by Rupnarayan Bose

The complaint that there is a tremendous shortage of skilled/qualified/good people is heard all too frequently from those who are on the lookout for suitable people to employ. Yet, I see around me qualified people not getting the opportunities they deserve. The fault, as the saying goes, lies somewhere in between. The following true incident may provide some insight into this paradoxical situation.  

This story has its beginning in early 1999 when a front-line commercial bank in East Africa appointed a London based, globally reputed, executive placement firm to recruit a managing director-cum-CEO for itself. Three applicants were short-listed. They were invited to visit East Africa separately, and individually meet the members of the board of the bank. One of the three, an American, was finally selected to head the bank. He assumed office in September 1999.

Within a fortnight of taking charge, an e-mail went out from his desk to everyone in the bank. The subject line read: “Stop the music”. In his message to all employees, the new managing director asked everyone to refrain from making new demands on him for decisions on one thing or another. His message essentially was: no new customers, no new business, no new advances, no new contacts, no new individual strategies and no new initiatives. He asked everyone to focus on first strengthening the foundation of the organisation and gearing up its infrastructure before going out to build business. (Let me add here that the bank was not on fire. Its financials were sound; it was already running quite well when he joined the bank.)

Committees were formed to review, re-think, re-strategise, restructure, re-organise and re-build an uniform, focused corporate structure. Meetings were seen to be held every day, at almost every corner of the head office. One general manager was removed from heading operations to writing operation manuals. The HR manager was instructed to come up with a totally new HR policy document for the bank. Others were similarly engaged.

So it went on for months. “No isolated, ad-hoc new initiatives till we – as an organization – are ready in all respects” was the message that went out over and over again. In one instance, the treasury department was pulled up and berated for grabbing a simple inward remittance business of around a million dollars that came their way (who could blame them!). Reason? The bank was yet to finalise and formally approve its marketing and business policies.

Business, income, and profitability plummeted. Months down the line the staff, the customers, and the market – everyone was confused. After drifting aimlessly for some time, senior executives began to leave. Finally, the board of the bank acted. The same board that had appointed him a little more than a year ago, asked him to resign.

What had gone wrong? Primarily, three things. One, the candidate did have banking experience, but that was gained only in highly developed countries – far removed from the environs of countries like Africa. Second, his banking experience was dated. For, he had been away from practical, hard-core commercial banking, working only as a consultant attached to a number of consulting firms for the last 20 years. Three, unfortunately for him and for the bank, he was just not able to take off the hat of a ‘consultant’ that he had been wearing for the past 20 years. He failed to see himself as the bank’s chief executive and the ship’s captain.

This begs the next question: Who had gone wrong? To start with, the executive search firm. The candidate had only himself and his experience to offer, which I am sure he did. It was actually the job of the recruiting agency, mandated by the bank concerned, to determine the candidate’s suitability for the job. It failed in its duty to do so. The consulting agency’s failure to select the person with the right profile and attitude was further compounded by the bank’s board. It tried to select a CEO for the bank without having a single person on its own board with a minimal, or passing, knowledge of commercial banking. Even though the board members met the short-listed candidates face to face, it failed to appropriately evaluate the experience or the psychological profile of the candidates.

Thus, a top-rung executive search firm made a glaring error in discharging its obligations. On its part, the bank’s board also attempted to achieve something it was not equipped to do, or was capable of doing.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that we hear a never-ending lament about perennial shortage of ‘the right people’? Most employers, unfortunately, expect ‘the right people’ to be available ‘off-the-shelf’ – tailor made, custom built, ready-to-use, able to ‘hit the ground running’. That is rarely the case – even with senior executives. Everybody needs ‘breaking in’. However, for argument’s sake, even if we agree for a moment that candidates were like ready-to-eat, pre-cooked food (any thought about who was supposed to do the ‘pre-cooking’?), my experience tells me that the fault lies more with those who are directly involved with the recruitment game. In reality, good people – yes, the ‘right ones’ – are available, in sufficient numbers too. Most of us do not know how to identify them.

Take the case of the placement agencies. Ideally speaking, on getting an assignment to fill up a vacancy, the agency ought to first do its homework well. Among other things, it should strive to understand the organization and its work culture, its style of management, performance parameters, how success is measured within the organization, the job profile, the profile of the person most suited for the job, the career path, etc. For, these issues are of great importance to the prospective candidate, and hence, to the organization, if the marriage is to be a success.

Another error that most placement consultants and personnel managers commit is in not spending some time and effort to build up a ‘candidate profile’. What sort of people are they really looking for? What attitude does the position demand? They fail to realize that the attitudes of people at various positions differ widely – from one organization to another, from one position to another. For example, does the organization need an opening batsman or a middle order player? Even for the opening batsman – would he be playing in a test match or in one-dayers? Their styles and requirements will, no doubt, differ.

Unfortunately, majority of the placement consultants turn out to be only ‘head hunters’, literally. Like the one in the story that I began this article with, the ‘head-hunters’ believe that their business is only about pulling people out of one job and placing him in another, and pocketing the search fee. They do not do the home work that is essential in this kind of business. Accountability is, therefore, virtually non-existent.

Another area that does not get its due attention is the proper analysis of CVs received. Here too, those responsible fail badly. We read tomes on how to write effective CVs. Never once have I heard about developing the skills required to properly ‘read’ (i.e. interpret) a CV. The HR Manager, the personnel manager, or the consultant in charge of the client portfolio in a placement agency – they generally delegate the responsibility to sort out and short-list candidates to a junior staff who, more often than not, is ill-equipped to do the job. He has little idea about the requirements of the job, the required profile of the candidate, or is short on the skills required to separate the wheat from the chaff. For all one knows, a good candidate could get the short-shrift at this stage itself. I have seen it happen far too many times to be convinced otherwise.

There are a number of search firms who claim to be sector specific. But rarely do they have on their rolls top level, highly experienced professionals who are simultaneously skilled in the art of ‘reading’ CVs, and in interviewing potential recruits for a specialized position. Do these professionals ever do the short-listing themselves? During interviews, do the head-hunters look for only the minimum fit, or for the best possible candidate, and no compromises? At what stage do the placement consultants begin to look for other attributes in the candidates, viz. their IQ, their EQ (emotional quotient), their ability to work in a team environment, that fire in the belly, originality, latent leadership qualities, and so on? At what stage does the personnel/HR manager or the functional head get involved?

One must realize that almost everyone pays a price for a wrong selection. The person so recruited, once already destabilized, would eventually end up being back in the market, job hunting. In consequence, the manpower planning, and hence the growth process of the organization, may suffer a serious setback too. The after-effect of a ‘sack’ is never pleasant for the people within the organization, the organization itself, or the person directly affected. Those who escape unscathed are the so-called placement consultants. Do they ever assume a share of the responsibility or offer to compensate the organization (not to speak of the victim of a misjudged recruitment) in one way or another? No way!

Till the recruitment process is toned up, the people responsible for manpower selection, within and outside the organization, do their homework properly and with sincerity, approach each placement with the seriousness it deserves, the gulf between the vast pool of talent still going untapped and organizations perennially in search of the ‘right people’, will never be bridged.

[Written decades ago, when no blogging was invented. Published only now.]

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