Blue Heron Recruiting - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

One company’s talent pool is another company’s free lunch.

Here are a couple of posts from just about a decade ago.  The industry has been working over that time to clarify the definitions of talent pools, talent communities and so on. These two are a meditation on the business of attracting and nourishing talent.



Just outside of the greenhouse (our offices) is a triangular Koi pond. Visitors often stop to watch the 50 or so colored carp swim in the clear waters of the pond. Several of the fish are huge, maybe 20 inches in length. They grew up from little babies in the Koi Pond.

Mill Valley (our town) is near the Audubon Canyon Ranch, home to one of the great egret and Blue Heron rookeries. Each spring, the birds come in from all over to engage in a great courtship/mating festival. It’s a great deal of fun to spend a Saturday watching the large and elegant birds dancing in the treetops as they work the birdie dating game.

Of course, the birds need to eat. Their acute eyesight makes the Koi pond a tempting target as they fly across the San Francisco Bay headed towards the rookery. The brightly colored fish look tasty from 500 feet. 

This week, several Great Blue Herons have dropped in to visit and stalk the Koi pond. The biggest of the birds are nearly five feet tall. Their beaks appear to be large enough to consume the largest of the Koi in a single swallow. Even soaking wet (it’s the rainy season here in California), they are beautiful creatures who seem to be able to sit still for enormous periods of time.

Initially, they take their positions on the fence, the roof or the jacuzzi and sit, watching. As they get comfortable, they move closer to the Koi pond in delicate incremental moves. They understand that the fish may sense their presence and want to be as inconspicuous as any other part of the background. Colored to blend into the environment, the slow movements resemble T’ai Ch’i.

The Koi Pond is a six foot deep triangle that stretches eight feet on a side. The red bench that serves as its border sits two feet above the water. The air is filled with the sound of water rushing into the pond (Koi require constant filtering.) We think that the Herons view the place as a roadside diner.

They eventually end up on the bench, trying to figure out how to reach down the two feet to the surface of the water. As they scan the swirling Koi, you can see them trying to choose between big and meaty, colorful and small. The pool looks like a buffet and they are just trying to make up their minds through careful observation. For the Herons, it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel.

Obviously, the Koi pond, the caregiver and the Herons have analogous places in the development of pro-active recruiting techniques. It takes all three components to create an environment that produces the right candidate at the right time. To satisfy the Herons, you need fish. To keep the fish, they must be fed and nurtured.

A flash of orange caught our attention just as we began to write this piece. The great blue herons have returned. This time, after their earlier visit to the koi pond, all tentativeness vanished. The bird simply swooped in, leaned into the pond and grabbed a snack. The big blue and grey creature seemed almost surprised at how easy it was. It flew to the next roof and sat, smirking.

We’ve been thinking a great deal about the development of talent pools. You’ll remember that in the article about the first visit from the herons, we imagined that they were a metaphor for the in-house hiring managers and recruiters who meet their requirements by going to a well stocked talent pool. It’s been such a long economic drought that we forgot about the more predictable aspect of recruiting.

One company’s talent pool is another company’s free lunch.

As pretty as the herons are and as much as we love seeing them, we’re taking the office supply of plastic and duct tape and covering the pond until we can figure out a more elegant solution. In the past, companies have blocked a range of email, filtered phone exchanges and tried a variety of methods to prevent raids by marauding third party firms. Today we’re thinking about the herons as a metaphor for external recruiters trying to poach our talent pond.

The truth is that a certain range of policies make it easy for the poachers. Playing ‘scrooge’ with the raise pool, limiting internet access, ill defined jobs with unclear responsibilities, burdensome overtime, encouragement of family neglect, greedy ESOP schemes and overly aggressive expense management are some of the obvious things a company can do to encourage poachers. Capital shortages, customer attrition and politicized downsizing are subtler and more corrosive.

The Talent Pool includes all future, current and past employees (although many firms are rightly concerned about interactions with past employees these days). Each aspect of the pool requires investment in growth, maintenance, development and protection.

There are industries (like Health Care) where the poachers are having a good year. It’s only a question of time before the rest of us experience the phenomenon. In the days since the downturn, the techniques of third-party houses have been widely absorbed by traditional recruiting departments. So, as we poach, we have to protect ourselves from poachers.

The best bet is to have loyal, happy and adaptive membership in the Talent Pool. That means far more than an occasional email. It involves delivering real value over and over again. The competition in the talent market is for the mindshare of each individual. It costs real money per candidate.

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