The Fight to Fill The Open Seat

By Shira Boss-Bicak

Feb. 28, 2008

Companies in the midst of the new battle for talent say that in order to win the people they need, they must develop “intelligence” on up-and-coming candidates, look in places they hope will be hidden from competitors, and make decisions quickly.

“We believe the war for talent is over, and that talent won,” says Mark Nicholls, corporate workplace executive for Bank of America.

In a recession, of course, the war for talent may shift. Though companies may not need the same number of people, they may search even harder for the best managers, those who can lead during lean times and scale up when the economy comes back.

Compensation is still a key element to woo those top people, and pay has been rising much faster in recent years for top-performing managers than for other kinds of workers. From 2007 to 2008, companies were expecting to raise pay for top managers by 5.7 percent, according to consulting firm Mercer.

But if nice salaries and pay increases are givens, companies must get creative to differentiate themselves.
Nicholls talks up the ergonomically correct workspaces and floor-to-ceiling windows in Bank of America’s new tower at 1 Bryant Park.

“We discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that space matters,” Nicholls says.

Chief executives are more involved now in hiring and taking potential managers to dinner and on golf outings.

“They need to entice the best people to come work for their team, because there are a lot of options out there,” says Michael Koren, managing partner of Koren Rogers Executive Search. “Those candidates are harder to find, harder to land, and can write their own tickets.”

Going overseas
To find the people they need, companies increasingly recruit from abroad, looking for managers who can operate either in New York or in their overseas offices.

“For an American credit company, we found the person in Germany to work in Hong Kong,” says Brian Drum, chief executive of recruiter Drum Associates. “Wal-Mart is expanding in China, and they’re doing it with American executives.”

Advertising agency Taxi New York has hired from Australia and India and is working with a freelancer from South Africa, says Wayne Best, executive creative director.

“We want people who are very diverse and very experienced,” he says. “It’s less about nationality and more about breadth of capabilities.”

The cross-border battle for talent also means that companies here face poaching efforts. Real estate and financial executives, among others, are being recruited by overseas employers in China, Singapore, Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America.

In addition to searching globally, recruiters and companies are reaching into minority communities.

“You have to think out of the box and not reach into the same ordinary channels for top talent,” says Lisa Tromba, vice president at recruiting agency Battalia Winston International.

The agency has developed a formal diversity practice consisting of recruiters from, and with strong ties to, minority communities. “It’s a valuable resource for talent that’s not usually as reachable,” Tromba says.

The group of people not looking for new jobs remains the most fertile source of new hires, recruiters say. Key employees are not as loyal to their employers as they were a generation ago.

Even those who weren’t initially looking to change jobs frequently end up considering three to five offers from competitors, Koren reports.

That necessitates another change in employers’ tactics: The process of interviewing and preparing an offer that routinely used to take two months is being condensed. To stay ahead of competing offers, the more proactive employers are scheduling fewer rounds of interviews or setting up multiple meetings on a single day, and coming to decisions quickly.

“There are only so many candidates, and if you stall, you may lose them,” Best says. He ended up at the boutique agency because a larger agency took three months to extend him an offer. “We’ll sometimes interview a candidate in the morning and, if it’s the right person, have an offer letter sent to them that afternoon,” he says.

Planning ahead
Indeed, to be ready to act fast, recruiters say that companies are asking them to plan much further ahead. Recruiters have always had to be aware of the talent in particular industries, but now they are developing external pools of potential hires and keeping dossiers on them.

Tromba has a current assignment to locate someone for an executive-level position without a specific future job description. “The client doesn’t know exactly where the person will be deployed,” she says. “It’s a classic example of hiring ahead of need.”

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