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Recruiting talent for digital cultures: Tips from McKinsey, Korn Ferry

The C-suite's penchant for hiring in its own image prevents companies from creating a digital culture. Another barrier: assuming HR can find the right people.

Editor's note: Part one of this SearchCIO conference report, "What is digital culture, why it's needed and how to get it," delved into why large "predigital" organizations must create digital cultures in order to compete in the age of information. As an expert panel at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium emphasized, creating a digital culture is more complicated than cribbing from the playbooks of Silicon Valley companies. Instead, digital leaders must find a way to marry their companies' core values with automation and other development approaches practiced by the digital goliaths. Here, management experts from Korn Ferry and McKinsey & Company offer up hiring tips to CIOs for bolstering their organization's digital smarts.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Finding the data scientists, developers and other digital talent needed to make companies competitive in today's information age is a well-documented challenge. But CIOs and other C-suite executives often compound the problem because they hire in their own image, according to consultant Melissa Swift, a featured speaker at the 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. 

When searching for digital talent, the wrong people are often the right people, said Swift, global leader for digital solutions at the global consulting firm Korn Ferry Hay Group. It's a conundrum her group takes pains to explain to clients seeking advice on creating digital cultures.

"We actually do an exercise with executives where we have them list all the reasons they might not hire somebody," she said, citing as an example a common red flag -- the "jumpy resume." Prospective employees with a history of moving from job to job are often dismissed as bad bets, she said, but great digital candidates often do just that.

"So, instead of saying, 'Well this person can't commit and they're flaky'," Korn Ferry asks clients to consider an alternative: i.e., "that this person is curious and adaptable, which are two of the traits in our research by the way that pop as being very predictive of success in digital talent," Swift said.

Melissa Swift, global leader for digital solutions, Korn Ferry Hay GroupMelissa Swift

But Swift warned it "takes a massive effort for some of these large organizations to say, 'OK, I'm not going to hire in my own image anymore" and practice what she calls reverse onboarding. That involves management realizing that "these so-called 'wrong folks'" can also bring much-needed cultural change, as well as digital skills, to the organization.

Swift was among a panel of management gurus and tech executives that took on the big question of how "predigital" organizations can create the digital cultures they need to effectively compete today. Moderated by MIT Sloan researcher George Westerman, the panel agreed that the transition from traditional to digital best practices is no simple quest.

Powering 'speedboat' subcultures

While legacy companies must face up to making major changes in order to form digital cultures, Swift said this doesn't mean jettisoning the values -- the "esprit de corps" -- that make companies what they are.

"I talk a lot about not throwing the baby out with bath water. You've got to connect the past of organizations to their future," she said.

Some of the hallmarks of a digital culture are already in place at most large enterprises. Employees are more connected to all parts of the organization than they used to be, simply by virtue of email. "It's no longer that the CEO sits at the end of the hallway" and drives corporate culture, she said.

Instead of a monolithic corporate culture imposed from above, most enterprises today have a "multiplicity of cultures" formed around the type of work people do. The trick, Swift said, is finding the cultural theme people can rally around combined with concrete structural elements -- the right KPIs, the right tools -- to help these subcultures be more agile and nimble.

"What we see with successful organizations going on this digital journey, is actually figuring out how to power some of these little speedboat cultures," she said.

McKinsey 'DQ': Failure modes to avoid

Tanguy Catlin, senior partner, McKinsey & CompanyTanguy Catlin

Tanguy Catlin, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, is the leader of the consultancy's "Digital Quotient," an assessment developed to help companies identify their digital strengths and weaknesses and to compare their results with other companies worldwide. He flagged a handful of "failure modes" CIOs should be aware of when building digital cultures.

"The first is not having a clear taxonomy for the roles you will have in your new operating model," he said. "The second failure mode is assuming you will be able to retrain your entire population."

It often takes a long time for companies to realize they're going to need to bring in talent from the outside, he said, but this is a crucial step in the digital transformation journey. "The difference between good talent and average talent in digital is 100x."

The first [failure mode] is not having a clear taxonomy for the roles you will have in your new operating model. The second ... is assuming you will be able to retrain your entire population.
Tanguy Catlinsenior partner, McKinsey & Company

Star power helps. "I think the third mode is you need to bring in people who will be recognized, who will bring the talent along," he said.

Finally, like Korn Ferry's Swift, Catlin said organizations need to change the way they do recruiting. "If you want to [attract] first-rate developers, you cannot have HR go after them. They will not come," he said, emphasizing that the HR function "is not set up to get you where need to be." Another piece of advice? Don't look only at resumes. One alternative: "You can look at their contributions to open source."

McKinsey's digital transformation journey

McKinsey has been on its own digital transformation journey, Catlin explained. Seven years ago, operating as a traditional management consulting firm, McKinsey made the decision to focus on a number of new areas, digital being one of the five. "We realized the traditional method to training the consultants from the ground up would take too long and would fail," Catlin said.

In order to build digital expertise, the firm has done a large number of acquisitions, including adding Lunar, the design consulting powerhouse, and QuantumBlack for analytics. The firm also developed "very different career tracks and ways of measuring performance" for their new employees. McKinsey set up a "completely different HR function" to pursue this strategy. And Catlin said the firm is still in the process of integrating the various cultures it acquired through acquisitions with its own, including training its traditional consultants how to work with the newly acquired digital experts.

"We are still in the midst of that journey," he said.

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