Sun Tzu and the Art of Engineering Staffing Victory

In a previous post, I mentioned four key steps in addressing the issue of staffing employee retention. In order to continue that discussion, I thought it would be wise to look at the issue from a micro perspective. One of my favorite books is Sun Tzu’s Art of War and for those of you unfamiliar with it, I would recommend checking it out. It’s one of the most important leadership, strategy, and decision-making books ever written.

I was reviewing my dog-eared and heavily highlighted copy the other day and ran across a section that stood out in terms of defining and achieving victory in the staffing industry. Effectively applying the “Five Factors for Victory” that Sun Tzu spoke about could be the difference between being just an average firm in your market and becoming an elite firm. Ultimately, if you can engineer victories in the field, your people will be more inclined to stick with you. After all, everyone loves a winner.

First, know when to fight

The first factor for victory that Sun Tzu spoke about was knowing when you can fight and when you can’t fight. From a staffing perspective, this is essentially saying that we should all pick our battles and what opportunities to take on. Practically speaking, the firms that successfully take on the roles that are “center of the circle” for their practice will emerge victorious and grow while their competition remains stagnant or declines. Taking on a role for the sake of taking on a role isn’t a winning formula.  If the goal is victory over the competition, it is unwise to try to be all things to all people. Knowing what you can deliver and being able to deliver it means certain victory.

Second, focus resources

The second factor for victory that Sun Tzu spoke about was recognizing how to deploy large and small numbers. In staffing, this is all about working closest to the dollar on the highest margin opportunities. From a practical perspective, it’s essential that sales and leadership have a system in place to determine what the hottest recs are and assign the number of recruiters accordingly. Additionally from a sales and planning perspective, this also means keeping an eye on mid-term and long-term projects your clients have coming up. The ability to have a pipeline of candidates ready to fill roles before the competition even gets wind of the rec is a crucial success factor. The majority of clients I brought to Addison was a direct result of working my project pipeline and keeping my leadership and rock-star recruiting team in the loop on what I had coming up. Do this successfully and you win.

Third, align goals

The third factor for victory that Sun Tzu mentioned was having leadership and the team in alignment on goals, objectives, and desires. This is a critical leadership issue in any firm but especially staffing. We all know what a “day in the life” for us looks like, so it’s essential for leaders within our organizations to be visible, communicate the message, and inspire the troops. The difference between winning and losing an account can come down to the passion your recruiters and sales people have for the firm. If you’re inspiring your people and sharing with them the vision and mission of your firm, you win.

Fourth, prepare, prepare, prepare

Fourth, Sun Tzu noted that those who wait fully prepared for the unprepared to act will always win. From a sales perspective, this is a critical success factor. Your team should be digging in to the weeds about their prospects. They should know what skills the hiring managers look for, what personality types work well with the team, who is planning on leaving, and any number of other things about the firm (and be able to keep track of the information for easy retrieval). I found that asking every hiring manager who their best employee was and their plan if that person left tomorrow crucial to really understanding the manager and the account. Understanding the granular details of what the account is looking for and being prepared to deliver it in “emergency” situations guarantees victory.

Fifth, lead with trust

Lastly, Sun Tzu noted that capable leaders needed to be left alone in order to insure victory. This point applies at all levels of the organization and is especially important from a morale and turnover perspective. Once you’ve determined that the team you have in place is capable and have the tools needed to perform their jobs successfully, there’s no need to micromanage them and map out a step-by-step list of things for them to do. Your role is to inspire and coach. If you fall into the trap of micromanaging, you run the risk of having your star players and even your “steady Eddies” going elsewhere.  If you’re focused on inspiring, motivating, and coaching your team instead of micro-managing them, you will win.

Everyone knows that we’re in the business of selling people to people. In an environment where there are very few quantifiable differences between your firm and your competitors, it becomes critical to really understand what defines your firm as unique. Sun Tzu mentioned that one of the keys to victory is to know yourself and know your enemy. Applying these steps in addition to empowering your teams with the proper tools for battle will insure your victory. Want to win more and more often? Check us out.


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