Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Need For Nerve

In my workshops and consulting, I make a point of conveying how damaging it is for a company to be too concerned with survival. Today I read an Associated Press report in the Oregonian that brings this point home.

The report seems to be about a scarcity of labor in some high-paying fields like nursing and engineering. But it buries the lead, which is this – when it comes to hiring, businesses have lost their nerve.

Two quotes from the article make that point:
"... during downturns, recruiters tend to become even choosier, less willing to take financial risks on untested workers."
"... in a tough economy, employers take longer to assess applicants and make a hiring decision. By contrast, in a healthier economy, you don't wait around for the perfect person."
Anyone who is trying to get hired these days has experienced these trends first hand. Managers are posting openings they have little intention of filling (or are not permitted to fill), as a defense against having their FTE allocations reduced. And recruiters, engaged at reduced fees, are being given very specific instructions to only submit the perfect candidate.

The result of these defensive postures is that resumes are being measured scrupulously against an overly long bulleted wish-list of job "requirements" that usually boils down to one thing – "must have done it all before". That is such a backwards-looking approach to hiring, a little like driving using just the rear-view mirror. It elevates the cliche "been there done that" from an offhand dismissal to a badge of honor.

Skills and experience are, of course, important. But the future is going to be different than the past. When times are flush, employers take that truism to heart. They search for people with spirit, vision, ability to learn, breadth, and leadership potential. They find them, and those employees go on to spur innovation and creativity in everything from product design to logistics and operations. Only that kind of expansive thinking will get businesses out of the hole they're in now. But the urgency of survival has them hypnotized.

It's a testament to our desperation that we accept labor scarcity reports such as these at face value. They distract us from the deeper crisis of nerve and, in so doing, delay our effective response to it. I'm saddened to think how severely today's narrow hiring decisions will constrain companies for years to come. Long after the economy has improved, our economic spirit will remain weakened by hiring decisions being made today. Companies need vision, independence, and adaptability. Unless they can soon break out of the trance they're in, they'll find they have settled for something much less.

This post has been republished in the Leadership Development Carnival – Anniversary Edition.