It is no longer sufficient just to think about people and job titles — as organizations re-think work and how it gets done, we really need to understand what people can do now and what they may be capable of doing in the future.
As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Ian Cook.
Curious about the differences between gaussian and Pareto distribution? Ask Ian. Want to know what it’s like to kite ski North of the Arctic Circle? Ask Ian. Not only is he an expert in statistical analysis and HR metrics, he’s also an avid cyclist, skier, and runner. At Visier, Ian helps customers drive organizational change through linking workforce analysis to business outcomes. He is responsible for the workforce domain expertise within the Visier solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As an HR consultant, I spent years working to prove the value of HR work — using analysis and data to prove that the right things were being done and that they were making a difference to the business. Ultimately being able to answer this question and build out a new and valuable area of HR practice became more interesting than the consulting work. Proving that people practices deliver a tangible ROI is a fun place to work.
Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?
Early I realised that the trick for analysis in the HR domain was to focus on the answer and provide this in terms that a layperson could use to make a decision. I was presenting a chart which demonstrated that spending too little on HR was damaging, and that spending more led to diminishing returns. The point of the chart was to show that there is an optimal range within which companies improve results without wasting money.
As I was talking this through the audience looked lost. Someone stuck up their hand and asked some basic questions around the structure of the chart, what was on each axis, how was that calculated, etc. I was at the end of the story — talking about what it all meant. While I had been thinking about these issues for years at that point, my audience was just opening the book and needed guidance, context, and education to properly engage in and benefit from my work.
This stuck with me and this notion guides how Visier products are built and launched today. We don’t expect HR people to become more analytical — we strive to give them answers that help them in their real world, quickly and simply.
Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?
Yes — lots. One of the most compelling areas is the analysis of skills and skill requirements and how these evolve over time within an organization and within the people who work there. It is no longer sufficient just to think about people and job titles — as organizations re-think work and how it gets done, we really need to understand what people can do now and what they may be capable of doing in the future. Researching and building the tech to support this level of analysis is becoming game-changing for HR and also for people as they move through their careers.
Wonderful. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?
The most time consuming and costly part of hiring is the overall selection process. Making sure you have the right person should inform every step of the way. Things that I have done here include practical tests and games as part of every selection process.
For example, I was hiring for a data analyst role and had two great candidates — well-matched through interview. Each of them then completed a test to find errors / questions within an example data set. This was a quick example of the type of work they would do. The results were highly differentiating — one candidate found 80% and the other 100%. This person went on to be an excellent hire.
The same approach of using games or questions can be applied to the candidate attraction phase and really help to engage with candidates. A simple example would be to ask “How would you?” questions. This does two things — it finds you people who are genuinely interested in what you do and starts the selection process at the attraction phase. If someone does not engage with the question well you know not to invest time in trying to bring them onboard.
Another technique for the attraction process is to pay attention to company news or personnel changes within a candidate’s organization. That’s because most change leads to uncertainty and people are more likely to consider a change when their present situation looks less certain. So if you are engaging with candidates for a potential role, follow news about their company for potential information that can help build a relationship.
With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?
1) Referrals are still a good approach. However this approach is well known and used and is getting harder and harder to execute. When everyone is doing it, it’s not differentiating.
2) Tapping into meetups and networking groups related to your work challenges is a good way to build up a new network of potential employees. Visier has attracted a number of customer-facing employees through connections made at People Analytics meetups etc.
3) Leverage your marketing budget. The smartest employer branding approach I have seen is to integrate it into general marketing so that the amount of money being spent generates real leverage. Often when the employer brand is different than the market brand you get people mistrusting one. And the relative spend on each is quite different. So the best way to attract and engage with the best talent is to make friends with marketing and identify the employer branding work as a shared challenge — and work with marketing to develop overall marketing campaigns that make your business appealing to potential buyers as well as potential employees.
What are your most effective strategies used to retain top employees?
1) Give them work they love to do. If employees get to spend the majority of their time on work that they love, and they understand that their work is making a difference to the business, they are much more likely to stay.
2) Recognition from peers and leaders. People need to know that what they do counts and that their work is noticed and appreciated. The frequency with which people need and expect this type of recognition has increased — once a year is no longer enough. It is also equally important that the recognition comes from peers as well as direct and senior managers.
3) Hard to replicate benefits. Employees often attach more emotional value to benefits than their paycheque. For example, if you have a dog and can bring it to work — this becomes a habit that employees enjoy. The idea of moving somewhere and having to leave the dog at home becomes an emotional barrier to changing. The challenge is ensuring you align the “unique” benefits to different segments of your employee population. So it is not about a “dog-friendly” policy. It is about having 3 to 5 benefits that align to the different life-needs of your workforce. A daycare onsite is a great option for working families. Work from anywhere policies can support people who are balancing work and eldercare, etc.
4) Some of these unique benefits need to be a regular part of the benefits package and others need to come as part of a longer-term incentive. For example, Visier increases vacation time after 3-years of service. If an employee hits this mark, how likely are they to give up a week of vacation to join another company?
In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?
Yes — business is constantly evolving and our understanding of how to generate success is improving every year. Not tracking this knowledge and deploying it for your business means you are falling behind. Anyone in a leadership position should be keeping up to date with what is changing.
One big area we are seeing in the HR space is the adoption of organizational network analysis (ONA) — a promising technique that uses patterns in emails, instant messages, physical proximity, and other data, to allow leaders to see quickly what networks are in place and identify the connectors and experts.
Organizations like Trustsphere have made understanding the network behavior of people accessible and valuable. History is littered with organizations that made people decisions without access to their network influence and impact. Very often when the reason for the failed change is analysed it is because the relationship element of performance is not taken into consideration. When network analysis is slow and costly then it is hard to justify constantly working on it. As times change and it becomes quick and easy to integrate this level of insight into your day-to-day analytics practices then it becomes important to recognise the new opportunities and evolve your own practices so that your business benefits.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how has it been relevant to you in your life?
Early in my career, I consulted with one of the top 5 consulting firms. One of their partners presented their mantra as “Do what you want to do and wait to get fired”. This turned out to be great advice, for two reasons: If you want to work on things that the business does not value, you are in the wrong place and it’s time to find the right place. On the other hand, if you are driving towards value in the business you are in and you take ownership for delivering results then it will help your career. Simple and very effective advice.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?
I would like to have lunch with Richard Branson. I would ask for his view on how business will evolve in the next 20 years.
Thank you so much for sharing these valuable insights!