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How to Lean Into the Hill: Talent Acquisition Lessons From the Pandemic

Posted by Kathleen Smith
pandemic recruiting

Businesses worldwide have been shaken up over the last year in light of the pandemic, but mission-oriented work and recruitment efforts that support it couldn’t afford to stop. Peter Brooks, Vice President of Talent Acquisition for Northrop Grumman, shares how he and his team pivoted to keep government contract recruiting going, and reflects on some of the lessons learned from the pandemic.

This last year has been unlike any year in my professional experience. There were challenges, but the thing that made the pivot easy for us is that we had a very clear North Star. Our employees are by far our number one resource – our people are our business. Whether those are our existing employee base or candidates coming into the process, they are all vitally important to us. We oriented around what was going to be most conducive for their health and well-being, and continued the journey that we’ve been on—creating the most diverse and inclusive workforce that we possibly can.

In March of last year, it became evident very quickly that we were going to have to pivot to a new reality and align with virtual engagement. Fortunately, we had some tools already in service and we brought some others online quickly. Once we did that, the metrics, goals, and outcomes didn’t really change for us. The emphasis for me was, how to support our teams and our candidates through the process.

There are a lot of advantages to going virtual – for one, people didn’t burn a lot of daylight on their commute. They could focus on their job, so productivity wasn’t a problem. But recruiters tend to be very social people that like interaction. The challenge was ensuring that while we’re leveraging technology, we’re also sustaining our business, growing our business, and helping people feel equipped—that they’re not burning out, but feeling that they’ve got support and an open door for them if they have challenges. To me, that was the critical element, and frankly it’s the one that I think we’re going to have to continue to focus on.

Northrop Grumman has always had a very clear position that every person in our company and every person that we’re recruiting has the right to be treated with fairness, dignity, respect, and equity. If you’re oriented around that, everything else can flow naturally.

Equip Your Team to Face Challenges

Though we faced the pandemic, social justice issues, and a very tight labor market, we were able to execute at an extraordinarily high level. Our recruiters did a fantastic job last year – we hired more people than we have in the history of our company. But there were still challenges, and the primary one had to do with stress, whether that be people worrying about their own health or the health of their families, or their kids being home from school or not being able to go to college. Those kinds of things have a huge impact. You have to be equipped to extend an extra hand or bit of support to make sure they’ve got everything they need to bring their best self into work and to their job.

One of my favorite parts of my job is going to different locations, learning more about our business, and getting to meet our recruiters. It’s a natural way to spend time with your team to understand the challenges they’re facing and how you can equip them better to face those challenges. Being remote, you don’t have that same opportunity. So, one of the first things I did was set up lunches across our organization. I started pulling five to six people together to have very candid and hopefully intimate one-on-ones or one-on-sixes to understand what they’re facing, how we can help, and what resources they need. Also reminding people, it’s okay to take a break.

I think it’s really essential as a leader, not only to equip your teams to face those challenges in a healthy way, but also to model it. One critical element for me is being mindful not just of your team but of yourself. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating well and getting enough sleep? I went into this year saying I’ve got to practice what I preach. I’ve gotten re-energized and re-disciplined around keeping myself healthy, working out, and being able to bring my whole and best self to work. Sometimes folks need reminders, especially recruiters. We tend to be a Type A bunch. We see the hill, and we take the hill. It’s a marathon and we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves mentally and physically.

Leadership Exists at Every Level

I don’t believe that there are leaders and just followers. My expectation with my team is that we demonstrate leadership at every level. As a leader, the big challenge for me is not having that in-person interaction, so I make sure that my ears are tuned to what my people need, what our organization needs, and what our candidates need.

I’ve worked for incredibly enlightened leaders and I’ve worked for some that maybe weren’t quite so enlightened. Everyone brings their challenges to work. I would encourage recruiters to remember that you are a leader too. You may not have the title or 20 years of experience, but there’s value in your opinion. Your opinion is just as important as anyone else’s, especially if you’re on the frontlines working with a hiring manager or a candidate. There’s actually nobody better to ask, “What do you think?” or “How would you suggest that we proceed here?”

If you’re in an organization where you’re not seeing that level of support, at some point you might have to find a different organization. But before going that route, I would encourage folks to use their voice. You’ve got a point of view, so back it up with some data and your firsthand experience with hiring managers and candidates, and present that business case to your leaders. You can move the dial too.

Move Forward with a Balanced Approach

There are a lot of people who feel that the pandemic is winding down, and there’s certainly some relief that comes with that. However, I think in some ways, this year is going to be more challenging than last year, because when you didn’t have an option (you’re either going to go virtual, or you’re not going to be in existence), you could quickly move in a direction. Now the question is going to be what balance do we want? How often do we want to be in the office? What’s the right mixture of in-person recruiting events versus virtual recruiting events? And there’s a myriad of stakeholders to accommodate in that process including hiring managers, the candidates, and our own teams.

We’ve known in recruiting for a long time that if you have a Wi-Fi connection and a cell phone, you can pretty much recruit anyone for anywhere. In our industry, I think there’s always been a little bit more emphasis on in-person work, especially for those of us who have to work in a secure facility. But over the last year, there was a new license to explore other ways of recruiting that were very positive. Our brand is built around defining possible. I wholeheartedly believe that, and I think we’re going to have to continue to define what that means.

In literature today, I see a lot of people taking points of view, that in my opinion, over-index one way or the other. You have some tech companies saying, “We’re never going back to an office, we’re going to be 100% virtual.” While some organizations are saying, “We’re going to forget everything we learned and we’re going to go back to the way things used to be.” I think balance is the key. There are opportunities for us to re-constellate around a new way of working and relating to each other that I think are essential.

Sometimes being in-person is the best conduit for those interactions, while other times remote and virtual is much easier and more cost effective. It opens the aperture for new pools of talent that you may not have tapped into historically. The key is going to be maintaining discipline, encouraging people to think forward, and thinking creatively about what is the right balance. When does it make sense to take a more traditional track and when does it make sense to leverage all the technology we have available to tap into resources that would otherwise go untapped?

Lean Into the Hill

I used to downhill ski a bit, and I decided to go again over the winter. A friend talked me into trying to start off on a black diamond hill. So, I’m standing on top of the hill looking down and it’s a breathtaking view, but a little gut churning. My friend said, “The key is when you ski down this hill, you actually have to lean forward. It feels counterintuitive because that’s downhill, but if you try to hold back, you’re actually putting your body at a very bad angle and it’s going to be more dangerous.”

I took his advice and made it down the hill. I feel the same thing is true for the challenges that we faced last year, and those we’re going to continue to face this year. Leaning in is the most important thing. If you hold back and don’t trust your instincts and your own experience, you will inadvertently create a worse situation. Regardless of how scary the future may look, the important thing to do is lean forward. Be gentle with yourself and lean into the hill.

Hear more from our conversation with Peter Brooks here

This entry was posted on Monday, July 12, 2021 2:47 pm

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