Tackling the Challenges of Hiring in the Post-COVID Market with Ken Schmitt

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We talked with Ken about:

  • The major hiring and retention trends affecting employers today
  • How TurningPoint is working to weed out unconscious bias in recruiting 
  • Advice he gives to those who are concerned about losing key talent during this Great Resignation

About Ken Schmitt:

Ken Schmitt believes it's a really good time to be in the “people business” because there’s so much happening right now. As founder and CEO of TurningPoint Executive Search, he has the opportunity to work directly with people on a daily basis to help them build the best team for their company. Most recently, that means navigating the post-pandemic hiring landscape.

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Full Audio Transcript

Lauren (00:00):
All right. Well, Ken, thank you so much for joining us.

Ken (00:03):
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Lauren (00:04):
Of course. So excited to hear from you today; I've been looking forward to this conversation all week. You just bring so much to the executive recruiting space and we'll include a full bio and link to your LinkedIn in the notes below, so why don't we just start off? How did you get into the space that you're in and really starting? And I mean TurningPoint, how many years has it been, 10 years or so? 

Ken (00:31):
We’ve been in business for 15 years.

Lauren (00:33):
Holy smokes.

Ken (00:34):
Yeah, it’s our anniversary. Time flies when you're having fun, right?

Lauren (00:38):
 Yes. Congratulations. So share a little bit more about TurningPoint and how it got to where it is today. I'd love to hear a little bit more and what you all do.

Ken (00:51):
Sure, sure. Yeah. Thanks. And again, thanks for the invitation to chat today. I really appreciate it. So I've been in the recruiting business now for 25 years, but 15 as far as TurningPoint goes. I always wanted to have my own business. That was always my goal from when I was a teenager growing up in a very entrepreneurial household with a Jack-in-the-Box franchisee for a dad and an interior decorator for a mom. So entrepreneurism is kind of in my DNA, but we've kind of ebbed and flowed and expanded over the 15 years as TurningPoint. We started off doing mainly accounting and finance recruiting in the early days. And then I did a complete rebrand and pivot, something you're very familiar with as far as branding goes, changed back in 2011, 2012.

Ken (01:34):
So it's been 10 years since we actually made the move over to sales and marketing and operations recruiting, and we don't do as much accounting or finance these days. So, a bit of a pivot and a rebrand there, but it's been great. It's been a lot of fun. I get to meet a ton of really great people. This time in particular, I always say it's a really good time to be in the people business. Yeah. Because there's so much happening out there and so many trends that are going on, partly because of COVID and partly just because of the changing demographics. So, I really do enjoy it. It's very fulfilling and very engaging.

Lauren (02:06):
Yeah. So let's jump in. I'd love to hear a little bit more about the trends, especially with the Great Resignation going on and COVID. I mean, hiring is challenging. So what are you seeing out there?

Ken (02:17):
Yeah, it really is. There's so many moving parts. It's really difficult; I really feel for a lot of employers out there that are trying to get their arms around everything out there—whether it's in regard to DEI and building a more diversified workforce or it's trying to retain the people you already have because they can go somewhere else and get a 20 or 30% bump in salary, or then trying to bring in new talent as well. Even people who are doing the same job they already have somebody on board doing today, but it costs them again, 20% more to hire a new person as compared to their incumbent. So there's a lot that employers have to really grapple with right now. Work from home is a big part of that, to your point, no longer are people just willing to, without question, just work from the office five days a week.

Ken (03:05):
We tell clients on a regular basis that if you want us to recruit somebody for your position and you're requiring them to be in the office five days a week, we can do it, but it's gonna be much more difficult. It's gonna take a lot more time and they're gonna have a lot fewer candidates to look at in terms of their pool of candidates, because there are fewer people who are willing to consider that kind of scenario where they have to be in the office five days a week. So it's tough.

Lauren (03:31):
I bet those are conversations you were not having just a few years ago or were they? I mean, is this just kind of a mega trend of new work life? 

Ken (03:43):
Well, it was a trend that was starting to take hold pre-pandemic, but mainly from the candidate side. There were candidates, especially in sales and marketing as you know, who were saying, Hey, I'd rather not have to go to the office every single day if I don't have to. Especially if you're in sales and you're traveling around to different clients anyway, there's not really a lot of value in being in the office, but it was really difficult pre-COVID to find companies—hiring managers, leaders, CEOs—that were willing to let their staff work remotely unless they already had a remote field sales team and they were already used to that. That's one thing, but most companies were not. And so that was the challenge. It was a little more on the demand side, but not as much on the supply side in terms of opportunities and jobs that would allow for that.

Ken (04:30):
But then COVID comes along and just changes everything completely, and accelerates that trend beyond anybody's wildest imagination. And now, the majority of companies have realized their people are just as if not more productive working from home. People are certainly happier about it. They're engaged. They don't have to spend and waste their time driving to an office every single day. But companies are also having to adjust how they manage. And there's definitely something to be said for the loss of collaboration and creativity if you're not together as often. So it's requiring a change in how we manage as leaders, and how we engage our team and how we create that collaborative space.

Lauren (05:12):
And how are you filtering for that? I mean, I assume a lot of this comes down to values of the company and trying to pull that out within the prospective candidates, but what sort of things are you filtering for with this new world that we're living in to see if that would be a good fit, that virtual environment, or even just a fit for the company?

Ken (05:37):
Yeah, that’s a good question. And it really kind of depends on the organization, but also on the position itself, the function. We have a lot of tech clients, but we also have a lot of manufacturing clients as well. And the manufacturing clients—while we don't recruit for warehouse positions or frontline workers, as far as being on the manufacturing floor—a lot of the folks we are recruiting are leading those kinds of teams, right? And so if the leader's not in the office, then why should the team be? So there's a little bit of a challenge there. And so to your question about filtering, we have to really kind of dig more deeply into why for the role you want us to recruit for you.

Ken (06:17):
Why does it have to be in the office? What's the dynamic around that? Is it a turnaround situation? Is it an early-stage company where they have to build up a team? And so having that physical presence with the rest of the executive leadership team is really important. That makes some sense if the answer is, well, it's always been this way; COVID was a goofy blip on the radar screen. We're all going back to being in the office five days a week, and that's a different story. And that's where you have a much harder time finding candidates who are willing to do that when there's no real compelling reason behind it.

Lauren (06:51):
That's fair. So it's really unique to each company's situation, right?

Ken (06:57):
Exactly. What's going on, and I think right now it's kind of this confluence of things. So you've got this work from home dynamic, which is brand new on top of that. You also have this very real war for talent, and there's a big shortage out there for qualified people, regardless of the function in the industry. And so companies that may have been more stringent about certain things pre-pandemic, or when the labor market wasn't so tight, now they're having to relax those kinds of things to get anybody to even be interested in the job because the supply of people is so short. Even things, for example, like drug screenings, right? Which was the norm across a variety of industries pre-pandemic, right? But with COVID and the labor shortage, and on top of that, more and more states legalizing marijuana, obviously companies are having to adjust to that. And so now you don't have to have a drug screen every single time, or maybe you don't have to have a college degree for a lot of the jobs. They realize a college degree is not a bad thing, but it's not really an absolute must to do the job. So companies are having to adjust their criteria a little bit with their own filters when they hire people.

Lauren (08:07):
Oh, that's so interesting. So as you were alluding to earlier, each company's so different, right? The leadership team, the culture, the values, all of that. As a partner with them and helping them to identify how to build their team, how are you pulling back layers of the onion to really get a pulse on the companies, just how they work, how they communicate their values, so you're able to create that best fit for them for longevity. What sort of steps do you all take to look under the hood?

Ken (08:40):
That’s a great question. I mean, we've done this for such a long time that we know certain cues when somebody is kind of BSing us and it's not exactly the true, complete truth, right? But you also look at what's the average tenure at this company. When we talk to a company, whether it's professional or financial services or manufacturing or anybody else, we ask what's the reason the job is open, what's compelling them to hire this role. If they say, well, we've had three sales managers in this role in the last 18 months, or the last two years, and none of them are good enough, well, that's a pretty big red flag, right? That's some insight into the culture out there.

Ken (09:20):
If the company's going through a changeover in leadership, that's some insight as well. If the hiring manager we're working with is giving us this laundry list of requirements for the position, and we push back and say, well, you can have six of those things, but not all 15, if they're not willing to be open to that conversation. If they're not coachable, as we call it, if they're not willing to accept our feedback as the experts in the marketplace, then it's probably not the best client for us to work with. It's gonna be very frustrating for us and for them, because we can't find this perfect person out there because they're being so restrictive. 

Lauren (09:59):
That makes sense. And then it would probably be personality cues for the type of person you need to hire to be able to work with that type of team or what have you. 

Ken (10:08):
Exactly. And it takes more time, to your question. It takes more time for us to peel back those layers and it's not just give us a job description. Okay. We're gonna go off and start recruiting. Now it's, let's have an hour-long, we call it kickoff call, usually over Zoom. It's a more in-depth conversation after we've already decided through my previous calls with them that they are the right fit. Then we dive even deeper into the actual position and the company culture with that kickoff call before we actually go out to market and start to recruit for that position.

Lauren (10:39):
Okay. And then can you share a little bit more about that out to market piece of it too? What are you doing to be able to solicit that talent? I know you talked earlier about how you're having those challenging conversations and also creating transparency around the trends of what's happening in the marketplace which might help to shake, like you said, to bend on expectations, if you will, folks may have put a line in the sand previously, once you've had that. And once you're at a point where you're actually going to find that talent, what are you doing and how are you screening for that talent with those criteria that have been laid down? 

Ken (11:13):
Yeah, that's really kinda where the secret sauce is, so to speak. That's why clients hire us. Many of our clients actually have their own internal HR or what's called TA or talent acquisition teams. But when they have a situation where it's a very high impact, high sense of urgency position, or it's a role where they just don't have the bandwidth to do the search, they come to us. They come to us because of our ability to source candidates and then also screen the people we do find. So because we're a more specialized firm, we have a pretty sizable database, as you might expect. So we look at our database for people we know who could be the right fit or could be a referral point. But we also tell our clients that even though we've got a very deep database, the best person for that job may not be someone we already know. 

Ken (11:58):
So we don't wanna limit the folks we're gonna consider for the job to just the folks we already know. Let's look at the full universe. So our database is one component of that searching. Then the other one is social media, being LinkedIn. And so we rely very heavily on LinkedIn to compare those people who are out there to the folks we already know. And so that's a big part of it—kind of knowing how to find these people. When I got into recruiting 25 years ago, there was no LinkedIn, right? It was all good old-fashioned phone calls. So back then, the secret sauce behind the value we bring to the table was trying to figure out who to go after, trying to figure out who are the key players. If a company is looking for someone in their competitive landscape, who are the right people in those competitors that you actually go after? These days, with LinkedIn and just the internet in general, it's easier.

Ken (12:49):
It's not easy, but it's easier to figure out who to go after, who to target, but now the secret sauce, the value add, is the messaging. How do I compel a high-performing VP of marketing to respond to my outreach when they're also getting kind of bombarded by 10, 15 other recruiters and companies that are hiring at the same time. So that messaging is really important for us. And so we have to really know what it is that's going to compel them to respond and kind of what their hot buttons are depending upon their function. So then once we find them, the next phase is obviously the screening process. And we go pretty deep. So we do a phone screen for about an hour. We have them complete a customized client questionnaire that asks even more in-depth questions about their fit for the role. And if we like that, then we do a virtual Zoom interview as well. So we've usually spent between three and four hours with every candidate before we present them to our client.

Lauren (13:46):
That's fair. And to go back to the point about the messaging, I think that can't be undervalued or under-appreciated. I think you see a lot of just mass see what works these days. Especially with email and being in the digital world, you can't take out that personalization and the human element. I think like you said, really being able to connect with people and be able to see if that might be a good candidate. I'm sure that's something that only takes years of experience, right?

Ken (14:18):
Right. And you just have to ask questions. I mean, your phrase, you just peel back the layers. That's what we use. We say the same thing internally when you ask somebody a question. You're trying to screen them for a certain job; you can't just take their first response at face value. You've gotta say, okay, so tell, tell me more: Why did it happen that way? Who else was involved? What were the challenges along the way? One of the big questions we ask is, tell me about your last three deals, whether you're in sales or marketing or operations, your last three initiatives. And then with that question, it's a pretty simple question, but you really glean a lot of insight about the individual. Are they taking credit for everything and blaming other people for the bad things? Is it more inclusive? Are they more of a we kind of person versus I? What do they attribute their success to? Those kinds of things. So you really get a good sense for who they are as an individual.

Lauren (15:07):
Yeah. That's fair. I would assume also it helps to color if the cultural fit would be a good fit as well, right?

Ken (15:13):
Right. And there's a lot of people—I mean, we work with a lot of mid-market companies, so a lot of our clients are on the low end 10 million, on the high end about a billion in revenue. And so people who come from very large organizations, from Microsoft or from Dell or from whoever, they many times say, yeah, I wanna work for a smaller company and we have to really explain to them, okay, when you say that, that means you're gonna have a company where there's 100 employees total, whereas at Microsoft, you have a team alone of 5,000 people or whatever the number is. So it's very, very different. You've gotta be truly understanding of what that means with how that dynamic's gonna change, and how hands-on you're gonna have to be to really survive in a smaller company.

Lauren (15:57):
Yeah. That's very fair. And then I'd love to hear a little bit more too, just about DEI and hiring. And if there's anything you have folded into your processes, if you're maybe interviewing folks or scanning resumes or that sort of thing, or if that's been a conversation that's come up. 

Ken (16:16):
It has quite a bit actually. We spent about six months or so researching, trying to figure out what we can do to help with DEI hiring. It's obviously diversity, equity and inclusion, right? And we're in a pretty unique position as a recruiter because we can help impact that with our clients, obviously, and many of our clients, because they are mid-market, many of 'em don't have a formal strategy if you will. So as an example, one of the things we are now doing as the result of all the research we did over the last six months or so is that when we present our first batch of candidates to our client, we used to send them the full resume along with the link to the person's LinkedIn profile.

Ken (16:58):
And a lot of times it's not deliberate, but a lot of unconscious bias creeps in when any of us are doing any kind of hiring; you wanna hire somebody who came from a similar school, grew up in a similar part of the country, looks and sounds like you, and has a similar background. It's just very unconscious, right? But that ends up resulting in weeding out people who are different—different ethnicities, different gender, different backgrounds—whatever it might be, unconsciously. And so we are now changing that up so when we present our first batch of candidates to our client, we are not including the person's name. Or the location where they live or anything like that. They have the full resume, but just not the person's contact information, and we're not sending out the LinkedIn profile.

Ken (17:42):
We want our client to decide which of our candidates to interview based solely on the merit of their background. Then once they say, great, I wanna meet candidate one and candidate three and candidate four, then we'll obviously say, okay, here's the individual. We'll include the full information about the person. And at that point, then we can at least know they're interviewing people for that reason. We also then talk very candidly with our clients about how diversified is your workforce. Do you need to really do a better job of bringing in more people of color or how many women do you have in leadership positions? What does that career track look like? That upper mobility? So just being willing to have that conversation really goes a long way. And then doing thing like the resume screening is helping quite a bit also,

Lauren (18:31):
How has it been received? Do you have different reactions from before or pushback or any of that?

Ken (18:38):
Yeah, so of the several dozen folks I've talked to, 90% of them are very receptive to that. They like that idea. They appreciate it since they've been trying to figure out ways they can also improve their own diversity hiring. I would say 10% of the time they say, hmm, I'm not sure how that would work. And I'd be curious to see how that goes or let's try and see what happens. So they're a little bit more skeptical or uncertain about it, but the majority of folks have received it very, very well. For sure. And the other piece of it is that, I mean, there's three different pieces, right? There's how do you source your talent? Where do you get your talent from?

Ken (19:16):
So a lot of us tend to use, like I said, LinkedIn or our database. If our LinkedIn network is comprised of a lot of other similarly aged white males, then most likely the folks I'm going to be pulling from in my recruiting are similar, cuz that's the network I'm pulling from. And so I've gotta do a better job of diversifying my own network, my own ecosystem if you will. So I can pull from a broader class of people. We need to look at recruiting deliberately, recruiting from historically black colleges or Hispanic colleges or whatever that demographic might look like so we can bring a more diverse slate of candidates to our companies, to our clients as well. And that just takes some time. 

Lauren (19:59):
Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing that insight too. Any other trends or challenges that would be helpful to share as we look ahead? It's a wild world we live in, especially the last few years with COVID and all of that. What would be smart for folks to be thinking about with hiring or just things to be aware of?

Ken (20:20):
Yeah, I think, I mean, we've talked a lot about hiring, and there's a lot of things that are out there. I think on the retention side, it's also really important with the Great Resignation and reshuffle, whatever term you want to use. There's a lot of people who are changing jobs, an awful lot of people at a record number. And I think a lot of employers feel like they don't have much control. That's kind of it is what it is. They're gonna leave, but you can do some very small things to really make a difference. Most importantly, just communicate, right? We have this mantra I've been using now where it's take notice before they give notice. In other words, take notice of your key players, your top performers, acknowledge them before they're sitting across the table from you handing you their letter of resignation.

Ken (21:04):
You don't have to have an hour-long discussion every single week, but once a month, identify your key players, the folks you really can't afford to lose. And once a month, once every six weeks, have some kind of a touchpoint, a phone call, a Zoom, a conversation, coffee if you're in the same city, whatever it is, just to kind of keep them engaged. And find out what's happening with them. How is their family? Take the time to learn about what's important to them. Don't apply a one-size-fits-all management style to all of your employees, right? That was maybe okay 20 or 30 years ago. Today, people wanna know that you know what's important to them. Some people value compensation and other people value no commute, while others want upper mobility.

Ken (21:48):
I just wanna learn different things and get a broader exposure. So you have to take the time as a leader, as a manager now, to really know your staff and then engage with them. And people are still gonna leave, right? That's inevitable. But you can really stem that tide quite a bit if you take extra time to communicate with them and stay in touch on a regular basis. So that's a trend, I think, that is certainly here to stay. It's not a COVID-related thing. It may have been accelerated by that or sparked by that, but that's just the new dynamic of the workforce today.

Lauren (22:19):
Yeah. That's so true. There's an article I read recently that talked about something like, what do employees want? You know, some sort of headline like that. And it talked about human connection. It's not always about being in the room with the senior leadership or this or that, but sometimes it's just about how are you doing, how's your family, it's building those relationships that create connectivity, right? And so just to your point earlier, it's like you said, I don't think that's COVID-specific. It's just probably more chatter right now with everything, right? 

Ken (22:51):
Right. Well, the days of leading the way that Jack Welch led are gone—where you have A, B and C players and the Cs are already out, either you're up or you're out kind of thing, where you didn't bring your whole self to work as a leader, you weren't really allowed to be vulnerable. Everybody thought that was a weakness if you talked about your family or personal things, right? Said, gosh, I'm really struggling right now where things are difficult. That was the way it was 20, 30 years ago. Today, if you're not willing to be vulnerable and bring your whole self to work, and I'm not saying wear your emotion on your sleeve and air your dirty laundry, but you've gotta be willing to talk about you as an individual and your employees as individuals, as people, not just as numbers or a cog in a very large wheel.

Ken (23:37):
Those are the leaders that did a great job. There's a great book I just read by Hubert Joly, who was the CEO and really drove the turnaround at Best Buy. He was also at Gartner for a long time and at Carlson, a travel company. The book is called The Heart of Business. And it's literally around the heart, right? The people side of your people, and how important that really is and how the old mantra—that employees come last and your stakeholders, your shareholders are first, customers are second—that's all been turned on its head. You've gotta look at your employees first because if your employees are happy, then revenue, profit, happy customers will follow inevitably; it'll happen. So I'm a very big believer and follower of what he's talking about in that book.

Lauren (24:27):
Yeah. I think my husband says it's something like, it's not just about the people—it's all about the people, right?

Ken (24:34):
Exactly. Yeah. Appreciate them. It's a great way to put it.

Lauren (24:38):
Oh, that's great. Well, Ken, thank you so much. I just really appreciate your time today and sharing a little bit more behind the scenes about what you do, what's happening, what you're seeing in the market today. It's so timely with just so much disruption if you will, or just so many changes that are happening across industries. So thank you for taking the time and sharing a little bit more.

Ken (24:59):
Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation and for the great conversation. I appreciate it. 

Lauren (25:03):
Always good to see you. 

Ken (25:05):
You too. Take care. Bye.