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Commencement Address for Talent Acquisition Professionals

By Jamie Winter, MA

Jamie WinterOn June 12th, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven delivered the commencement address at the University of Texas. He began the speech by demonstrating that if each of the 8,000 University of Texas graduates impacted the lives of just 10 people and those 10 impacted 10 more people—and so on—after just five generations the lives of 800 million people would have been impacted—more than the entire population of the US. He continued, “Changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.”

Commencement Address for Talent Acquisition ProfessionalsHe went on to describe 10 simple things new college graduates could focus on in order to do their part to change the world. The beauty of his speech is that it is simple and easily relatable—for everyone.

After watching the video, I began to think about his advice in the context of talent acquisition –more specifically, interviewing. I know that applying Admiral McRaven’s advice to interviewing sounds like a very mundane application. However, one of the most impactful activities in the talent management space is deciding if a person will get a job or not. Each hiring decision could have a huge impact on the trajectory of that person’s career, family and ultimately their life.

Therefore, if we take the Admiral’s message to heart, our goal should be to positively impact 10 people. In talent acquisition, our goal should be to get 10 hiring decisions right—working to find the right person for the right job at the right time.

Below are Admiral McRaven’s 10 points of advice (paraphrased) followed by how we, as talent acquisition professionals, can apply them.

  1. Make your bed. Start with one simple task that you can accomplish each day and use this as a starting point to achieve bigger and better things. If you have a bad day, start over the next day with this simple task.

    Talent Acquisition Application: Interviewing is the most commonly used and most studied selection tool. There are more than 80 years of research that tell us exactly what we need to do in order to execute an effective interview, yet there is an abundance of data that suggests people either don’t know about this research or don’t care. For example, a recent study by Career Builder (2014) indicated that 49 percent of interviewers stated they’d know if a candidate was a good fit within the first five minutes of an interview. There is no research that would suggest an effective interview could be conducted in five minutes. You might as well flip a coin.

    The talent acquisition equivalent of making one’s bed is interview training. Every single person who conducts an interview should be properly trained, which involves the basics of gathering data, how to evaluate that data, managing the candidate experience and lots of skill practice doing each of these things.
  2. Find somebody to help you paddle. In his speech, Admiral McRaven mentioned there were several exercises in his Navy Seal training where people had to work together to achieve a goal like paddling a raft through treacherous waters. Which group performed the best in the exercise? The one that worked best as a team.

    Talent Acquisition Application: DDI’s research (Selection Forecast, 2012) has shown that one of the most important components of an effective interviewing process is to conduct a data integration discussion—a meeting for all the interviewers to share, evaluate and reach consensus on candidate data. This process reinforces effective data collection and evaluation, which ultimately results in better hiring decisions. However, this happens in only 40 percent of interviews. One of the easiest ways to get your hiring decision right is to conduct a data integration discussion. Grab a paddle with your fellow interviewers.
  3. Measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers. In this case, Admiral McRaven talked about how a group of Seal cadets that were smallest in stature outperformed other cadets who were much bigger. Why? Because there was much more to the cadets than just physical stature.

    Talent Acquisition Application: One of the most common mistakes hiring managers make is hiring or promoting people based on knowledge and/or experience while ignoring what a candidate can do (competencies) or who they are (personal characteristics like personality, motivational fit, or ability to learn). A candidate’s knowledge and experience (their flippers) are pretty easy to see, but what a person can do and who they are (their heart) tend to play a much bigger role in determining if a candidate will be successful on the job and how long they will stay. Measure a person’s heart by ensuring your interviews cover the whole person—knowledge, experience, competencies and personal characteristics such as motivational fit.
  4. Get over being a “sugar cookie” and move on (get over failures). Admiral McRaven tells the story of an exercise where each cadet’s uniform was inspected and if it failed the inspection, the cadet had to swim in the ocean while wearing his or her uniform. They would end up on the beach covered in sand—looking like a human sugar cookie. The point of the exercise was not to get the uniform inspection right. The cadet was bound to fail. The point was how well the cadet dealt with the failure and what was learned from the experience.

    Talent Acquisition Application: There will be times when an interviewer will struggle during a behavioral interview. The interviewer may ask leading questions, fail to gather complete behavioral information and may come across as robotic. Why should interviewing be any different from any other skill? Similar to perfecting any sport, behavioral interviewing takes practice. This is the reason why skill practice is so important to include in your interviewer training. It provides a safe environment with no consequences where your interviewers can get comfortable failing and learn from their experiences. I would much rather have “sugar cookies” in my training class than sitting across the table from a top candidate for a critical role. Give your interviewers a chance to practice their interviewing skills (and fail) during training rather than when they conduct interviews with live candidates.
  5. Life is filled with “circuses” or failures. Don’t be afraid. Failures will make you stronger. Admiral McRaven told the story of when a cadet failed to meet some of the daily standards that were part of Navy Seal training. If they failed to meet these standards, their name was placed on a list and they were invited to a “circus” (two extra hours of calisthenics). His point was that eventually, everybody was invited to the circus.

    Talent Acquisition Application: The most effective selection systems in the world still result in several false positives (hired a candidate who fails on the job) and false negatives (screened out a candidate who would have been effective on the job). Yours will too. Just because you hire somebody who fails doesn’t mean your selection system is broken. Learn from these failures to continuously improve your processes and adapt to the needs of the organization. Your goal is not perfection.  Your goal should be continuous improvement in the pursuit of perfection.
  6. Take chances. The Admiral told the story of how a Seal cadet broke a 20-year-old record on a ropes course by taking a chance and approaching the obstacle in a completely new way—sliding down the rope head first.

    Talent Acquisition Application: DDI’s behavioral interviewing system, Targeted Selection® (TS) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and it would be a mistake to neglect looking for new ways to make the interviewer training more effective. We have developed new automated online skill practice simulations, virtual training and even revamped the entire program to shorten the training from a two-day core session to one day. The concepts are the same, but we have become more efficient and effective in teaching these concepts in an engaging manner. If you are not currently using TS, look for ways to leverage technology and advancements in learning concepts to change how you conduct and reinforce your interviewing program.
  7. Don’t back down when you are faced with sharks. Admiral McRaven learned that if he was ever in the ocean and confronted by a shark, the best thing to do was to hold his ground and bop the shark on the nose.

    Talent Acquisition Application: I have never started an interview training session where all of the participants felt like the time that was about to be spent in interviewer training was a good use of their time. Why? Most participants come to these sessions with a fair amount of interviewing experience. However, I have never completed a TS interview training session where most participants didn’t realize there were several opportunities for them to be more effective interviewers based on what they learned in training.

    The point is that it will be very likely that you will run into resistance when rolling out your training. Stand your ground. Hiring managers will see the value when they are properly trained and your organization will reap significant benefits in the end. By the way, my apologies for comparing hiring managers to sharks—that was the good Admiral’s analogy, not mine.
  8. Be your best during the darkest moments. The Admiral discussed an exercise where Navy Seals must swim two miles under water at night using a depth gauge and a compass to find the keel of a ship, which is at the deepest and darkest point. Most fail this exercise and every Seal knows it is at this point when you must remain calm.

    Talent Acquisition Application: At some point, you will get pressure from senior executives or a business unit to cut corners on your interviewing process. They may tell you the training is too long or the process is too complex. They may argue that people know how to interview and resources could be better spent elsewhere. Be responsive when these concerns or issues arise, but make evidence-based decisions to address them. Keep calm.

    Ideally, there should be a measurement plan in place that provides objective data about the training and the effectiveness of the interviewing program. If you have this data, use it to build your case. If you don’t, create a plan to gather this data. You might also conduct an audit to determine if the process is being correctly executed. Be prepared when your program arrives at the keel of the ship.
  9. Power of hope. Admiral McRaven mentioned an exercise that took place in the mud flats where Cadets were immersed up to their necks in mud for hours. This was to test their endurance under stressful circumstances. The instructors said the Cadets could leave if only five men quit. In response, one trainee began to sing. Soon the entire class was singing. The Admiral’s point was that one person can change the world by giving others hope. In other words, start singing when you are up to your neck in mud.

    Talent Acquisition Application: Share your success stories and anecdotes related to the interviewing program. Spread the good word—especially to key stakeholders. This could be simply sharing quotes from interviewing training participants or something a bit more rigorous like establishing the program’s ROI. Start singing.
  10. Don’t Ring the Bell. In his last point, Admiral McRaven describes a brass bell that Navy Seal trainees ring when they want to quit during training. He ends his speech by placing emphasis on the point that if you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell.

    Talent Acquisition Application: Small improvements in the quality of hires and turnover can reap large financial gains for organizations. A well-executed interviewing program will significantly contribute to such gains, but it takes time and perseverance.

Jamie Winter is DDI’s Director, Global Testing and Targeted Selection.

Posted: 28 Jul, 2014,
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