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Getting Great Marketing Talent in a Hiring 'Buyers-Market'

In today's economy a hiring manager has a tough job to sort through the deluge of resumes that result from a job posting and find the right pool of candidates for the screening and interview process.  LinkedIn, The Ladders and other numerous job boards and notification agents have turned the local employment listing viral. That response deluge, unfortunately, may not translate into a simpler task of identifying that ideal marketing candidate.  Hiring managers and their respective HR partners need to winnow the candidate pool quickly and efficiently.  Further, given the current economic environment, many managers feel that the power has shifted from employees and candidates to hiring managers.  As a result, managers may feel that they can raise the hiring bar and be more demanding when it comes to getting the exact right fit for the position.

One of the current ways hiring managers are quickly concentrating their candidate pools is to eliminate candidates who don't have specific product or market experience.  Based on my own experience as a hiring manager of marketing talent over many years, I find this interesting and potentially a missed opportunity (that could be costly...see below).

If you have a hiring philosophy I suspect you've come to it from a mix of training and experience.  The best interview training I ever had focused on behavioral interviewing, and it's a technique I still use.  I must admit, however, that my bad hires have been the most instructive; those times when I felt pressure to fill a position and selected someone who wasn't a strong fit, or when I put a tactical (or downstream) marketer into a strategic position.  As a result, I've developed the following hiring criteria, in prioritized order:

  1. Intelligence
  2. Attitude
  3. Job specific skills
  4. Market/product knowledge

Here's my thinking:

With regard to intelligence, is the person a lifetime learner?  Can they look across disparate pieces of data and synthesize it into meaningful insights?  Do they have the mental acuity, cycle time and processor to ask good questions, see patterns and think deeply and creatively about the business.

In summary, with regard to intelligence, they need to come with these skills and abilities and if they don't bring it, in most instances (not including internships and the like), it's hard to teach.

And the same can be said - perhaps even more so - of attitude.  A potential employee's attitude has a huge impact on their cultural fit with the organization and whether they will ultimately have a positive impact on the business.  Attitude, that amorphous quality which I hope will substantiate itself as a can-do attitude, a sense of personal ownership and accountability, curiosity, pro-activeness when it comes to communication and the assembly of relevant information, and a commitment to being adaptable (especially when it comes to collaboration style)...I see attitude as critical to employee success and I try hard to assess this through behavioral interviewing.  And again, based on my experience, despite sustained effort, a person with a poor attitude or an attitude that doesn't fit the company culture, is very tough to turn around or "teach".

Job specific skills, the technical component of the applicant/position fit question, is fairly straightforward.  Resumes generally speak to the development of relevant market skills over time and probing questions centered on having the candidate speak to their specific role in a marketing program they participated in and are proud, can be very revealing.  I also like to probe about the chain of tasks, obstacles and impact of the specific program (increased sales, competitive wins, customer satisfaction, new product definition, marketing strategies, product launches, etc.).

Unlike attitude and intelligence, job specific skills can be taught as long as some building blocks are in place.  Functional excellence can be enhanced.  Your processes can be learned.  And while you want someone to hit the ground running, if you have someone with marketing skills and the right attitude and intelligence, great things can be accomplished.

Lastly, in my mind, comes product or market specific knowledge. While I admit knowledge about the market structure and dynamics, competitive and regulatory environment, technology, etc. are all extremely useful, it can all be learned.  If faced with selecting between Candidate A who is a strong marketer, seems very bright and has a great attitude but no similar product and/or market experience, and Candidate B, also bright, solid marketer, does have specific market and/or product experience but you have a small doubt in your gut about cultural fit, I'd always go with Candidate A.

There's an additional reason to consider marketing talent outside of your specific product/market:  Marketers are tasked with developing business strategy, and by that I mean understanding customer, market and competitive dynamics and defining a sustainably differentiated path forward that only your company can uniquely fulfill.  At the heart of innovation is bringing forth "something new...a new idea, method or device" (per Merriam-Webster).  Seeing new opportunities can be fostered with the cross-fertilization that comes from bringing in fresh thinking and different market world view.

Further, disruptive innovation happens on a regular basis to folks within a market who fail to see new entrants with simpler, more attractive value propositions.  New eyes into your market may be your best defense for keeping your business focused on both the trees and the forest.  So while it's tempting for hiring managers sitting in the cat-bird seat to hire only market insiders, I encourage keeping your options open.