, but we have decided to pursue other applicants.” This one is popular with HR and legal counsel because it’s easy to maintain, and keeps recruiters from getting into uncomfortable arguments with candidates or making inadvertent, discriminatory statements.

Providing specific reasons for rejection or trying to coach the candidate is admirable, and some applicants may be grateful for the honest feedback. But the approach can backfire when the applicant debates the decision or uses what was said to file an employment complaint.

“I find that the best way to communicate rejection is to be honest and straightforward,” McCagg said. “Be truthful with candidates and they’ll appreciate your honesty. There’s no need to string them along or tell them that a position may open up in the future. If that’s true, fine. If you’re just sugarcoating their rejection, then it’s the wrong way to go about it.”

Nicholas said that while she thinks it’s important to give feedback, there are times when recruiters should hold back, especially if candidates are being rejected for something of a personal nature. “I tell them they have a great background, but they don’t have a certain piece of experience that the employer was looking for,” Nicholas said. “I always leave them with hope. I tell them if something changes, I’ll be back in touch. I emphasize the positive and minimize the criticism.”

McCagg sees every rejection as a chance for candidates to improve. “Maybe they’re missing the necessary training or certificates, maybe they have a number of typos in their resume. If you find certain deficiencies, you can give them a tip or pointer on how to learn and grow for next time. Just make sure you’re constructive about it.”

MacRae advised those in the hiring process to debrief following interviews and record each candidate’s pros and cons in the organization’s applicant tracking system. “That way recruiters have it at their fingertips when they follow up with candidates,” he said.

Danielle Marchant, a partner at Recruiting Social, explained that if communication with the candidate was open, honest and authentic throughout the hiring process, rejection will be less uncomfortable. “If you’ve nurtured your relationship along the way, there won’t be as much recoil. They’ll understand you see their value even if you’re not moving forward.”

Dealing with Pushback

Recruiters delivering bad news to candidates must be prepared to deal with emotional and confrontational reactions. Inevitably, candidates want to know why they were rejected.

Belyna said that in her experience, more candidates ask for a second chance. But some can grow nasty. “I had one candidate become very nasty and irate. He responded to my e-mail with a phone call to tell me what an unprofessional idiot I was for not selecting him. He demanded that I have someone else interview him. He went on to tell me that I had made a big mistake and he was going to contact my boss and CEO. He never called, and coincidentally, he recently asked to connect with me on LinkedIn.”

Nicholas tells rejected candidates: ” ‘I understand this is hard to accept, but ultimately do you really want to work at an organization where they feel you don’t fit?’ I let them vent for a while, especially if they are very emotional, then I come back and empathize with them and get them back on track to focus on something else.”

She finds that offering a respectful decline will elicit a “thank you” from candidates more often than not. “Most are grateful that you got back in touch, because so many times they are left hanging, and they have no idea whether or not they are moving forward.”

Thinking of the Future

For Belyna, ending on a high note is nonnegotiable. “If I feel a candidate may be better suited for another role in my organization, I will talk to them about it,” she said. “If there isn’t a relevant opening, then I encourage them to stay in touch via e-mail and LinkedIn.”

Recruiters can attest to this strategy paying off. “Years ago, I declined a candidate because he wasn’t right for the role I was filling,” MacRae explained. “But twelve years later, I hired him for a different role, at a different company, in a different city. This time, he was the right person.”

This post originally appeared on SHRM.

#WorkTrends Preview: High Velocity Recruiting Is Lean Hiring

In today’s very competitive hiring environment, brands need to have a solid strategy for talent acquisition with forethought to the retention of desired talent. Speed and accuracy of culture fit are essentials parts of the strategy, but what happens when companies take too much time to assess their candidates?

On Wednesday, March 8,  Scott Wintrip, author of the highly anticipated book High Velocity Hiring: How to Hire Top Talent in an Instant joins host Meghan M. Biro on #WorkTrends to discuss how companies can hire quickly and still maintain high standards for the acquisition of desirable talent.

High Velocity Recruiting Is Lean Hiring

#WorkTrends Logo Design

Join Scott and me on our LIVE online podcast Wednesday, Mar 8 — 1 pm ET / 10 am PT.

Immediately following the podcast, the team invites the TalentCulture community over to the #WorkTrends Twitter stream to continue the discussion. We encourage everyone with a Twitter account to participate as we gather for a live chat, focused on these related questions:

Q1: How can brands hire the right talent quickly?  #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Q2: Why should leadership consider faster hiring a strategic imperative? #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Q3: What impact does a long interview process have on candidate experience #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Don’t want to wait until next Wednesday to join the conversation? You don’t have to. I invite you to check out the #WorkTrends Twitter feed, our TalentCulture World of Work Community LinkedIn group, and our TalentCulture G+ community. Share your questions, ideas and opinions with our awesome community any time. See you there!

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