The State of Talent in 2024 with Alex Lennon

Alex Lennon, Head of Talent for Black Nova Venture Capital and Sales Lead with Outhire, takes us through the state of talent in 2024.

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The State of Talent in 2024 with Alex Lennon

For over 10 years, Alex Lennon has helped startups and scaleups build their teams. Working for two fast-growth, high-standards Recruitment Agencies, ConSol and Salt, across the UK, Germany, and Australia.

Alex joined Black Nova Venture Capital as Head of Talent, building their Talent function from ground zero. Over the past 4 years has created and delivered Talent Acquisition strategies to Black Nova’s portfolio of 34+ Seed stage tech startups. Alex also leads Sales for Outhire in Sydney and runs TalentBox, a training company for growing recruitment agencies.

We sat down with Alex last month to discuss all things talent as he heads into 2024.

Starting at a high level, moving into 2024. What's the state of talent right now? Where do your priorities lie heading into the new year?

Yeah, I think it's definitely been a tough year, I think for lots of businesses. I've tried to take a longer-term view of talent and not get caught in flash trends and things like that. In my relatively short career, I think I've experienced these cycles of big hiring drives, then market retraction, then hiring drive and retraction. 

So, having said that, the consistent theme this year has been teams having to do more with less. TA teams and even culture teams got hit with layoffs as hard as any other industry. So, they've been stretched pretty thin this year, but they're still expected to deliver the same if not greater results.

So, I think that's one side of it. The other side is from a candidate perspective, and there have been some horror stories of layoffs across the industry. In tech alone, TechCrunch estimated about 250,000 jobs just in tech laid off in 2023. That's led to months of candidates looking for positions and the challenges that bring. It's been a tough year, and I think it's not all doom and gloom. 

There are definitely some positive signs. One positive indicator for me is seeing more talent acquisition jobs starting to be advertised. At some point in 2024, I feel there'll be that ramp-up again, and TA teams are now really starting to refine things like the process and the product stack and EVP. That's the one positive for me—that TA jobs are starting to come back around.

AI is the big buzzword everywhere you look, everyone's doing something with AI. Where do you feel AI fits into the talent space?

I've probably heard the line AI is going to replace recruiters every year since I started my career all the way back in 2012. But I'm still here and so is the TA industry and recruiters.

So in my opinion, AI is not going to replace recruiters. It's just not true.

However, it will overhaul how we work and it's already starting to do that.

So just like every other industry, it will overhaul component parts of the TA process. Things like content creation, automation, process, and achieving scale. You know, some of the hiring drives that companies went on in recent years, I don't think they'd have been able to do that without the automation that AI products have been able to bring.

So, in the past, you would have needed teams and teams of people to do this. But the one metric you can't cheat is time.

And so once you hit that time threshold, as a team, you just simply can't push past it.

So, I think the really interesting development is AI being a multiplier, giving time back to TA teams and allowing them to focus on strategic higher-value tasks. Things like talent planning and EVP, their in-person interviews and even coaching and supporting their hiring managers and teams to get better results.

The other side of that, and probably the most pressing thing I've seen, and this came up at a roundtable series that we were part of a month or so ago—is the question of how much and how far into the process do we allow AI.

So, almost like the ethics around it is certainly a friction point.

You've got examples of candidates and job seekers using things like ChatGPT to write CVs and cover letters and respond to interview questions. TA teams aren't off the hook though. They've been using it for content generation and generative AI for those purposes as well. And I feel at some point, there's going to have to be a discussion around how far into the process do we allow it? And what's the level that people are happy with it to be at so that it's accepted from both sides? We're definitely not out of the woods on that discussion yet, but that's ongoing and daily. I've not spoken to anyone yet who's convinced me either way.

I don't think we need to remove it completely from the process. It's already in. But allowing it to take over the entire process, I also don't think is a good thing. So, like most things the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

I think the decision-making process should always be with people, and I think where AI is most powerful is taking care of those monotonous manual, high-volume tasks that, in the past, TAs and recruiters just had to do because there was no alternative. 

But I feel human brains should be put to much more creative uses than that—than things like, you know, data entry and ticking boxes. So, yeah, I'm excited. I think it's—I hope it will elevate the standards in TA across the board. Even in the agency recruitment landscape by allowing people to do what they do best and work on process and interaction rather than head down in a product.

Outhire: We’re seeing more growth in the Talent Marketing space, what’s your view on this area of talent acquisition?

There’s this really interesting space that started to develop where in the past your recruiters and TA were having to do lots of different things. They were having to be marketers of a company, almost telling the story and the brand. But we've started to see teams now develop dedicated talent branding and employer value proposition teams. 

If you're a later-stage company in Australia, you'll see these people whose sole purpose is to talk about the company and get the message to whoever might be interested.

And so that may have happened in the past, it may have been called something different, but it's really come to the fore now. 

Historically, you would get this friction point where TA would need to keep chasing marketing teams to get resources and collateral—all the things that could help them, or they'd have to build it all themselves, and that's still happening but there's this really interesting space in the middle where TA teams can either use products to build this content and adopt these processes, or whole teams on our side can develop and take care of that function.

It's going to be interesting because if everyone starts to do that, the competition is just going to keep increasing.

What are some of the trends or opportunities for talent teams to get ahead in 2024?

I think Talent Marketing has been one of the fastest-growing spaces in TA, at least from my perspective and what I've seen. Companies are starting to adopt almost growth marketing principles into their talent acquisition processes.

This involves looking at things like multi-channel marketing, running multiple campaigns per role, and exploring various channels beyond mainstream job boards and careers pages. That includes different social channels, professional groups, and communities, along with implementing A/B testing. 

Another area that is opening up is focusing on increasing diversity in the funnel, running campaigns that can speak to various types of applicants, and giving them a voice in the process.

One change I've personally felt in the EVP and branding side of things is a shift from a static, one-size-fits-all message to a much more personalized and individualized approach. Instead of a generic "our company is great," it's now about tailoring messages to specific roles and individuals, speaking to engineers, salespeople, customer support personnel, on-site workers, and others about why a role and the company could be great for them.

This move towards personalization is driven by the principle that there is no silver bullet in TA, and testing and adapting to what is observed is crucial. 

As TA teams adopt growth marketing principles, it’s certainly a positive shift. While there will always be an outbound element of reaching out to people, creating an optimized pull factor for the company is becoming essential. 

The goal is to make the company appealing to individuals, regardless of their location, background, or personal preferences, fostering a sense of connection through personalized branding.

When you look at the talent pipeline, it's crucial to the ongoing success of a talent team. How do you approach building a repeatable pipeline and keeping that top of funnel full?

I think we mentioned it in a previous point just there that there is no silver bullet in TA. Now, that's one of the golden rules that I've tried to live by in talent acquisition, and I think TA teams have to consistently invest time into all the channels that might work and that are working, but constantly test and refine those and explore new channels.

I think it can often come down to the urgency of the roles or the types of roles that people are hiring. If you're a company that consistently hires 30 to 40 engineers per year, you need to be constantly investing time into that top-of-funnel. 

Looking at growth marketing principles and your branding. Where do you advertise these types of positions? What events might you want to partner with and sponsor? 

There are so many different ways you could reach that. 

If you're hiring volume, it's something that you simply can't turn off. You have to keep that out there because it's the only way you're going to compete, and there'll be lots of other companies in the same space. So, you need to build brand awareness across all of those channels. So ideally, you've got those touchpoints when somebody gets into your process, and there's some data around this, it can take between 12 to 20 touchpoints to secure a passive candidate.

What you define as a touchpoint, it could be a post they've seen, it could be an event they attended, it could be an outreach that you sent. But the key is that it takes time to nurture those relationships and be competitive. 

When you're hiring lihe that, you can't rely just on active talent. You have to be approaching that passive talent as well.

There's almost no days off. 

But I think inversely, if your hiring is much more sporadic and it's not at that same sort of volume, it's still worthwhile investing in that type of funnel and that employer branding and outreach because you may not be able to hire in the timeframe you need if you don't have those things in place. 

If every time a new requirement comes up, you have to take a step back and think, 'What's our EVP? What's our messaging? Have we got the brief for the role aligned in terms of how we're gonna take that to market? Have we got the right product stack to do this?'

 So it's when those things aren't defined early and something becomes urgent that you get unstuck. Whereas if you're constantly thinking about, 'Are we set up to actually go out and secure these hires when we need them to?' then you can have the confidence that when there is something important, you can, you know, you've always got that funnel to rely on. It should just be a repeatable engine that you can invest time into.

Finally, to wrap up, what is one thing that you would recommend people in TA stop doing and one thing that they should start doing?

Yeah, I'll speak from personal experience in some of these as well. In terms of stopping, stop commencing hiring processes that haven't been clearly defined with a success outcome agreed on. 

The majority of processes I've seen break down are due to a lack of alignment from the outset. You often end up with disagreements mid-process, more requirements added or changed, or a lack of conviction to make a decision on someone. 

The damage that can do is not just the waste of time for the candidates and the hiring teams, but the impact on other business areas and projects due to a loss of time for people having to invest in the process. TA and hiring managers are left with no outcome, it’s a negative candidate experience, they’re left in the wilderness and TA is often left bearing the brunt of most of that.

There are always things that can change, and you could pick any number of these. But, say, a hiring manager resigns mid-process and you need to stop hiring. Of course, you would stop in a situation like that. But I think the standard we're all striving for is when a role gets approved, you can see it through to completion the majority of the time, as the TA engine's always working, and optimized, and you've got the right products and processes and consensus from everyone involved to get a decision. That's the gold standard with any role. 

One thing I think, well, you said one thing to start doing, but I’ve got two. So, I'll be as concise as I can.

I think data is becoming more and more important in TA; it already was, but the pace we're now moving at is only increasing.

So start building TA processes that give you clear insights into your hiring metrics unlocks the ability to make decisions. The worst-case scenario for TAs is not getting the outcomes for a role and having no indication of what lever you can pull to change. 

Whether that's your top of funnel, your messaging and nurturing, your interview process, and metrics or velocity. If we don't have insight, we're making decisions on unknowns, which the majority of time is not gonna work. 

So, build a product stack that gives you visibility and insight into that data so you can make decisions, that's number one. Secondly, the main topic I've heard people talk about in events and round tables in the past 2 to 3 months has been EVP and talent branding. 

Ahead of potential hiring increases that are gonna happen next year when that happens, we're not sure, but getting ahead of this means you can launch these hiring campaigns quickly. If you're trying to do this when you need to hire, you're gonna lose valuable time that you could have been spent interviewing and nurturing candidates. Getting ahead of that now and getting your EVP and branding right and your products that can help you do that puts you in a much stronger position when the volume of roles does start to pick up.

Get a head start on your talent strategy in 2024, see how Outhire can help you amplify your reach and simplify your hiring.

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