How to design and implement talent acquisition strategies to meet corporate goals
By Tom Bradley and Christian Steele
When companies complain that they can’t find enough good people, the cause, in our view, is most likely to be deep-rooted and centred on a misalignment between the strategic goals of the business and the efforts of the company’s talent acquisition professionals. In this article, we’ll outline the approach we took at Pfizer and offer some ideas that you can take away and implement right away. But before we do that, let’s first look at why this misalignment between people and business goals happens.
The root causes are not that complicated and usually centre on two things: first, the people who find and hire employees don’t sit in the same meetings as those who set the direction of the overall business and its main operating units. Getting a seat at those senior-level forums, and the credibility to contribute on an equal footing as a genuine ‘business partner’, is more difficult than you might think. This is usually because the perception of HR, where talent acquisition resides, is that of a lower-level, tactical support function.
We have both worked with a varied, diverse mix of business leaders. Depending on which one you spoke to, they viewed talent acquisition as either strategic, operational or perhaps somewhere in between. But only if the role is seen as strategically important will HR stand a chance of showing how it helps leaders meet the manpower elements of their strategic plans, and ultimately their business goals. To earn the right to wear that badge means you need people in talent acquisition who have some understanding of strategy, can talk about it and know not just what questions to ask, but also when to ask them.
Our objective as a talent acquisition leadership team at Pfizer was to build a team that had that knowledge. One of the ways we did this was through training. Now many would argue that strategy planning is only learned through experiencing it and we wouldn’t disagree. But we found that by giving people a sufficient overview of the discipline, familiarising them with the vocabulary and showing them the crucial questions to ask, was a significant step in the right direction. By doing this, we were able to build and maintain strong relationships with senior leaders to ensure we were, at a minimum, in those all-important workforce planning meetings.
Usually at the invitation of the relevant HR business partner for the region or business unit, we would meet those colleagues to discuss short, medium and long term strategies. If the particular team was in high growth mode, the meetings might be weekly, but more often it would be monthly. It is the combination of current operating needs plus the long term business plan that has to drive the company’s overall talent acquisition programme. Here is where the second cause of misalignment between strategy and talent acquisition happens.
Long term business plans must be flexible – they need to change when the circumstances that gave rise to them change. If there is a fundamental change in direction or focus, everything else must be reviewed and where necessary adapted or even redesigned to reflect the change. Too often, the talent acquisition plan gets overlooked, or cannot flex quickly enough, and the result is the business begins to fall behind competitors in the ‘war for talent’.
Designing the talent acquisition strategy is a critical first step in allowing leaders in the HR function to get that crucial alignment. These are the key, seven steps we followed and can be used as a template for your own efforts:
- Look at the key skills required to ensure business objectives are continuously met, and regularly review them. As the pharmaceutical industry evolves so do the skills required within any business. Companies work in a variety of therapy areas which often change, therefore the required specific therapy expertise can also vary. You don’t want to be hiring ‘key’ people only to see their expertise become redundant within a matter of months.
- Do a skills gap analysis to show where you are exposed. As the business portfolio evolves there is often a need to bring new skills, techniques or areas of expertise into the organisation. Identifying those gaps early is vital. It helps HR professionals map the market to determine where that talent currently sits, how big a potential candidate pool there is and where the potential obstacles might arise, e.g. location.
- Develop an internal mobility and succession plan to ensure good people are being utilised optimally. Having a succession plan in place is a crucial component to any company’s workforce plan. It not only acts as a great motivator with existing key people but also acts as a retention tool.
- Plan for attrition. Again, this is a very important element in workforce analytics for presenting to business leaders. By forecasting future leavers it helps leaders plan accordingly for any skills gaps and back-fill appropriately, and in good time.
- Analyse company demographics to ensure diversity objectives are met. Diversity is no longer optional. It has become absolutely essential within any business as, in our opinion, it drives creativity and innovation. From gender to ethnicity, it is important to get the balance right. One of the biggest problems in almost all industries is that women in senior leadership roles remain rare. At Pfizer, although we always chose the best person for the job, we made a concerted effort to ensure diverse candidate short lists were always provided to hiring teams.
- Determine gaps and therefore external recruitment needs. Once the internal skills have been identified and succession planning has been implemented, any clear gaps can be determined; what’s going to be critical in the near future and what’s needed for the longer term.
- Define and develop an external sourcing strategy. After more than a decade each in corporate recruiting we know that strategies and tactics used to recruit active jobseekers are quite different to those used for ‘passive candidates’. These are people who are currently quite happy where they are working but might be open to the idea of a move – if it’s the right one, proposed and presented well. In the past, when companies were operating in a comparatively ‘steady state’, a big corporate brand was often enough to produce a good candidate roster. In our former roles, we became accustomed to hearing “Why wouldn’t they want to work for us? We’re Pfizer!” Today, corporate brands have a limited shelf life and should not be over-relied on. Only a compelling, personalised and value-led employment proposition will attract the best people.
As mentioned previously, being part of those high level business discussions where the workforce plan is developed is a key first step in turning a talent acquisition strategy into an overarching recruitment and sourcing plan. The next important step is to then design, deliver and execute this in partnership with each of the individual hiring teams.
Recruitment is not a ‘one size fits all’ process, so it’s extremely important that the talent acquisition team really understands the business. If they do, it allows them to be creative in developing and implementing a variety of sourcing plans defined by the variable parameters that matter most, for example:
Business critical needs. In the pharmaceutical sector this is often determined by the current product portfolio. There may be a need to bring therapeutic area or technology experts into the organisation to complement the existing workforce.
Candidate demand. In highly competitive therapy areas such as oncology, pain and regenerative medicine, demand usually outweighs supply. To secure highly sought-after individuals will take a creative sourcing and attraction strategy and a winning ‘value proposition’.
Passive versus active candidates. Most companies still mistakenly see both groups as one and the same. Understanding the different hiring methods for each group is crucial.
Utilisation of relevant media channels. The use of media depends on who you are trying to attract. For cost and efficiency reasons, most individual advertising campaigns now appear online, in digital media. Lately we have seen a rapid development in the use of social media for recruitment purposes. LinkedIn and now Facebook are important tools to source and identify talent. But as we have seen, passive candidates need a different approach. This might involve a combined approach by the in-house sourcing team partnering with specialist executive search consultancies. The benefit we found in using third-party specialists was their depth and breadth of industry knowledge, their strong, more closely-knit networks with key opinion leaders and their ability to deliver consistently on complex assignments.
Creating a winning value proposition. The scarcity of people able to lead companies is well recognised but there is also a severe and growing shortage of people able to run divisions and manage critical functions. Interesting but challenging projects, merit-based career progression and flexible working are just some of the key criteria expected by candidates today. At Pfizer, work: life balance was the most important factor we found when we surveyed senior leaders.
The pharmaceutical sector has made progress but still has a lot more to do to find cost savings, create efficiencies and drive innovation. For those reasons, it’s more important than ever that we, as talent acquisition professionals, step up to the mark and work as true, value-adding partners with our leadership colleagues.
The alternative is to accept that human resources is purely transactional, non value-adding and therefore something that should sit outside the core of the enterprise, maybe even outsourced to a third party. That’s not a vision we relish the thought of. We prefer the alternative vision; one in which HR professionals help their co-workers, clients and employers hire for the future, and break free from the comfortable, familiar and in many cases outdated methods used in the past.
Tom Bradley and Christian Steele, were talent acquisition leaders at Pfizer Global Research & Development, based in the UK and US respectively. Tom is now Senior Partner at Euromedica, a specialist executive search firm serving the global life sciences sector and Christian is Director of Talent Acquisition at Alexion Pharmaceuticals.