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In a difficult economic situation, many decisions boil down to numbers, rather than personal decisions. But what if the data was humanized? Instead of a cycle of overly reactive firefighting, how can workforce planning look to the longer term to create a more sustainable, steady approach? “Talent intelligence” data offers a different perspective.
Toby Culshaw joined us on The Shortlist to chat about this. Toby is the Talent Intelligence Leader: Worldwide Operations and Consumer at Amazon. He is also the author of “Talent Intelligence: Use Business and People Data to Drive Organizational Performance.” Together, we discuss what talent intelligence is, how this offers a more balanced perspective to workforce planning and strategy, and most importantly, how this data can offer an alternative route to the worst-case scenario.
In this episode:
- The journey from sourcing data to talent intelligence data.
- Who the key stakeholders are and how to find them?
- What type of data are leaders interested in?
- Talent intelligence and internal mobility.
- Competitor intelligence and its grey area.
- Talent intelligence for strategic workforce planning.
1. The evolution of sourcing to talent intelligence. Toby realized they were seeing a lot of important data through the sourcing function and sought to scale this information further up the chain to help impact business decisions. The first example he gave involved a struggle to find warehouse workers. By digging into the industrial area where the company resided, his team discovered that while it was once a bustling hub 15 years ago, the landscape had changed drastically. So a decision was made to move this site. What had initially appeared as a sourcing conundrum had actually been a greater business issue, and so the importance of talent intelligence was born!
2. Getting the attention of key stakeholders. Those in TA see a lot of information in the real world – whether it’s related to pay scales, demographics, movement within industries, etc. – but it can be difficult to bubble this data up to the actual decision-makers within the business. It’s easy to go to a hiring manager with talent intelligence, but it’s the VPs and SVPs who can really impact business change. For Toby, it all comes down to the mechanism of delivery and understanding what kind of data a leader wants. Do huge excel documents with all the statistics listed pique interest? Or is it a powerpoint with the key 3 or 4 key issues highlighted? Maybe an intuitive dashboard works best? Find out what the pain-points are, work out the best mode of delivery, and you’ll set yourself up for success.
3. The link between talent intelligence and internal mobility. There is often a danger that TA (and talent intelligence) can become a bit of an island, and not be part of the wider organizational discussion. But the benefit of tying insights together can be hugely beneficial. Toby says that the information talent intelligence sees externally, can be reflected back in as well. Whether it’s in relation to the skill sets of current employees, or a need to build new competencies that are popular in the market, insights on where people are moving – this data can also help develop internal talent and give direction.
Our guest’s final piece of advice:
“Continue to be curious.”
Toby urges recruiters to be proactive in their role. He feels there are a lot of silos within the TA function and it’s vital to break these barriers down to help solve problems.
- [1.39] Toby’s introduction
- [4.08] The journey from sourcing to Talent Intelligence
- [9.01] Who are the key stakeholders and how do you influence?
- [10.52] What type of data are leaders looking for?
- [16.23] How a recruiter roots out the decision-maker
- [19.31] Moving from a tactical to strategic workforce plan
- [26.48] Talent Intelligence and internal mobility
- [30.09] Competitor intelligence
- [38.26] How to push into the realm of Talent Intelligence
Hello everybody, and you’re very welcome to this week’s edition of The Shortlist. My name is Holly Fawcett. I’m the Director of Content here at SocialTalent, and you’re so very, very welcome to this week’s episode here in early December. And today we are going to be talking about how talent intelligence data combats reactive workforce decisions. I’m sure many of you have noticed over the past couple of weeks, some of you may personally yourself have been very personally impacted by some of these decisions, but in very difficult economic times, most business decisions are really boiling down to numbers, and those numbers relate to dollars and cents, rather than personal decisions. And what if that data that we were relying on, those numbers that we were relying on, was humanized? Instead of a cycle of overly-reactive firefighting to particular investment decisions, whether that’s, “We save money over here. We invest money over here,” how can workforce planning look to the much longer term, to create a more sustainable, steady approach?
That’s what we’re going to be talking about in today’s episode using talent intelligence data, because we hope that this might offer a very different perspective. So joining us on The Shortlist today to chat about this, is none other than Toby Culshaw, who quite literally wrote the book around talent intelligence. Toby is the Talent Intelligence Leader for Worldwide Operations and Consumers at Amazon. He’s also the author of “Talent Intelligence: Use Business and People Data to Drive Organizational Performance.” And hopefully we’ll dig into what an earth talent intelligence really is, how this might offer a more balanced perspective to workforce planning and strategy, and then more importantly as well, how this data can offer a much more alternative route to worst-case scenario planning, and mass layoffs, as we’ve been seeing lately. So Toby, hello. You’re very welcome. Tell us all about yourself, how you got here, and this book that you’ve written.
Well firstly, thank you very much for having me. That’s a heck of an intro, so I appreciate that greatly. So I’m Toby, I run talent intelligence for… We’ve changed our names. We’re actually Worldwide Amazon Stores now. Big name change. Same difference. Essentially that’s a part of our business. It’s anything from buying from us as Amazon, so Amazon.com, our whole-foods businesses, anywhere you’re buying anything from us, through to how it gets to you. So it’s the warehousing, logistics, pilots, and everything apart from the associate workers. So I don’t cover the literal army of workforce associates that we have, which are some amazing people. My team don’t cover that section. But pretty much everything else in between. It’s a fairly big organization, so a few hundred thousand people within the org, and we cover the full gamut, full remit, all job types, levels you could think of within there. So pretty big and broad spectrum. And we cover talent intelligence. So we can dive into what that means for us as an industry. Can’t necessarily dive into Amazon specifics, but we can dive into what talent intelligence is, how it all fits together.
Me as an individual, I come from research sourcing, head hunting, search, that sort of stuff. I guess from day one I was used to getting information, getting data, and trying to influence through sourcing intelligence. And it was really a few years back where that started to scale, and I started to realize that actually if I got earlier in that decision-making chain, and that decision-making process, I could make my sourcing teams’ lives way easier downstream. If we affected that decision upstream, rather than waited for that decision to be made, and then trying to influence the impact of that downstream with the sourcing intel, life was just easier. So started on this talent intelligence journey then, and that’s 10 years ago, something like that, and then for the last probably seven, eight years, been very much pure playing that TI space. So I was over at Philips previously, a Dutch technology company, where I ran talent intelligence there for a number of years, and we built an internal consulting function doing TI, and then I’ve been at Amazon for the last couple of years building it over here.
Fantastic. Can I dive a little bit more into that? So you were at Philips, before that you were at SAP, working on similar talent intelligence kind of things. What was the journey from sourcing, so to speak, and how to, as you’re saying, make your sources’ lives much better downstream, and really bringing those decisions to the fore much earlier in the process? Can you tell me an example of a story about maybe how some of those decisions have played out, or some of the impacts of those decisions, and what they meant for those organizations?
For sure. So some of the earliest, in hindsight, pure-play TI work we were doing, was back in my Thales days, so many, many moons ago. There are a number of things. So for example, we were sourcing for some warehouse workers over at the manufacturing site, and we just couldn’t get candidates. We couldn’t find any candidates for this location. We couldn’t understand why. It was a site that we’d been in for 10, 15 years, always been very stable, we just couldn’t see what was going wrong. So we started diving into it a bit deeper and we realized the particular industrial estate we were on, 15 years ago when the site was launched, it was a really bustling industrial estate, loads of talent, really good location, good infrastructure, really worked well. Lots of people for us to approach and to have local talent. 15 years later, we were literally the only people left on the estate. There was no one else there.
Recruitment was all remote from that location, so no one had realized that was the case, and there was genuinely no one to poach from. There was no one in the location. So we looked at that, and we looked at the feasibility of that site, essentially going forward, tied in HR and all the other project teams, and eventually that site got moved, and we moved to another location. A similar timeframe, we were looking at some cybersecurity work. And this is the thing about TI, it’s always worth remembering, it doesn’t always pay off. Your best of intentions doesn’t always work. And we can dive into that as well. But we were looking at a particular type of cyber accreditation. It was a cybersecurity accreditation that to do any kind of government contracts in the UK, you had to be accredited in this particular accreditation. And there were genuinely only a dozen people in the whole of the UK with this accreditation.
I’m getting really granular, sorry. I’m getting really geeky. But to get accredited, you had to have one of these people on your team to get accredited. You couldn’t just send your team wherever to get rubber stamped, you had to already employ one of these people, then all your team get accredited, then it spirals out, keeps going, so on and so forth. And we were looking, and we were struggling from a sourcing perspective. We’d approach these people… They weren’t making huge mega bucks, they were making 30, 40, 50K. We’d offer them 60, 70, they’d get counted 90. The counter was just aggressive, because everyone knew if you didn’t have this person, you can’t bid for government work. You couldn’t be accredited. So my team at the time made a business proposal to take them all. Get all of them out the market, even if they were on 30, 50K now, give them 120K, give them 150K. It doesn’t make a difference. Get them out the market for an entire year, and you’d have no competition, because no one else would be able to bid for government work.
So we’d get ourselves accredited, no one else would be able to get anything going, and it would just be an open field. The business loved the idea, but going to finance and saying, “We’re going to have a dozen people that are sitting on a beach somewhere and doing no work for a year or 18 months,” they weren’t so thrilled on the concept. So that one didn’t really work. But we carried on that thread of, “How can we use the data we’re seeing from a sourcing perspective to influence decisions.” And we ended up changing pay leveling for cybersecurity. We ended up moving our cyber HQ. They ended up changing up the whole role descriptions. And lots of different things were that space, that was all coming from initially sourcing data.
And I think that’s the key for me, is when you start looking at the data we see as TA, we see a lot of really rich information, but we’re really bad at bubbling that up. We’re really very bad at bubbling that up in a consistent way to decision-makers. We can bubble up to the hiring manager. The hiring manager doesn’t generally care. They think we’re making excuses to why we’re failing. But we struggle really to bubble that up and consolidate that through to a decision-maker that can actually affect the decision upstream. And that’s really, at its crux, what TI is all about. It’s all around bubbling up to get upstream.
When it comes to that talent intelligence piece though, what are the key stakeholders then that you’re influencing? Who are they? At what level in the business are you talking to on a regular basis then, that folks might need to inside other organizations, if they want to start implementing TI where they come from?
It’s really at its core around, who is the decision-maker? That’s the number one. So it could be directors, it could be VPs, it could be the C-suite. Generally speaking, you find that the C-suite is more around thought leadership, and they’re looking further out. It’s usually that VPS, VP type level, that are actually making the decisions that impact the business on the day to day. So generally I’ll tell you, it’s that director VP.
So it’s really that VP level generally, it’s that decision-maker generally. And you’re really looking to impact upstream, wherever the decision’s being made. So if it’s a centralized organization, hit those central functions. If it’s decentralized, and the decision’s being made in the business, move out to where the customer is. It’s all around identifying who the customer is, who’s making those decisions, and then moving accordingly.
So obviously we have those decision-makers in terms of you’re really looking at senior vice-presidents, and very senior directors within organizations to really make those decisions. What are the types of data that they’re looking for? Are they looking for your rough work? Are they looking for conclusions? Do you find a difference with the types of organizations that you’re dealing with, whether it’s a Dutch organization, who probably come from a much more principles-first type culture, versus American type organizations, where they might be just like, “Give me your conclusions, Toby?” What kind of intelligence, or data, or conclusions are they looking for from talent leaders, to start making decisions about where we host manufacturing facilities, or sites, or whether we take all 12 cybersecurity professionals in the whole country?
Great question. So I’d say the culture of decision-making, is generally dependent on the country that organization was formed in. So if you are a German, it’s going to be quite hierarchical, quite structured as a default state. If you are in a Dutch company, it’s lots of decisions by consensus. So lots of varying, general opinion, everyone’s got their opinion and a power to veto, very much consensus decision-making. American organizations are generally going to be fast decision-making organizations. Not always fast to transform, but faster to make decisions, and look to move quickly. So I’d say that the decision-making process can change dramatically. The mechanism for delivery can change dramatically. If you are in a B2C type company, or a lot of organizations nowadays will be very PowerPoint driven, very much around, “Take me on the journey. I don’t want to get into the Excel. I don’t want to get into the data points. Take me on the journey. Talk me through this. Walk me through this. Show me where we’re going from and to, and what this whole journey’s going to be.”
So understanding how to create that journey and take people all along with you is really important. But then other organizations are going to be very, very data first, and it’s going to be high-engineering organizations, they could be long-form text. Amazon was famous for our long-form text. We don’t do any PowerPoint here at all. It’s all long-form documents. So that the mechanism for delivery can change. It could be a dashboard, versus a white paper, versus a PowerPoint. So the mechanism can change, the delivery mechanism can change, but essentially all leaders are really looking for the same thing. They’re all wanting data. Data is your absolute friend. It can be really hard, because psychologically anecdotes and gut feel, if you try and combat that with data, the natural reaction subconsciously… people don’t even do it consciously, purely subconsciously… is to double-down on your initial gut feel.
And so if the leader is saying, “I really like this location. I went on a site tour there. There’s some really great people,” and you say, “But the data says that there aren’t enough people,” naturally they’re going to double-down and say, “Well, no. I’ve met the really good people. I know the really good people. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I feel it. I know that.” So you’ve got to be really careful about how you’re positioning the data, understanding how different functions within your organization position data. So is it an Excel-first thing? Do you want reams and reams of data that people can analyze themselves? Is it a, “Do you know what? Just give me the three key talking points you want me to take away this meeting from, and then everything else I’m going to dive into in my own leisure.”
So understanding that mechanism. I hark back to mechanisms a lot, because it’s a big thing with Amazon culture. But understanding those mechanisms of how decisions are being made, what data people need to make the decision, and being open with that. Being open like, “This is what I can get. This is what’s out there, but what are you going to need to make a decision here? What are your key parameters you care about? Is it supply? Is it demand? Is it cost? Is it competitiveness? Is it the overall infrastructure? What do you really care about?” Because quite often, depending on who is the actual core decision-maker in your organization, and who’s got the power, they’re going to care about different things.
Line and business leadership, they care about access to talent, because they want the best people they can possibly have in their teams. They want all those high performers. They really want to drive a really, really as high-performing team as possible. If you’re talking to finance, they might not want that. They might want really cost-effective solutions. They might want low attrition. They might want high duration within the organization, and big stickiness within an organization, and low competitiveness. So depending on who your decision-maker is within that chain, you’re going to have a slightly different answer, and a slightly different proposition essentially. And it’s not always obvious who the decision-makers are in companies. Quite often there are functions that will drive core decision-making. It’s either going to be finance, it’s going to be sales, it’s going to be ops. There’s strategy. There’s usually a function that really rules the roost, depending on your organization and the organizational culture.
That’s really interesting, actually. I wonder who or how somebody who is working in recruiting today, who really wishes to bubble the information, all the insights that they’re gathering, as they go about their ordinary recruiting work, and they’re noticing this trend. They’re noticing for example, “We just can’t get the caliber of talent that we seek at this particular location, can we do something else?” How do they go about rooting out who the actual decision-maker is, in order to then influence at the right level? Do we go to a committee? Do we just go to our level manager? How can we go about that?
Don’t be afraid of asking the question. Ask questions. And quite often I think in TA, and my gut feel is this is inherited from agency side, we like to look like we have all the answers. We like to look perfect, and that we’re giving this perfect selection of candidates, and everything is great and hunky dory, and we’re like the duck floating across the water, and we don’t show the legs feverishly going away underneath. Because of that, we’re sometimes scared to ask questions and look naive, and be open with these things. Ask your hiring manager. Go to them say, “Look, we’re really struggling to recruit in this location. I don’t think this is the site for us for our next five-year expansion plan here. Who makes the decision around where this next five years develops? Is it you? Is it your boss? Is it your boss’s boss? Is it the country leader? Who’s actually making these strategic plans?” And then just go and ask, and go and talk to them.
If it’s strategic workforce planning, time for strategic workforce planning. Most companies don’t have SWP honesty. Even if it’s called SWP, when you start diving into it, it’s actually operational planning. They’re only really looking the next 12, 18 months out. They’re not necessarily diving in as far ahead as you’d like. But somebody will have an eye on the future. Somebody will be looking at it going, “What’s this five-year horizon? If this all goes well, if this goes according to plan, where are we trying to get to?” And it’s around slowly picking at these threads until you get the right person. It’s a bit like the old fairytales. You kiss enough frogs, you’re going to get a prince. And just keep kissing those frogs. Have those conversations, and just be open. It could be finance, it could be strategy, it could be your market leaders, it could be your business leaders. It could be a whole range of different people, but just keep asking those questions around, “I’m seeing this problem, who needs to make this decision if we need to go further with this?”
Absolutely. I was at a lecture around innovation for a whole weekend, which was riveting stuff, and an interesting way to spend a weekend certainly about business innovation. But the difference between an 18-month, versus five-year, versus 20-year roadmap and strategic plan for an organization, is incredibly different. And it’s not really until you recognize the components of such a long-term view, that you realize, “All the things that I’ve been working on in the past, have generally been incredibly near term.” And we think we’re being strategic by looking a year down the line, but wait until you see five years down the line. It looked way, way, way different from here. What kinds of things have you seen when you’ve been moving from a much more tactical workforce plan, now to a very actually strategic workforce plan? How different does the air feel up there?
Good question. I’d love to say it’s massively different. In a lot of ways, I think it’s very similar. I think it’s repositioning. I think a lot of the data inputs, data outputs are very similar. People are struggling with the same sorts of questions. It’s just leveled differently. Instead of struggling on a wreck and hiring whatever the role is in a given location, it’s more around the question of, “Is that location even feasible? Are we going to be in the same shape as an organization in five years, 10 years time? Do we want to be in the same shape in five years, 10 years time?” I think there’s probably a bit of a cultural clash going on, between people that are looking truly long term out, so five, 10 years, and making predictions and trying to steer organizations in a really long-term thinking way, versus people that are looking at it going, “Well actually, the markets and the whole industry and the environment is moving so dynamically at the moment. I don’t think anyone can forecast five years out.”
You could maybe go a year out, and give a best estimate. You could maybe go two, three years out, and say, “This is direction that we want to be going,” but I don’t think anyone could really go that far out with any kind of degree of certainty. And I think it’s having that transparency to say, “Well look, directionally this is where we want to be going. Whether it’s actually these functions we want to move from high-cost country to low-cost country, or these areas we want to invest into from a perspective and expand upon, or these functions we think are going to be the future of our organization, we need to develop this out, these are the skills we need to go to.” All of them are great. They’re all directionally the right thing.
But I think we’ve got to be smart about these things in saying, “If this is the direction we’re going, in three, five, 10 years time, and this is what we’re seeing from a 12-month perspective from a TA slant for example, how do we tie those together?” How do we get those demand signals, so we go, “Well actually, we know we’re pushing in this direction. We probably don’t want to keep hiring in this location.” We want to start trying to manage those hiring managers expectations early to say, “Well actually look, if the average tenure here is two years on a role, and we know we’re going to be shifting over there in three, maybe we don’t want to be hiring as heavy in there. Maybe we want to get ahead of the curve and get some leaders on this other side.” So a lot of it’s just around trying to get ahead of the curve, so that we make our own lives easier.
I think that’s it in a nutshell. It’s understanding that as a direction what we’re going in, rather than just constantly seeing the next hurdle that’s in front of you going, “Okay, grand. I have…” And almost accepting that requisition at face value by saying “Perfect. No problem. I’ll find you that person in this location. Great.” Off I go. Rather than understanding what the long-term impact of that particular hire is going to be on this function or this entire business.
100%. And it’s hard. Honestly, it’s really hard. Particularly if you start getting into organizations and looking at the headcount planning, versus the strategy planning, versus the finance planning. They’re all going to have different versions of the truth, and they’re all going to have slightly different answers. And depending on the organization, your finance planning might be really granular, or really clean. You can get a really good demand plan as TA to say, “Actually, we know for the next 12 months exactly what we’re going to hire in a given role, given location, given level, everything,” Really clean and crisp. Other organizations it might be, “We know we’re going to be hiring X number of headcount, plus or minus 50%. But we have no idea. It’s just we’re going directionally in this way.” So understanding, “Okay, where do we think we’re going to have flex? Where do we think we’re going to have some areas we have to challenge on?”
And equally, where are we just comfortable? Where are we comfortable saying, “Do you know what? These roles, they’re not business critical. They’re not time critical. If it takes another month, that’s fine. Let’s not put our resources into worrying about those ones. We know we’ve got a stable of candidates. It will be fine. It’s going to be okay. But these ones, these are really business critical. We can’t drop the ball on these.” And quite often the criticality piece, people fall into the trap of saying, “It’s the senior stuff.” And in my experience, it’s very rarely the senior stuff that’s actually business critical. If you’re in a widget factory, it’s the widget maker that’s been doing it for 20 years and he is retiring next month and no one’s actually flagged up that he hasn’t got a replacement, and if he’s not on the widget line, the widget isn’t made.
That’s the business critical stuff. That’s the stuff you really need to go, “Do we need that widget maker in the next 10 years?” And truck driving is a great example of this whole situation, where people have been recruiting short-term, medium-term. They’ve been looking six, 12-months out. The truck driving industry has been saying for a decade, “We’re on our knees. We’re collapsing. The infrastructure’s not in place. We’ve got an aging workforce. We don’t have the youngsters coming through. We’re on our knees. We’re in trouble.” And then through the whole COVID period, obviously it collapsed, and we had some real issues on truck drivers. Now in a really interesting situation from a strategic workforce planning perspective, because you say, “Well, do we build up the whole infrastructure? Do we build out the facilities? Do we build out the skill set and develop this whole next generation of truck drivers, or do we say, “Well actually, we’ve got automated driving coming in, and you’ve got all these autonomous trucks coming in, in the next 10 years, let’s say? What do we do to plug the gap in between?”
So do we go for human element, do we go for the automation, and if we do either, what do we do about that gap, and that variance in between. And there’s going to be whole rafts of industries that are falling in a similar way. We’ve got knowledge cliffs coming, where you’ve got the baby boomers all retiring. Granted there’s an element of unretiring going on at the moment as well, where people retired through COVID, thought, “I’m putting my feet up.” You’ve got a cost of living crisis, and an economy collapse, “I should probably go out there and try and earn a bit more money, because it’s a bit tight.” We’ve got this whole knowledge cliff coming through, where a lot of organizations I don’t think are necessarily looking longer term to think, “Well actually, we’ve got a huge percentage of our workforce and our leadership who are going to be leaving in the next three, five, 10 years, what are we doing to backfill that?”
And it’s hard, because organizations generally now aren’t looking at individuals to stay for a long, long period. It’s not jobs for life. Average tenure in organizations is dropping year on year. It’s now sub-two years. That’s very hard then for an organization to say, “Well actually, we’re really going to invest in our people. We’re going to do leadership development programs. We’re going to do huge amounts of training,” because it’s really hard to keep them. So there’s this paradigm of the old saying of, “What if we put loads of investment and training into people and they leave?” Well, what if we don’t and they stay? We’re in this hard situation at the moment, where we know these big ticket items are coming down the road, but how do we address that? How do we fix that stuff? That’s really hard.
Absolutely. And I’d love to get your insights as well as to how talent intelligence can be used for internal mobility. Because I think once you get to the three-year mark within an organization, the tenure does tend to stick even further. It’s just once you can get into that magic number of three years, it’s wonderful. But how can talent intelligence be used for those particular purposes, like for instance, understanding and forecasting when retirements are planned or probably going to happen, when you are going to have board seats opening up, all that kind of stuff, to really help to retain the workforce that you do have?
This is a great example of where TI can’t be an island. There is a danger with talent intelligence, and we see it with talent acquisition data as well, where you end up being an island of data, and quite often talent acquisition analytics sits by itself. It’s not part of HR analytics, it’s not tying into the broader spectrum. It sits by itself in TA. TI it’s very easy to do that too. It’s very easy to say, “I look at the external data. You’ve got HR people analytics over here looking at the internal. We only do external.” That’s really dangerous, because you need to tie it together and understand, “What are the big ticket items coming down?” HR analytics, [inaudible 00:28:43] analytics teams can be your best friends. They give me those demand signals. They know the internal data. But they might not necessarily know the internal skill set, because a lot of internal HCM platforms don’t have talent cards that are granular enough.
So they might say, “Well actually, can you use those external platforms to cut back into our own workforce, to know what skills we’ve got at the moment?” If we do both those things and say, “Well actually, we can see this is the skill set, the knowledge drop we’re going to see from workers that are retiring the next five years, is that even available in the market? Have we built an entire skill set that is so niche and so specialized, we can’t go and headhunt this from other companies and other competitors?” So how do we then tie into L&D, and training development, or et cetera, to say, “We need to build this skill set internally, because it’s not going to be available externally?” Or equally, “We’ve built this skill. The rest of the market’s moved over to this now, actually we need to pivot. We need to do our entire tech stack, or our entire offering, from product sales to solution sales. We need to pivot, because everyone else is moving in this direction, and this is why.” So you can absolutely use that external lens reflecting back in, to see what skills you could be losing, but also that external lens looking at competitors and the landscape to say, “Well actually, this is how everything’s changing. We need to be aware of that moving forward.”
That’s really interesting, actually. And I think that kind of data again, it’s which stakeholder are you trying to influence here. If I knew as a sales leader that the way that we’ve been doing sales, while it works fine for us right now, considering the product offerings that we’re going to be bringing to bear in the next, I don’t know, 12 months or whatever else, actually uses a fundamentally different process, whatever else, and my team are amazing at this old way, and not great at the new way, my gut is to go, “Great, I’m just going to bring in all the newness and they’ll just teach everyone else.” But actually, they may not have that benefit either of bringing in newness as well. There’s a lot of organizations who are on hiring freezes right now, who have absolutely zero remit whatsoever to backfill any churn, and they’re relying on natural churn as well, as a way to downsize their organizations, and they desperately don’t want to lose folks as well. So again, other ways in which we can bring in talent intelligence to highlight other opportunities within the business, for L&D, or a culture change and stuff like that, to really retain and boost the performance of our people. Does that make sense?
Absolutely does. Absolutely does. And both my previous team and my team now, we do a lot of work with our HR teams, people experience. But we do a lot of work with our HR teams, to benchmark, to look at how we can build this stuff moving forward. But the point around the sales leaders triggered a thought in my head, where don’t forget this stuff can be really commercially impactful as well. So tough economic situation. We obviously often think about, “How do we stabilize? How do we keep our people? How do we use that resource better internally?” But equally there are commercial opportunities with that. Equally, we’re at a bit of a bear market, it’s going to flip to a bull at some point. There is going to be a break. So working with that sales leader to say, “Well actually, if I do competitive listening, and I’m targeting our competitors, and I’m looking at what jobs they’re hiring for, what are the new VPs they’re hiring, I’ll be able to see when things start breaking.”
When do they start breaking into a new market, and hire a VP in APAC that they’ve never broken into that market before. When do they hire a VP of a product line they’ve never had before? Looking at the job descriptions, you can say, “Well actually, they’ve never had this product before ever, but we can see they’re pivoting, and they’re trying to build something backend.” Tie in with your intellectual property legal team to say, “Well actually, can you see what this competitor’s doing from an IP perspective, because we think they’re trying to build something out here, and they haven’t had this before. Are they putting anything through IP that we should be aware of?” And suddenly you’re getting this whole commercial intelligence sense, where you’re saying, “Well actually, we can see what they’re doing as a competitor, but it’s triggering from the labor market data. It’s triggering from the VPs they’re hiring, from the jobs they’re pushing out there.” You can start to see them pivoting as competitors much earlier than when they’re going to go to market. They’re not going to go and announce to the street that they’re pivoting in whatever direction, but you can see from what they’re hiring and where they’re hiring much earlier.
See this is why your executive search background matters so much, the covert intelligence gathering that one can build when they’re interviewing execs. That is obviously something that happens, but it shouldn’t happen, that sort of covert intelligence that way, but it can be used.
It gets super dangerous. So a lot of the competitor intelligence, I’d say you can do with OSSINT, so open-source intelligence. So looking at job descriptions, looking at press releases, looking at new hires that’s often tracked on their corporate websites, or tracked on LinkedIn or whatever platform you’re in, and whatever jurisdiction you’re in. Looking at their press releases. Looking at their company accounts, et cetera. A lot of that stuff, it’s all open source. It’s all out there. It’s all being discussed in the open. When you get into that human side of intelligence, so human intelligence, and you are looking at primarily talking to people, you’re primarily going to be looking at the interview process, you do get into a whole realm of data ethics, and I think it’s something that TIs got to be very careful of, and we’ve seen sourcing and sourcing intelligence skirt around us a lot.
We’ve got to be really clear that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do something. Just because we can inject our intel questions into a recruitment process, or we can approach a VP to say, “We want to hire you for this job,” even though you know there’s no job there. You just want to dig into their experience and dig into a competitor. Can you do it? It’s possible to, for sure. But should you do it? Is it the appropriate thing to do? It gets into some really gray or black areas, and I think we’ve got to be really careful that we set a precedent and say, “We’re going to be very clean on the data we use.” It’s very sensitive information. It’s very sensitive data we’re using generally. We’ve got to be making sure that we don’t fall in those traps, because it’s far too easy to. Because you sit there and think, “I’ve got access to all this information, this rich, rich data,” but we’ve got to remember these are individuals that are going through a recruitment process. They’re vulnerable. They’re open. They’re being transparent. We can’t take advantage of that. We can’t use this information unfairly. So we’ve got to be very clear about, from a data ethics perspective, where we draw that line in the sand.
I’m so glad you came to that actually, because I know as a founder of the Talent Intelligence Collective… And if somebody wants to become a member of that, I’m sure they can also. Is that something that you’re trying to set as one of your founding principles like, “Here is where our ethical line is, we now want to spread across other TI,” or just even sourcing functions within organizations, that as you’re gathering talent intelligence, “Look, this is where we can go. This is where we can’t?
That’s one of the things we set up. For sure. No. There’s nothing formal in process. The TIC was founded as a networking group primarily, and it’s evolved from that and developed around that. But for sure we’ve had many conversations within the group, and we have monthly calls, and we have chats on WhatsApp and Facebook and every other platform you can think of. Data ethics comes up quite a lot. And I think as we start broadening the field of TI, and we’re seeing more people coming in from people analytics, from IO psych, from economists backgrounds, and from all these different backgrounds-
What’s IO psych?
Industrial organizational psychology.
Oh, my God. Jesus. Right.
There’s some cool stuff that goes on out there, I tell you. So as we’re bringing all these different individuals with different backgrounds, I think they’re holding us to account from a data standards perspective. And the reality is TA, TI, it’s quite new to us, the way we handle data and what we can do with data. We’re used to seeing things from a GDPR perspective, and personally identifiable information. We’re used to seeing things in a CRM and safe harbor, et cetera. But we’re not used to seeing, “Okay, well how else can we use this from an intel perspective, and an intelligence gathering perspective.” We may be used to seeing that from a exec research stance, or from a sourcing stance, but when it starts scaling out beyond HR, beyond TA, beyond HR into the business of commercial intelligence, it’s all very, very new and it’s very scary, and we’ve got to be very, very careful how we play in those fields.
100%. And I think it’s right to draw a fairly clean line in the sand, where nothing feels terrifying or icky to those who are doing the data research, or then utilizing it. You want to be able to wash your hands and go, “Yep, this is fine. This is great. No one’s going to come at me.”
100%. And we’ve always got to think, “What’s the worst possible case scenario? What’s the worst headline that could be written about this data? Or if this gets out, what’s the worst thing we could think?” And even if you do things with the best of intentions, sometimes it can go horribly wrong, and you just got to think, “Okay, well because I didn’t mean for it to do that, that doesn’t mean that that’s not what’s going to happen.” And I think we’ve got to be very clear from the start. Whatever you’re building, build it with the best of intentions, but with the worst-case scenario in mind. Because if you think something could go wrong, chances are it’s probably going to go wrong at some point, and you just don’t want that hanging over you.
That’s definitely good line then for interviewers as well. Again, you’re interviewing with people for the best of intentions, but whatever it is that you write down as your evidence gathering, imagine it’s going to be published somewhere, so please be kind and factful, et cetera, all of those things. Oh, my God. We are way into our time, and I probably have another 12 questions I wanted to ask you. Is there anything that can be said, I think, around the transactional relationship that recruiters and sourcing teams are having at the moment, they want to push into TI? Have you any advice about how to make some of those initial inroads? I know we spoke at the very, very beginning around who to go to, to bubble up some of those decisions, but how do to make some of those initial inroads to becoming a little bit more strategic with the data that they do have today, that might build up to a much more talent intelligence function?
I think there’s two different ways. I think there’s the more structured approach, where you just start taking data more to your conversations. So easiest way, when you’re going into a brief, and you’re about to go into a higher-end brief, make sure you’ve done some research beforehand. Take the data in at the brief stage, where you’re setting expectations, you’re challenging the manager on the skill set, you’re challenging them on location, you’re challenging them on the comp, you’re understanding the competitor landscape, et cetera, et cetera. Bring that to the conversation at the front. Biggest mistake I see across TA generally, and we’ve all been guilty of it, myself included, you’re really stuck for time. You just go into that brief, you take the brief, and it’s only six weeks down the line and you’re like, “Do you know what? We’re really struggling here. I should probably do some research on this.”
You run some research and you’re like, “No wonder we’re struggling. This is a terrible location, with no competitors, with a terrible salary, et cetera.” And then you take all that data to the hiring manager, and they’re like, “I think it’s too late now.” It looks like you’re scrambling for an excuse. So I’d say start just putting it into your standard workflow now. Get it in there quick. Get it in as early in your process as you can. And that will just start seeding the data culture. I think in terms of the bigger ticket items, ask questions, find out what people care about, find out what people are looking at next year. Obviously this time of year, looking at goal planning for next year. Find out what those goals are. Generally any CEO, “What’s your biggest assets?” Your people. “What’s your biggest risk for not delivering?” No access to the right people.
It’s the same all the way down. So just work out what the big ticket items are for your business lane, or business area, or customer group, whatever it is, and just say, “What’s going to stop you from achieving that?” And then you’ve got the points to say, “Okay, well then I can drill into that from an intel perspective.” And then finally I’d say, don’t be afraid to do what I’d call a loss leader. So sometimes there are big ticket items you look at, and you think, “I know this is a problem. I talk to candidates all day, I know this is a problem. No one seems to care about it, but I’m just going to write a paper on this.” A paper, do a little mini video, PowerPoint, whatever mechanism you want to choose, but, “I’m just going to write something and create this,” and just send it out there. Send it out to some leaders and say, “Look, I think this is a big issue. I don’t know if it’s on your radar. Just wanted to make you aware of this.”
It’s amazing how often, whether it’s working from home, and the return to work, whether it’s hollowing out of cities in America, and the fact that all the work has shifted out to the suburbs, how do you draw them back in? Whether it’s the amount of jobs that candidates are applying for, remote jobs versus the number of jobs comparison on LinkedIn, so 50% of all applicants go to 15% of jobs that are saying remote. Whatever it is you think is a really hot topic, just write something on it, and just send it out to some senior leaders. And honestly, I think the worst-case scenario, you send it out, a leader gets annoyed that you’ve given them extra information, they tell your boss, “I’m annoyed, you’ve given me extra information.” No decent boss is going to worry about that. It’s going to be, “Okay, glad my team are looking after you.” So I’d say just be curious. Be curious. There’s always going to be people that want information. There’s always going to be new things out there, so just be curious and start pulling at threads.
You’re so right. There’s a lot of people who are hungry for information, and the hungry will feed, but certainly the ones who are upset that you gave them more bedtime reading, look, we can do without them in our organizations generally, I think,
The worst-case scenario, you get more work into your function, and your capacity gets slammed. That’s the worst-case scenario. And suddenly it’s, “Well, how do I balance the reactive TA,” if it suddenly switches on, and you’re looking for a load of jobs again, Reactive TA versus the more strategic intel, how do we balance that out? And suddenly that’s how you start driving into those conversations around, “Actually, I need to carve out some capacity for TI. Actually we’ve got enough work, we need to start up a whole TI function.” And that’s how you start building this stuff out. It’s from those initial conversations where it’s just, “This could be curious. This could be interesting.”
That sounds really great. And the last thing we ask all of our guests, is to leave us with a final piece of advice. It can be something around this topic itself, or it can be something that you’ve heard from somebody that you’ve just always lived by. Would you like to share what that last piece of advice might be, please?
I’d say just continue to be curious. The two things that I always hire against, is productivity and passion. As long as people are proactive and they’re curious and they’re being passionate about what there is, there’s going to be interesting routes forward. There’s always going to be work needed to be done. There’s always interesting problems to solve. I think we get far too hung up, specifically TA, within our silo, and we get these false blinkers that this is our world and this is all we can engage with. No one’s put those walls up apart from us. No other function in the business cares about those walls and those barriers. Go out and talk to people. Go out and find out what their problems are, because there’s a lot of problems in organizations that can be solved with labor market data that we have access to. People just don’t know it exists. So I’d say be curious, go out there and just talk to people.
Sounds good. Productivity and curiosity will get you lots of places, including to a talent intelligence role. Toby, thank you so much for sharing such amazing insights and stories. I really want to find out what happened to those 12 cybersecurity people and pals, that your finance operations didn’t go for. But that’s certainly for another day. And just one last plug for your book about Talent Intelligence: Use Business and People Data to Drive Organizational Performance. Where can one get this lovely book?
Either on the Kogan Page website, which was the publishers. That’s KoganPage.com, I presume. I should know that. I have no idea. Or on Amazon. Amazon, it’s on there.
Happy out. Happy out. That sounds great. Brilliant. Thank you so much Toby, again.