For several years, the demand for experienced design talent across the U.S. has accelerated. A Building Design +Construction survey of AEC recruitment found that more than 81.5% of survey respondents experienced recruiting challenges in 2016. Of that total:
With new administrations at the Federal and State levels throughout the country, 2017 will see an added layer of complexity: market sector activity may shift, but organizations will continue to struggle to find skilled, experienced talent. Design firm leaders are not alone: executives across the country, reports ADP Research Institute and The Economist Intelligence Unit, believe that “skilled talent in all sectors will continue to tighten in 2017.” If there is a bright spot, it is in the realm of opportunity. Skilled, experienced leaders are evaluating their options and are more willing to consider making a change than we have seen in several years. (See our report, “Why Leaders Leave”)
Because Breuer Consulting Group works with design organizations across the country to find leaders, some of the trends we see might be helpful. So we will be sharing our thoughts through periodic editions of “WHAT WE’RE SEEING”. This inaugural issue cites four big observations driving recruiting today. We eagerly look forward to reporting what we see as 2017 plays out.
PACE SENDS SIGNALS
A persistent “recession hangover” appears to afflict some firms. They learned the hard way to be more cautious and analytical about the decisions they made during the economic downturn. This is prudent, but the context of hiring today is different.
There are three big reasons why speed in the recruiting process is essential:
1. Competition for talent has greatly expanded.
The demand for qualified, experienced professionals is intense. Potential leaders who have distinguished themselves are fielding inquiries from many sources, both inside and outside the design professions. This is especially the case in healthcare, higher education and—for now—commercial/mixed-use sectors. An experienced Senior Designer or Sector Leader who has proven the ability to develop business and build a practice is one of the most in-demand skillset combinations we see. It is not unusual for a professional with 20 years of experience, intimate familiarity with trends affecting his/her clients, and a healthy network of industry contacts to receive 4-5 contacts a month from organizations looking to augment their leadership group.
2. The recruiting process sends signals.
In the recruiting process, both the hiring organization and the potential candidate demonstrate what it will be like to work together. If candidates perceive a process which is protracted beyond what they feel is appropriate, their zeal for the opportunity gradually wanes—sometimes to the point of withdrawing from consideration. We’ve seen several firms lose candidates because the process stretched over 4-6 months from initial contact. To potential leaders, the recruiting process is an indication of what all decision-making might be like within the hiring firm.
Thoughtful due diligence does not have to translate into a protracted process that frustrates candidates and potentially harms a hiring firm’s reputation. One East Coast firm with a strong past but a design profile that needed bolstering sought an additional Design Principal. They identified a talented individual from a top-tier design firm who initially considered the opportunity to be intriguing but potentially risky. From the onset of the interviewing process, the firm’s Managing Principal knew this was a project that demanded full attention from the firm’s leaders. An interview team was organized internally to create a memorable candidate experience. The candidate was flown to another office to meet additional senior staff. Detailed agendas were prepared in advance of all meetings and resumes of those who would be attending were included in the candidate’s briefing package. Recognizing that finding strong, highly collaborative design talent is challenging at best, the firm and candidate mutually agreed to a schedule that allowed the candidate to “phase in”, working part-time at their existing firm and part-time at the new. This allowed the individual to complete their current project responsibilities; a key consideration in recruiting candidates at this level. Even the candidate’s skeptical wife was sold when the Managing Principal met her separately over dinner to provide personal context and address any concerns.
In the end, this firm successfully recruited the candidate they needed to advance their design profile by providing frequent personalized attention… establishing the candidate’s trust that ongoing interactions would continue to be well-organized and thoughtful. The elapsed time from identifying the candidate to a signed offer was just 65 days.
3. Candidates’ attitudes shift.
While design leaders are contacted frequently about new positions, they actually pursue few opportunities: they are busy professionals with a big, personal investment. But once they enter into discussion, it is common for candidates who may not have even been thinking about making a change to become intrigued with the idea of a new firm and set of responsibilities. (Our recent survey on Why Leaders Leave, reports that fewer than 17% of leaders who recently made a change were even considering it when they were contacted). We often see mental shift take place once the possibility of professional growth is planted, and candidates become much more receptive to being contacted … sometimes launching an active search for a new position. Acting quickly enables firms to capture talent that might soon go elsewhere.
Five – ten years ago, we routinely observed firms attempt to fill roles to which perhaps only 20 people in the country could qualify and be a good fit. Candidates who were not willing to relocate were rejected … even though the candidates themselves suggested creative solutions. But today’s workplace portability creates hiring options. We’re seeing more firms think differently about how to attract the talent they want and location does not necessarily disqualify good candidates.
The design community may be slower than other businesses to rethink employment arrangements, but things are changing. Recognizing that there are many legitimate reasons why a talented individual may not wish to relocate his/her family, some firms have begun to consider options which would have been off the table in the past. If the need is great, there should be another solution than taking 12-18 months or more to locate one qualified person who is willing to move. This is especially true in hard-to-recruit locations. Here are solutions three firms have designed in the past year:
- A large Midwest-based firm practicing globally recently identified an exceptional candidate for a very specific requirement in a location where the firm did not have an office. This position would have a firmwide mandate focused, so the headquarters was an obvious location. But the candidate could not relocate. This firm quickly recognized the rare combination of attributes the candidate offered and within six weeks, he was hired, arrangements were made for frequent, planned communication and in-person visits, office space was established in the candidate’s city and he was on-board and listed on their website as new office location.
- In seeking a Marketing Director, Eskew Dumez + Ripple, the New Orleans-based 2014 Firm of the Year had a very high bar. After an exhaustive national search, EDR identified an experienced, accomplished, adventurous individual with a family of three children (and a very supportive husband!) in a city that is four states and a two-hour flight from their office. The EDR team had learned that the kind of person they wanted and needed is in short supply and developed a creative work arrangement. Through open-minded discussion on both sides, EDR’s new Marketing Director now commutes every 2-3 weeks with a schedule that allows for the right mix of at-home working and in-office presence.
- A progressive Mid-Atlantic firm identified a Design Director whose family could not leave the Northeast. The candidate offered to live in the firm’s city during the week if a modest apartment and weekend travel could be part of the compensation package. It took some thinking and discussion, but the firm ultimately believed that the candidate’s strengths far outweighed the opportunity cost of not hiring him: the unorthodox offer was made and accepted.
SAME PROCESS. DIFFERENT TARGET
Most firms have evolved in their thinking about marketing and understand the rigorous homework and strategic thinking involved. The same techniques firms use to identify potential clients, build relationships, and obtain new projects apply directly to recruiting. Yet many firms don’t make the connection between the two.
Here are some examples of how firms apply marketing thinking to improve the recruiting outcome:
- Targeting: To find new leaders, surprisingly, some of the best firms in the country still rely primarily on passive recruiting (e.g., careful evaluation of candidates who contact them as a result of general brand awareness or a posting). That technique had always worked in the past. Today, it makes sense to define what is necessary to enhance a team, seek specific individuals who offer these qualities and get strategic.
- Clear, intriguing language: Many firms have difficulty describing what they are looking for (“we need a 15-year person with a strong design background”). We see the same adjectives to describe the qualities they seek (“self-starter”; “team player”; “collaborator”; “entrepreneurial attitude” … and most recently “thought leader’). These words have lost meaning due to overuse. We see that candidates are more attracted to firms that are specific about reflecting their culture and core values with a sense of personality and jargon-free attributes. Here are some words and phrases we’ve encountered lately that have piqued the interest of candidates: “scrappy,” “comfort with ambiguity,” “lively,” “appropriately ambitious”; “humble confidence.” Word choices tell candidates a lot about a firm.
- Capture strategy: Good candidates for leadership positions are rarely seeking to make a change. Yet our research shows that a message tailored to individual candidates can intrigue even the most sought-after talent. Generic approaches to professionals who have distinguished themselves are not only unsuccessful, but can be a real turn-off. Leaders are generally visible: with a little homework, it is possible to tailor “pitches” aimed at candidates’ strengths.
- Focused effort over time: Recruiting is an ongoing effort, not just energy aimed at a specific requirement. Just as in business development, most external activities are opportunities for recruiting.
- Brand development and management: Branding is a big subject and—now—online presence plays a big role in recruiting. We see healthy, established practices that have been built over time with websites that lack personality, differentiation, or are just plain out of date. What is clearly a marketing issue could be an even bigger recruiting issue. In recruiting, a website that authentically depicts a firm’s culture is more important than most firms know. Lastly, firms that tend to attract top talent know that brand experience is more than just a first impression. One Engineering Consulting firm recognized this before many other firms and now has an “Experience Director” whose role is to ensure the qualities that define their brand infuse the entire employee experience from on-boarding, to reviews, to exit interviews.
Consciously or not, we all have a tendency to hire “people like us.” We’re not just talking about gender, age and race. We see how implicit biases disadvantage some firms, from the trivial (“He’s too quiet.’ “Look at that LinkedIn photo!”; “What an odd name.”) to those which could verge on illegal. Some of the best hires we’ve seen result from a welcoming attitude toward people with backgrounds unlike current firm owners and leaders.
Here are some traditional red flags which we’ve seen cause initial concern but could deserve a rethink:
- Relatively short tenures at previous positions: The average job tenure for workers aged 25-34, the demographic where most employed millennials fall, is just three years. Design firms will be facing this fact as these individuals are considered for leadership positions. The disruption of the Great Recession that caused many professionals at all levels to make unanticipated changes is another reason resumes are different than they were prior to 2008.
- Limited hand-drawing capability: All firms depend on digital finesse: hand drawing has become less common, and not a focus of design training. Still, many owners responsible for hiring are dismayed by the inability of some candidates to create images and explore design by hand.
- Office presence: Some candidates have important reasons to request working at home at least some of the time. Some firms have been willing to accommodate these requests without compromising work output or quality, but others remain intransigent.
- Unorthodox background: We often see skepticism about candidates who began their career in a field unrelated to design. But more and more design firms embrace what these professionals can add to their firms. Many firms have enjoyed the benefit of graduates of business and real estate programs throughout the country who have no design-training at all. Profitably incorporating these individuals into traditional practice takes work, but broadening what a firm can offer its clients provides a competitive distinctiveness and a richer product. Unorthodox backgrounds can be defined at a more granular level: some firms focus primarily on candidates who have been trained by a small group of schools—a bias that cuts both ways. We’ve seen firms exclude candidates with an Ivy League background, for example, because they might not fit their more “down-to-earth” culture.
- A portfolio of work primarily outside the U.S. The recession caused many firms to turn to non-US-based clients, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, to help keep their firms engaged and busy. As a result, some senior-level candidates have been unable to develop the local portfolio and contacts that firms often want to see.
- The “culture defense”: It is common for firms to employ individuals who are like-minded in the name of “cultural fit.” The result might be a homogeneous staff that is a red flag for both clients and potential candidates who want to see a broader range of personality types, countries of origin, ages, and genders. We have often witnessed negative reactions from candidates when they see leadership headshots on websites comprised of people who look like each other.
This year, more than 3.6 million executive leaders are set to retire as younger professionals move into leadership roles. Millennials’ preferences are expected to bring striking changes to business in the U.S., with a focus on collaboration and transparency. The growth of companies like Glassdoor and InHerSight, the latter of which is a website where employees rate how female- and family-friend their workplace is, underscores this trend. Traditional top-down organizational structure and behavior are unappealing to millennials who tend toward a flatter structure with fewer titled roles and a more democratic merit-based management approach.
It is safe to say that professionals in each generation feel most comfortable with candidates like themselves, i.e., those with similar life experiences. But in an environment that is both in flux demographically and highly competitive for leadership talent, there is a general understanding among most firms that it is prudent to broaden the view of who might succeed within their culture. (McKinsey & Company’s report “Why Diversity Matters” is just one example of research that suggests that a diverse workforce tends to perform better financially.) Unfortunately, fewer design firms act on this general awareness and proactively seek candidates who may not reflect the gender, age and experience levels of leaders in the past.
But we have seen some proactive initiatives: one large firm has recently created a new leadership position in each of its offices specifically to enable less-experienced professionals assume practice leadership roles (with support from Senior Leaders) at an earlier date than the traditional work-your-way-up scenario would allow. Another firm proudly proclaims the specifics of its demographic diversity prominently on its website…in full knowledge that diversity is, in itself, a recruiting and marketing tool. A third example is the intentional involvement of professionals with diverse backgrounds in the recruiting process.
BREUER CONSULTING GROUP FINDS LEADERS
Our practice focuses on the needs, challenges, and idiosyncrasies specific to organizations that are passionate about design for the built environment. We work with some of the best design firms in the country to find leaders that make an impact in the organizations where they work. They recognize that we have a perspective gained by touching many practices and because of this often ask us: What We’re Seeing.