Why Is It So Hard To Close the Skills Gap? 3 Mistakes to Avoid

Hiring managers are often “predictably irrational,” to borrow a term from one of my favorite books. That is, they do predictable things that don’t necessarily support their stated interests. If you’re having trouble finding the talent you need, here are three predictable mistakes to avoid:

Are You Hiring For A, But Expecting B?  

 Be clear about what you really want if you’re looking for scarce talent. One service company went through three directors because their job description was inaccurate. Management kept describing a high-level, visionary, but new hires found themselves having to focus on operational and logistics tasks. Management didn’t know how to specify the skills really needed.

One way to avoid the costs of talent shortages is to specify the skills you really need. In practice, job descriptions and competency models often aren’t enough to fill a role effectively. Our recent book, High-Impact Talent Management, describes how one major retailer used our Skill Development Plan to define the specific capabilities needed in a new role that was essential for driving growth.  The eight new divisional merchandising managers would be making decisions that had a direct impact on profits.  This was not simply a matter of getting a good job description.  The vice president of merchandising needed to hire the right people, and onboard and train them efficiently, so all eight new managers could be functioning quickly and consistently.

Defining a key competency as “managing relations with vendors,” for example, would leave too much uncertainty about what to look for in a job candidate. Each task had to be broken down into activities that could readily be evaluated. The first step was to develop a list of everything a new hire had to know how to do in a particular job. In my talks, I show audiences how our tool breaks down critical tasks into activities so performance can be evaluated.

Are You Asking Job Candidates The Wrong Questions? 

A potential employee can sound great, but how will they do when the going gets tough, which it always does? One fast-growing service business tried hiring a traffic manager from an ad agency to fill a critical project management role.  On paper, this candidate looked great, but when things went wrong, he was clueless.  “When high stress situations inevitably arose, this guy had no idea what to do,” a frustrated service company executive told me.

Hiring right means asking the right questions.  For example, meetings industry expert Joan Eisenstodt says,  “If you want someone who understands strategy and how to translate it into meeting outcomes, ask the candidate how they took the vision of a former employer and integrated it into a meeting design. You shouldn’t ask about the best hotel rate they ever negotiated.”  Your questions must be on target for the behaviors you really need.

Are You in Denial About Your Hiring Mistakes?  

Recruiting great people is one thing.  Developing and keeping them is something else.  Nothing drives high potentials out of your organization faster than leaders who tolerate poor performance in others.  Emotionally, this is one of the toughest -- and most costly -- behaviors to change. To make sure you’re not contributing to poor performance, answer these three questions:

  • What’s your success rate in hiring?
  • Think of your worst hire.  How long did it take you to recognize the mistake?
  • How long was it before you dealt with this mistake?

Our book High-Impact Talent Management reports on research that shows the incredible emotional resistance leaders have to confronting bad hires. It typically takes top managers nine months to deal with these mistakes. But failing to manage poor performance carries serious financial risks.  Not only are client and vendor relationships hurt, but also it increases the risk of losing your best employees who become frustrated and start looking elsewhere.

Changing workforce demographics, economic uncertainty, and new business dynamics driven by technology and globalization, have made managing highly-skilled talent more critical that ever. And, when it comes to recruiting, developing and retaining great people, it’s not going to get any easier. Closing your organization’s skills gap is not just a technical fix. It requires confronting the predictably irrational behaviors and emotions that keep you from building a highly-skilled team.