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Running on Empty

Finding enough good people has gotten monumentally tough. The reality has been creeping up on us for 50 years, and every projection tells us it’s not going to get any better.

The demographic, social and economic drivers are real. As the Boston Globe recently observed, among the myriad factors, “the single most important reason is that America’s birth rate has largely been below replacement level since the 1970s, and in steep decline for the past 15 years.” It is continuing.

We long ago learned to meticulously plan for our needed facilities, equipment, materials, and suppliers. So why is it that to secure the talent needed to make these all work, we’ve opted for a crap shoot instead of planning?

We continuously allow ourselves to be surprised by the next staffing shortfall. We then jockey to avoid the fallout, while scurrying to find that next critical person. The interval between acknowledging that need and on-boarding the talent is getting longer and longer. In that interval, our business is hobbled without an essential resource. (This process takes enough time that painful compromises are often made just to put somebody in the empty seat.)

In the meantime, we’re driving added cost; lost productivity; lost business; and organization dysfunction. How long can we afford to repeat this and still sustain the business?

This whole knee-jerk response to staffing is nuts. Yet we keep repeating it while the ever-tightening shortage of needed talent continues.

We recently met with a New England executive who is working closely with her colleagues to dissect the changing course of their operations, so that they can then plan to meet both planned and unexpected human capital needs. When faced with future staffing challenges, they’ve committed to be ready with a clear map that points to pre-identified, vetted employees who are positioned for career growth. This business gets it!

We also recall one Midwestern manufacturing and services company that was meticulous in its business planning – and its organization planning. They undertook an initiative to learn everything they could about their people’s talents, accomplishments, interests, and potential. The four-company business was later confronted by the urgency posed by the sudden loss of one of its company presidents. With its template of predetermined moves and back-fills in hand, the process of job offers, acceptances and relocations was completed within ten days. In this case, no recruitment was necessary,

Now, as always, securing the right talent is essential – at least as essential as the right facilities and equipment. We can continue to confront each recruitment like it’s a four-alarm fire. Or we can fix our processes while we deal with the shrinking workforce, all before the talent pool runs dry and we’re running on empty.


Stan Davis is the Founder of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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