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Guest article

People really are food companies’ greatest asset

By Michael Lee PhD , 08-Sep-2009

Thousands of food companies make and sell products; why do some become so much more successful than others? Is it luck, or is it better people? Dr Michael Lee of CPL Executive Search says individuals make all the difference – and firms need to use the right methods to hire senior executives with a specific set of skills.

It is individuals who make the strategies, ideas, innovations, sales and profits – not organisations, committees, management structures or matrices. Businesses are driven by talented people demonstrating creativity in research, entrepreneurship in sales and sensitivity in management.

For example, Coca Cola was invented by Dr John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Georgia, who formulated the soft drink in his own backyard. The name came from his bookkeeper Frank Robinson, who first scripted the famous Coca Cola logo of today. Finally the formula was bought by Asa Candler, another Atlanta pharmacist and businessman, and it is largely his aggressive marketing that led to its success.

Who knows whether Coke would be the phenomenal beverage powerhouse it is today without the input of those individuals and the others who followed?

A big challenge for food firms

For the food industry, finding the right people has become even more crucial in these challenging times. The current recession, globalisation and the industry’s increasing sophistication in technology, innovation, marketing and sales have created the need for senior multi-lingual, multi-cultural commercial and technical people with unusual and specific skill sets.

The right person for a job unites and motivates teams, gains customers, reaches goals and when mistakes are made, learns from them and moves on. They are often the facilitators and motivators who lead by ‘Expert Power.’

Yet it can be difficult to find senior people with exactly the right experience and/or rare skill sets. Just where are you going to find a person who speaks four languages, with a very specific technical background, perhaps with more than a decade of commercial or business development experience, and who is probably working at present for your competitor, the worldwide market leader? It is not easy, even before you consider cultural fit, team fit and whether they want to uproot their family, root and branch, to globetrot sometimes halfway across the world.

Because senior people tend to be genuinely hard to find, and time and resources may also be short, companies should consider engaging executive search consultants. They can have superior networks, experience and technical/commercial discrimination to seek out the right person, particularly if that person needs to have a complex skill set and commercial competence.

Yet sadly, many companies will spend money on almost anything other than finding people. They take four common approaches that might inadvertently find the right person, but in practice often doesn’t: internal recruiting, ‘word-of-mouth’, advertising and databases. All of them appear to be cost-effective, and it’s true that they can be for more junior roles, or where experience and skill-sets are relatively straightforward.

However, where they fail is for more senior roles, where such approaches ultimately cost companies a lot of time and money and they still don’t secure their ideal candidate.

The need for new blood

Recruiting internally seems the easy option; it’s quick, inexpensive and low risk. It is also often very unsatisfactory, as finding exactly the right skill set is unlikely, and it leads to corporate cultural inbreeding and a lack of new blood and the innovation that brings. In general, organisations with more diversity also have more vigour; those that are culturally diverse are also much better positioned to exploit globalisation.

Believe it or not, some reputable companies’ still fill positions with ‘a friend of a friend’ or ask staff if they ‘know anyone suitable?’ This simply invites ‘more of the same’ in terms of people, ideas and insular thinking and they are almost never the right fit.

Another common approach is to advertise – which can work well for junior jobs, but at higher levels mostly attracts the unemployed, the discontented and the unemployable. Similarly, drawing candidates from agency databases often works for junior jobs but for senior positions, rarely yields the right person, and if it does, it is usually a random event.

Once candidates’ numerous applications/CVs have been evaluated, and potential candidates identified, first interviews have to be arranged, management teams gathered and the unsuitable weeded out; more interviews ensue, in which the company has to gauge the real motives of the candidates, whilst enthusing the candidate about the role and the company. All of this takes valuable time and the process can take many months; candidates may go elsewhere by the time a decision is made, especially if they are actively looking for a job.

All of this can have an impact on company business – not least the opportunity cost to senior and middle managers who are distracted from their main jobs by the recruitment process.

A candidate whom CPL recently successfully placed says “the head hunter offers invaluable advice, insight and coaching for the specific roles which is much more than can be gained simply from an advertisement or website – the two experiences cannot be compared.”

However companies choose to find their ideal managers, directors and team leaders, they should put emphasis on more ‘specialised searching’ methods whilst avoiding the pitfalls of less targeted approaches. And once they have good people, their next challenge is to value them and keep them.

Dr Michael Lee is the Managing Consultant at CPL Executive Search, based in Oxford, England. CPL is a specialist search company with a strong understanding of and networks in the food ingredients industry. www.CPLsearch.co.uk , +44-1491-829-346

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