External Hires May Highlight a People Development Failure

External Interview CandidateI’ve hired externally many times in my career. In some instances, it was necessary due to excessive growth or the entry-level nature of a role. In other cases, it was because I failed to develop internal team members.

When External Hires are Required

When I was at an educational institution, we had to grow very rapidly. The IT organization was already understaffed and the company’s growth predictions were to double within the year. As a result, there was no way we could develop the necessary skills in people and still meet our business objectives. We had to hire externally.

When External Hires are Not Required

In contrast, I’ve also hired externally in situations where I believe we could have developed people internally to fulfill the role. In these situations, I feel it was a failure of our organization – myself included – to properly plan for the future. When we hire externally, for a position that we could have filled through people development, we send strong messages to existing employees:

  1. You’re not as important as a stranger: In essence, we’d rather spend time and money recruiting outside our organization than develop you.
  2. We’ve seen what you can do and we’d rather keep you where you are: Many employees fear being boxed into a role – always perceived as the role rather than the person. We reinforce this when we hire externally.
  3. Don’t bother trying too hard, you’re not going to get that promotion anyway: If internal employees are not promoted over outsiders, why should the internal employee bother working harder to be recognized for new opportunities?

Now, there is one positive messages for these hires:

New insights: Every company I worked for that hired externally, used this message. They said, “it’s important that we continue to bring new insights into our organization. External hires help us do that.”

However, it has been my experience that the “new insight” argument is often more spin than authentic intent. I would argue there are plenty of ways to bring new insights without hiring externally. Examples include external training, job-sharing and creative partnering with other organizations. More on these ideas in an upcoming post.

Avoiding Unnecessary External Hires

I’m not always opposed to external hires. After all, I myself, benefited from being an external hire. Regardless, I do think it is important to avoid excessive and unnecessary external hire practices. Here are a couple suggestions:

  1. Two Deep: In all key roles, where possible, ensure you are at least two deep in personnel. That way, if one person is promoted or transferred there is still someone to do the work while you train the replacement.
  2. Cross Train: Where you are especially lean, cross train similar roles. For example, two individuals in the marketing department – one who works in traditional media and one works online, can cross train each other on their tools and contacts.
  3. Assess Growth Regularly: Make sure you always look at what you need in terms of additional staff in the next 6, 12, 18 & 24 months.
  4. Assess Departure Risks Regularly: When conducting team performance reviews, assess which employees you believe are at risk for departure (hopefully few). For those that are high risk to leave the organization, who could replace them?
Hiring externally is required in almost every organization. However, with a little planning, you can mitigate the frequency, impact and negative interpretation of these occurrences.
Questions: How else does external hiring help or hurt your organization? 


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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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