Virtual Benching: Getting Ahead of the Hiring Curve

By Nancy Gore, Principal, Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Successful organizations know that in the war for talent, if you wait until someone leaves to start looking for a replacement, you’ve already lost.

Getting a late start often ends with bad hires, many made in desperation or in a panic to fill a position that, it was discovered, the organization could not live without.

Progressive organizations take a different approach. They have compiled a talent chart for essential roles, so that if someone suddenly departs, the best-possible replacements are already identified.

It is a process by which you are filling roles that are already filled, but which may become vacant at any moment.

You may ask, is it really possible to get so far out in front of your potential future talent needs that you already know the people you want to bring in to replace departing employees? The answer, thankfully, is yes.

Succession Planning + Networking = Virtual Benching

Virtual Benching (VB) is the process by which organizations and individuals network and identify new opportunities. Specifically, it’s a more contemporary, more effective way of succession planning for all key roles in your organization.

VB begins with a fairly simple process – getting out and meeting people in your market. This is soft, discreet networking, not a full-on courtship. It involves seeking casual meetings with prospective or “passive” candidates, keeping résumés on file, and bookmarking the names and locations of top talent in the event that you suddenly have a role to fill.

The benefits of a concerted VB strategy are varied:

• Getting ahead of your talent needs instead of reacting once a hole has been created.

• Closing the gap on the time it takes to fill a role. This minimizes disruption when you are short on talent, and reduces the cost of finding the right candidate.

• Ensuring rock star candidates see you as a brand/employer of choice. Virtual benching lets you strengthen your company’s profile or brand in the market. If top talent knows about you and likes you, they are likely to talk about and promote you.

Shaking Up The Traditional Hiring Paradigm

Virtual benching is a strategy that may raise eyebrows in organizations with a more traditional view of talent searching and succession planning.

In fact, at one time this form of networking would have been frowned upon in many industries. Some would have viewed the casual contacts between professionals as a form of espionage, or worse, betrayal.

In the age of LinkedIn, however, most professionals understand that people are connected with each other in many virtual and direct ways. Social media, in particular those sites that seek and promote business contacts, have created strong, instantaneous networks.

Talent today is also very mobile, more so than any other previous generation.

Few true top talents want to work their entire careers at one organization. They are managing their own career path, rather than being managed by their first employer.

Organizations that have seen the writing on the talent wall create a detailed plan for critical positions, which identifies the two or three top talents they want to recruit should someone decide to move on.

How To Start?

If VB is a foreign concept in your organization, you may be wondering where to start changing the way you and your colleagues think about talent recruitment.

You can certainly put a VB protocol in place internally, although a good search partner can be an invaluable source of intelligence on others who should be on your list.

In this scenario, search partners can make contact with top talent and inform them that they are now on the radar of a prospective competitor. It is Knightsbridge’s experience that people contacted in this way are very open to having a conversation about future opportunities. In fact, many appreciate the fact that someone has noticed the success they are having.

Other strategies for building a VB foundation include:

• Educate internal hiring managers on the benefits of virtual benching and pipelining talent. This could be a culture shock to some of your people. Ease them into the new mindset by preaching the practical advantages of VB.

• Network to learn more about your candidate market. Identify your major competitors and figure out what it is they do well, and where they suffer. Then, try to identify the individuals that are top producers in those other companies.

• Identify the key roles in your organization that you cannot have ‘empty’ at any given time. Then, identify the top talents working elsewhere that you would like to bring over to your organization.

• Listen closely to what your strongest talent is saying about competitors and the market in general. Inquire about what motivates them in their careers.

• Task managers to dig deeper into the state of their teams. You want managers to know who is happy and who isn’t. You want to know the aspirations of all the top talent on your team, in particular, those who might be at risk of jumping. These are the positions you’re going to have to fill.

• Follow up with passive candidates at intervals that make sense. Keep the dialogue alive and the relationship authentic.

In today’s hyper-competitive talent market, you are never finished searching for or recruiting your starting line-up and bench strength is critical – whether they are on board yet or not. Talent is more mobile than ever, and that means your organization has to be in a constant state of readiness to recruit and replace. In that context, virtual benching makes complete sense.

It’s all about getting out in front of a problem, something that serves businesses well in almost all situations. It’s time to apply that best practice to talent.

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