by Bob Lewis

Workforce Oversupply and Undersupply

Mar 02, 2011

For most positions, the applicant who is a perfect fit isn't a good fit.

For most positions, the applicant who is a perfect fit isn’t a good fit.

ManagementSpeak: People are our greatest asset.

Translation: We have too much of a good thing.

Mark “in transition” Hank helps us understand the nature of corporate assets.

Unemployment is high, and yet a lot of managers and executives complain how hard it is to find the talent they need. This is especially true in IT, but I’ve had this conversation about plenty of other fields as well.

What seems to be going on is that for positions companies hire by the dozens or hundreds, we have far more people who want them than we have positions to fill.

But when it comes to positions companies hire one person at a time, the positions outnumber the truly qualified applicants.


I say “truly qualified” because of a very common complaint: The plenitude of applicants who are ready, willing and able to be brilliant strategists, and even more ready, willing, and incredibly able to hire … not just staff who do actual work, but a layer of managers to oversee the staff who do the actual work, to keep them free to think up brilliant strategies.

It’s the applicants who are ready to roll up their sleeves and pick up a metaphorical shovel who are in short supply. Want one of these jobs? Get in front of the hiring executive. Ask which roles they’re having the hardest time filling. Choose the one you could be great at based on what you already know, explain why you think you could be great at it, and offer to take it on without pay for the three months you’ll need to figure it out through on-the-job training plus a lot of on-your-own-time research.

Many will turn you down. Some, though, just might figure out it’s a bet worth placing.

But is it?

Smart managers and executives keep these core principles in mind when filling important positions (every position they need to fill, that is):

• Hire people, not resumes: Resumes are to job applicants as brochures are to products. Assuming you’ve bought products that didn’t live up to their brochures, and others that exceeded them, enough said.
• Stretchers beat coasters: Stretchers are trying to take the next step. Coasters have already done the job, are comfortable in it, and have no interest in going beyond it.
Then there are pinball players. They also have no interest in the next step. They love the game they play, and just want to win a free game so they can play it again.
Don’t confuse them for coasters. Coasters have learned everything they’re going to learn. Pinball players are always looking for ways to get better at their chosen craft.
• The Habit of Success beats everything else: Some people expect to succeed, and because they expect success they find ways to achieve it. You want this in every employee you hire, and especially for those one-person-at-a-time, difficult-to-fill responsibilities.
• Don’t settle: Don’t settle means holding out for a hire with the potential to become a great employee. It’s the right approach because of what every good business leader knows from long experience: Great employees outperform adequate ones by roughly a factor of ten, which makes them a bargain at two or three times the price.

Not settling can be tough, and the more critical and harder it is to find the right candidate, the tougher it is to hold out. The reason is simple and obvious: So long as the position is open, everyone else, and especially the hiring manager, has to pick up the slack.

This can leave a crushing workload, creating a huge temptation to make do with a candidate who will do the job acceptably, but not much more than acceptably.

This is the dilemma hiring managers face when deciding whether to bet on a promising but marginally qualified applicant for a hard-to-fill position.

Or, instead, to hire good enough to fill the gap right now, knowing this carries a serious price to pay in a year or two.

Or to hold out and not settle.

Or to contact an agency that provides temporary executives and managers, hoping they’ll have someone who’s a good fit — who’s there because they don’t want to make long-term commitments, not because nobody wants to hire them.

But then again, an adequate temporary employee who can hit the ground … well, running is a stretch, but walking is a possibility … might be just what you need to tide you over.

One more thing. You know all those articles you read about great places to work? Here’s another reason it’s a high-payoff strategy:

If you don’t have one, these hard-to-find employees will leave because they have no reason to stay in a bad place to work. And you’ll have to go through this all over again.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.