Every Recruiting Plan Is a Contingency Plan

Every Recruiting Plan Is a Contingency Plan

This blog post first appreared on LinkedIn´s Talent Blog.Open laptop and various notes. A chart is visible on the computer screen.

When I teach talent acquisition leaders how to build recruiting plans and get buy-in for them in our Recruiting Leadership Labs, we always acknowledge that — despite all of the great historical and market insights, the unshakeable logic that went into the resourcing, sourcing, interviewing, and closing plan, and the realistic project management plan — it’ll all change. It might even change between the time you build the plan and when you present the plan a week later. Especially in a market like this, with this roller coaster of ups and downs in hiring. 

I say this all the time: “In TA, every plan is a contingency plan.”

I’m a planner. I make recommendations informed by data and insights. I’m pretty good at presenting plans and getting buy-in and funding. But I can only think of a handful of times in my corporate career as a TA leader when my quarterly plan didn’t need major changes weeks into the quarter, and I can’t think of a single time when my annual hiring target survived more than a few months into the new year. 

Welcome to TA leadership, right?John Vlastelica quote

Side note: I believe the most important TA metric is hires versus plan. You know, are we on track by function/department/geography, inclusive of diversity and level goals? But I also joke, this is a superhard metric to track. Why? Because it’s hard to track hires? Nope. Because the plan changes. All. The. Time. 

I recall one year we had an annual hiring target of 286 hires for one of our C-level execs. We hit that goal seven months into the year. I had T-shirts made for my team. We celebrated our very temporary achievement with a small party at my house. Beer was flowing. But we all knew that hiring wouldn’t stop for that function. We actually knew that months earlier, so by the time we got to July and hit our 286 goal, we already had a new goal. Again, welcome to TA leadership.

Why is planning hard?

It's not that we’re not good at building a plan to hire X people in Y months. It’s that the business is often lousy at headcount planning. It’s that turnover can be unpredictable and create more hiring needs than expected. It’s that reorgs and hiring slowdowns happen in the middle of big hiring sprints. It’s that business leaders — especially finance leaders — often make bad assumptions and asks, like asking us to hire an entire team’s annual hires in Q1. It’s that the business doesn’t often appreciate the seasonality of hiring (they especially seem to forget that university hiring often doesn’t fit nicely into fiscal years). It’s that often there are planning meetings that we’re unaware of and not co-leading. It’s that too many department leaders don’t understand the time needed to add resources in TA to get a bunch of unexpected hires made. And it’s that too many people don’t get that TA is a very high variable cost business, so to deliver big “out-of-plan” hiring needs, we may need to increase our TA teams or find and onboard an RPO partner. 

This is one of the many reasons it’s so important to stay curious. We need to stay very close to the business, be part of planning and prioritizing meetings. And teach the business that “if you want X, then we (you and us) need to do Y.” 

Too often, I see TA teams working in order-taker mode, employing the worst strategy ever — the “Try Harder” strategy — instead of being in Talent Advisor mode. We need to be leading and teaching the business what level of investment — budget plus TA resources plus interviewer capacity — and timeline are needed to hire X. 

And then we have to be great at project managing and prioritizing. One way to do this is to go into planning season knowing and communicating that every plan is really a contingency plan. Every plan is dependent on at least four things:

  1. How many of what type and level of hires we’re making in what locations, needed in what months
  2. Which roles are priority hires, and why
  3. How hard or easy it will be to attract, source, interview, select, sell/close, and onboard this talent
  4. What we’re optimizing for: speed, quality, diversity, cost, compliance

I’d build very different recruiting plans/strategies if I were hiring in a single location for call center jobs versus software engineering jobs that can be located anywhere in Europe. I’d build different, more specific (req level, granular) strategies for the top priority jobs than the volume jobs, which would leverage more of a persona-based sourcing, screening, and closing strategy. I’d leverage very different inbound and outbound sourcing strategies, different interviewing and assessment tools and processes, and maybe even different compensation approaches depending on the difficulty of hiring this kind of talent.

And then the biggie — I’d build wildly different strategies and ask for very different funding (money and business resources and TA resources) if I were optimizing for speed and volume versus quality and diversity versus cost. Think how different your definition of success around something like time-to-fill and sourced-to-hiring manager screened conversion metrics would be if you were building a strategy to:

1. hire 100 enterprise sales reps in 90 days in any location (remote work)


2. hire 100 enterprise sales reps that all must come from only three direct competitors, in a company requiring diverse slates, for in-person work in Seattle, Singapore, and London. 

And then what happens when the team tells you they wanted 100 enterprise sales reps only from three direct competitors in only Seattle, Singapore, or London initially, but then says, “wait, change of plans — we actually want 30 of those in Latin America now, and those are actually higher priority than the Europe focused roles, so, you know, can you just shift gears a bit . . . and ideally get those LatAm roles hired before the end of next month?”

So, how do we build plans, knowing plans change?

Well, if we’re talking about an annual plan, then we present at least three plans. Plan A with a high hiring estimate, Plan B with a medium (realistic) hiring estimate, and Plan C with a low hiring estimate. 

We bring transparency to our assumptions about new hires and backfill hiring needs — we show the data sources and formulas. 

We force some prioritizing, knowing we (TA and the business) may not be able to get all hires made on time. 

And we lead by driving alignment on the priorities around speed, quality, diversity, cost. 

And of course, we educate the business on the investment level needed — from us in TA and from them (especially interviewer and hiring manager capacity) — to deliver on plan A, B, or C. A plan that doesn’t have resources aligned to it is not a real plan. It’s just a PowerPoint. John Vlastelica quote

And we show them how last year’s plan looked versus actual hiring, to let them see the variation and understand the variables that have historically caused our “next year” hiring targets to go up or down during the year. That’s another key teachable moment. 

We need the business to understand cause-and-effect. You want more hires than planned — or fewer — then here’s the impact. The impact to you, to us in TA, to hires versus plan and the overall timeline. 

Bottom line: We need to talk about the things we can and can’t control when presenting our plans, and take advantage of the time in front of the business to educate them on the variables that open up our hiring targets to greater risk. All while getting their buy in. 

So, think plans within (a single) plan. Plans A, B, and C. Just like they do in other parts of the business. 

In my fantasy world, we get so good at educating the business and finance and HR teams about recruiting plans, that we no longer end up getting our annual headcount targets in March and find ourselves two to three months behind before we’ve even started. 

What have you found works best when planning? Have you ever had an annual hiring plan survive the real world? What’s different in a macroeconomy like the one we’re in now, when some companies are both hiring and shrinking at the same time?


John Vlastelica (@vlastelica) is a former corporate recruiting leader turned consultant. He and his team at Recruiting Toolbox are hired by world-class companies to help raise the bar on who they hire and how they hire, with most companies hiring the firm to help them define their hiring bar, train up hiring managers, and train up recruiters to be talent advisors. If you’re seeking more best practices, check out the free resources for recruiters at TalentAdvisor.com, on recruiting from underrepresented groups at WidenTheAperture.com, and for recruiting leaders at RecruitingLeadership.com