the ceo magazine, recruiting,
David Mattson, CEO & President, Sandler Training

A quote widely attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky is one you may be familiar with: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.” These words have been applied to any number of business situations and have perhaps been overused. Even so, they illustrate an important recruiting principle that senior leaders should understand—one that many of the CEOs with whom I work are unaware.

How does this idea apply to recruiting? And why does it concern CEOs, specifically? Consider the following.

Many company leaders treat recruiting as a reactive task: they focus on it only when they have to fill an opening. When someone important leaves the company, then they start thinking about who could replace that individual. That’s a major blind spot.

Why? Well, if we take that approach, we aren’t recruiting and developing talent proactively, on a consistent basis, with the strategic goal of creating a deep talent bench … a reservoir of talent that supports our company’s mid-range and long-term goals. If we wait until someone we count on leaves to even think about recruiting, then we’re being triggered by a short-term emergency: the fact that there’s a sudden opening we need to fill.

That stressful approach contrasts sharply with the richer possibility of always being open to the possibility of building relationships and developing talent, which is what truly great leaders do.

Talent is the ultimate resource. Don’t we really want to attract it -- and retain it -- in a way that supports not just where we want to be next week, but where we want our company to be one, two, three, or four years down the line? Don’t we want to recruit the very best talent from outside the organization strategically … and develop our current staff to be great at their current job and the next job, based on our future direction? This is not (just) a Human Resource responsibility. It’s a responsibility for those operating at the very highest levels of the company’s leadership. After, all, they’re the ones who know where the puck is supposed to be going!

Engaging with candidates who can “deepen your bench,” and whose experience and capacities support your firm’s long-term strategic objectives, should be considered part of your ongoing job description as CEO. You should have a clear sense of what kind of specialized talent you will need to have on staff in order to reach your most important objectives … you should know what level of experience you want in the most important positions … and you should be prepared to engage with, and create a process for evaluating the candidates who meet the criteria and can make significant contributions. In short, you must consider relationship-building with new talent a personal priority. When you meet someone new in a professional setting, you should be asking yourself, “Could this person make a contribution that supports our five-year plan?” Your aim should be to find and develop talented people who will thrive, not just where you are now, but where you are heading.

Creating relationships with new talent on an ongoing basis does two important things. First, it gives you a better answer than you may have right now to the perennial question “If so-and-so left tomorrow for some reason, what would I do?” And second, it sets your organization up for more rapid growth in the long term.  

A while back, the CEO of a major tech firm that had posted exponential growth over a very short period of time told me how he had taken this “skate to where the puck is going” concept to the next level. “We don’t try to hire talent away from companies who are where we are right now,” he explained. “We try to hire talent from companies who are already operating at the level we want to be five years from now.” So in other words, assume this CEO wanted his company to get to $500 million in annual revenue. He’s now aggressively pursuing recruitment possibilities from the talent pool of companies operating at $1 billion in annual revenues and above!

Wayne Gretzky would be proud. This CEO was following his example. When it came to recruiting top talent, he was skating to where the puck was going – not where it had been. You can do the same.

About the Author

David Mattson is CEO and President of Sandler Training, an international training and consulting organization headquartered in the North America. Since 1986, he has been a trainer and business consultant for management, sales, interpersonal communication, corporate team building and strategic planning throughout the United States and Europe. He is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestsellers The Sandler Rules: 49 Timeless Selling Principles and How to Apply Them and Sandler Success Principles. His most recent book is The Road to Excellence:  6 Leadership Strategies to Build a Bulletproof Business.


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