All-In Recruitment is a podcast by Manatal focusing on all things related to the recruitment industry’s missions and trends. Join us in our weekly conversations with leaders in the recruitment space and learn their best practices to transform the way you hire.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Lydia: Welcome to the All-In Recruitment Podcast by Manatal, where we explore best practices, learnings, and trends with leaders in the recruitment space. If you like our content, please subscribe to our channels on YouTube and Spotify to stay tuned for our weekly episodes. My name is Lydia, and our guest today is Virginia Tirado, an experienced HR exec most recently with Zalando SE. Great to have you with us, Virginia.
Virginia: It's a pleasure to be here, Lydia.
From Lawyer By Training to TA Professional
Lydia: So Virginia, tell us a little bit about your background. What is it about TA that you feel so passionate about?
Virginia: So, I think that there are so many areas about TA that are exciting to me. I’ve got a bit of a different background. I was first a lawyer by training, then moved into business operations, and eventually landed in TA and recruitment. I started with executive recruitment and now pretty much cover all areas. I think what I love about TA is that I believe the other roles I have had have prepared me.
I look at talent acquisition as a function that is there to support the business in achieving super-important goals. But it’s also an opportunity to work with our most precious resources, with talent, and allow us to help folks find the right role at the right time in their careers. So it allows you to do so many things. You can be quite analytical and data-driven, and you can be very focused on becoming efficient and allowing your stakeholders to achieve goals. But you can also be quite human. And I think that that’s the area that excites me the most when you can bring all three things together and make the best of your own experiences in supporting businesses and candidates.
Lydia: How much of your law experience or your legal background has benefited you in talent acquisition?
Virginia: I think that everything we do in life usually prepares us without us knowing, right? You learn and get experiences that allow you to grow. With my legal background, I learned to be a problem solver. You have a legal scenario, you’ve had a situation, and you need to find a solution. Whether it’s for a client or whether it’s for yourself. But when you think about recruitment, there are so many challenges that we faced recently. When you have your thinking hat on and you are dedicated to problem-solving, that is when I think you can be the most helpful for the business.
Creating solutions requires you to actually have that analytical capacity. So that’s how my legal background has helped. But I think the business background, understanding the business and understanding why things are important or why things are done the way they are, strategically, you may make a decision about going into a market or you need to hit a certain margin, or you need to launch a certain product by a certain time. It’s also super important to understand how your activity as a recruiter fits in and how you make those goals possible. So, the operational background has been very helpful to really understand and communicate, and speak the language with our stakeholders.
Lydia: And your most recent role was with the Zalando SE as talent acquisition director, what areas did you prioritize during your time?
Virginia: So, I’ve spent three years at Zalando. And I’ve had so much fun. It’s such a great company. I unfortunately had a little bit of bad timing in joining the company because I joined on March 2 of 2020. So, two weeks before the pandemic hit in full-blown capacity. Actually, it helped me be involved in the business quite quickly because we had to react.
The whole world was changing around us. And the priority at the beginning was to understand how we support the business. And actually even for me coming in as a new leader. I went from having 1,200 or so roles open to less than 200. At first, I was very fortunate to work with our CHRO, who was incredible at just making sure that, even though I was brand new, I had everything I needed and knew who to talk to and how to do things.
So, the first priority was to look after our teams and keep everyone safe, but also look at our candidates who were in the process and make sure you protected the brand. So, that was something that we did at the beginning. And three months later, it turned out that being an online retailer wasn’t such a bad thing. The world was changing.
We needed to adjust quickly to support and have for our customers what they needed. We kicked back and actually just spend time achieving the things that we had slowed down on to make sure that we didn’t get behind. It was really about understanding how we support the business and our customers.
I think that at Zalando, that is always a priority. We are very customer-centric, but also very people-oriented. At the time, it was also to ensure that anyone who needed help or assistance could get it. And also, we evolved into supporting many of our high street partners that would need the logistics and mechanisms to be able to get their products in this moment where you no longer had the ability to go into stores. And so those folks that didn’t have the platform were able to come on to take advantage of the logistics we had in place.
And that was actually pretty cool because we were able to use many of our recruiters who have incredible phone and interviewing talents to connect with many of these companies and help them onboard into this program that Zalando was putting in place. So, that first year was quite exciting and had lots of changes. In the second year, I think we were just growing and did many, many cool things around talent acquisition, including some upskilling and reskilling programs to ensure that we tackle other agendas, like our diversity in tech.
And then basically, the war happened the following year, and we started the year with high ambitions to continue to grow. We had to slow down a bit. So again, it was about our resources and our candidates. I think that those two things are always important, really understanding how the changes that you put in place can affect your brand. Whether you are trying to scale and working too fast or whether you need to slow down and have to actually manage your pipeline differently, it is always about putting the candidate first and ensuring that you know everyone has a great candidate experience because many of our candidates happen to be customers as well.
And ensuring that our stakeholders are always informed as to what we can do as a team and give them clarity and transparency and where we need support.
Navigating Disruptions in Talent Acquisition
Lydia: You spoke at length about all the disruptions that you’ve seen in those three years that you were at Zalando and there’s no doubt about how disruptive it’s been. But it’s also, as you said, been enriching in many ways. It’s transitioned teams into being more digital and more tech-savvy, and even more analytical, in fact. So, how can organizations prepare for these disruptions in terms of their talent acquisition strategies?
Virginia: That’s a really good question. I think that we should not take for granted how much we have learned over the last three years. I think it’s very easy to fall back into the position of doing things as we’ve always done them and miss out on the learnings. One thing that has been clear throughout the pandemic, and actually has been clear even before the pandemic, is that we have a true talent shortage around the world. And there is a huge talent gap as well.
I think that we haven’t really found the best way to ensure that we don’t waste talent, that we don’t waste the most important resources, the most precious resources we have. And you’ve seen it. Even now, in tech, it’s still happening. We’re laying off people that we never even thought of. Getting software engineers laid off like product managers, that is something that we never thought we would see. And I think that it is a mistake.
Because we are in the middle of a green transition. We are in the middle of an AI revolution. We are in the middle of so many changes around the way we work today. And unless you are clear about the type of company you want to be and how you want to be perceived, it’s very difficult to have a talent strategy that is strong enough, that will be robust and that will benefit from a strong employer brand.
I think that the best way is to ask recruiters to really be analytical. You do need to know your data. You need to speak the language that the business understands.
If you tell a manufacturer that there’s going to be a shortage of x, y, or Z or materials or ingredients that they need for production. Guess what? They’re going to secure having that requirement covered so that they can stay in business. If we share with our hiring managers the complexity in certain areas about securing talent and understanding the market, show them the LinkedIn data, show them what is happening in certain sectors, and ensure why it’s important that we actually use talent in a more diligent way, they will understand. Everybody is aiming to be successful and trying to achieve the same goals, right? We all want to make sure that the business can do what it needs to do, that we bring the right candidates, and so on.
So, data and being analytical, as well as understanding your market are keys, and also with your stakeholders having a vision of what type of employer you want to be. And then working with your team to ensure that your employer brand is authentic and is not damaged by crazy ideas that you may have in the way you treat candidates. You have to make sure that you are providing the right feedback, that you are cultivating those relationships, and not just dropping the ball because another priority has come by.
Lydia: Turning these talent strategies into a sustainable one often involves stakeholder management. So, how do you go about convincing them? Is it a long process? Or is there some kind of timeline that you could work within in order to get this going, or is this an organic process that sort of just invents itself as disruptions come along?
Virginia: I would say, to the contrary, it requires investment in building trust. The best way to go about this is to build strong partnerships with all of the other supporting functions.
If you have a strong partnership with finance and your HR business partners, you can work together with stakeholders in a concerted manner to prioritize areas of focus.
For example, if we need to make 100 hires for the first quarter of 2024, we might be starting a little bit late, but it’s doable. I will go to my HR business partner and understand how many people we have in the pipeline for a promotion that might be ready or even stretch them a little bit, even if they’re not 100% ready. What is our current attrition rate? How are we doing with internal mobility? What are the stats?
If I don’t ask the right questions, I’m going to put all the pressure on my team to deliver 100 new hires, where we might end up losing people internally because we didn’t give them the opportunity to go after some of these roles. Sometimes we think newer is better and don’t see the advantage of these folks who know the culture, company, and products, and are super engaged. You might create a domino effect by doing things differently.
In my view, what has worked for me more effectively in stakeholder management is investing and being transparent, and giving them the data they need. But if you want to make a point, bring everyone to the same agenda and hold everyone accountable, not just TA. Yes, TA has to make those hires, but how are we doing to retain the hires we’ve made? How are we doing with the diverse talent we’ve brought in? How are we making sure people feel inclusive?
Are you familiar as a recruiter with engagement scores for the business that you are hiring for? Are you familiar with the growth plans? Have you seen the business plan? The more involved and knowledgeable you are, the better the stakeholder relationship you will have. Because then, when you go in and ask for stakeholders to support you on a particular initiative, like needing more money to run a LinkedIn campaign for a particular set of talent, they will know that you know your stuff and have done your homework.
So, I think that’s the key. If I had to give anyone any advice, it would be to always understand every angle that has an impact eventually on the talent strategy.
Collaborative Planning with Finance and HR
Lydia: These talent strategies, coupled with the investment of time and building relationships with partnerships, eventually lead to actionable steps. How does this cascade into how businesses run in a day-to-day scenario?
Virginia: If you think about TA as any other business, not just a support function, you should run TA as if you were running an agency or an exec search firm. You would have a business plan, right? You need to know how many hires you need to make, how many people you need to hit that hire, what it is going to cost, and so on.
What I tend to do is partner really well with finance early on in the planning process and understand what our challenge might look like. Understand how many people I’m going to need to deliver a plan, run a couple of scenarios, such as if we grow by 10%, if we shrink by 5%, if we grow by 20%, whatever those numbers are.
We’ve seen everything happen over the last three years, so you can be growing by 20% and the next quarter you might actually be reducing by 2% or 3%.
Understand that piece and then go to your HR business partner to check on all of these KPIs that we discussed: internal mobility, attrition, promotion ratios, and so on. Get the data and then go meet with your stakeholders to understand what is the most important thing for them. Be prepared to challenge if you need to because obviously if your attrition in this particular business unit is 20% and everywhere else in the company is eight or 12, you’ve got an issue with retention.
How are you going to work together to build a plan and work backwards from where you want to be? We usually tend to eventually do an actual strategy document per business unit that is not built just by my recruiters but is a consolidated piece of work that comes from this research and preparation. Then you can use it to measure your progress and stay on top of it by checking on it on a weekly or monthly basis.
If you see changes where you need support, be transparent and don’t wait until the last minute to ask for help. It’s okay if you got something wrong as well. You need to speak up and ensure that you put the right plans in place to correct because we’re not perfect and can also make mistakes.
What our stakeholders really appreciate is having transparent communication. Similarly for our stakeholders, if they are over-planned or under-planned, it’s important that we know that information as soon as possible so we can put the correct plan in place.
Lydia: Timeliness is key, just as communication is. Disruption often involves an immediate need for talent. So, how can a company strike a balance between its long-term recruitment goals and the immediate needs caused by disruption for instance?
Virginia: Again, I think it all comes down to communication. You need to have a long-term vision for setting up your teams and identifying the best channels for hires. However, it’s also important to understand how to adapt in an agile way when things change.
For instance, when the war broke out in Ukraine, we were just starting our recruiting year. I had geared up for hiring over 4,500 people because we were going to grow. We were actually building a very cool new business and could shift some of the capacity immediately to support this new business.
You need to get the business across all other sectors to align on what their true needs are. It usually takes time for some of this stuff, especially if you have a bigger company, for things to sink in and you can’t be too aggressive because no one knows exactly how some of this stuff is going to impact. But you have to be cautious.
The important piece is to be agile for the immediate steps. If you have built strong connections with your stakeholders and partners that support those stakeholders, then you can act really quickly because you can come together. So okay, where do we prioritize? Do we move people from this area to this? Are we just going to focus on internal mobility to ensure that we don’t bring people from the outside world if we are insecure in certain aspects?
We don’t want to bring people that we may have to let go three months later. So, it’s about understanding what are the best actions you can take, and you cannot do that in a bubble or just sitting separately. You have to be constantly communicating.
When you have built those stakeholder relationships, people will come to you and will immediately share that we need to regroup and do things a little bit differently. If you’ve already had a strategy plan in place, then you can go back and correct that strategy plan.
If you have clarity in the areas where you’re going to focus, then it is much easier to do this. If you wait until a crisis happens to have a plan, then that’s where I think you can get into a really sticky situation.
Sometimes businesses are so high-paced that you’re constantly just delivering and hardly ever take time to step back and really look at the bigger picture. So, one thing we have learned through these last three years is that it’s never been more important to understand where your challenges and risk areas can be and what plans you’re going to have in place to support some of these areas.
So again, communication is key as well as adaptability, agility, and flexibility, just like the business needs so that you can find the best solution possible.
Lydia: Data also plays a huge role in situations where you have to pivot and tweak your strategy to suit what is needed, I would imagine.
Virginia: If you don’t know how many candidates you have in a pipeline or what stage they are in, how do you protect your candidate experience? If you’re not sure which roles need to come in first, for example, if you’re setting up a new office and need to have the leaders in place first, you can’t start hiring software engineers or sales folks if there’s no one there to set the agenda. So, it is about understanding what the levers are that you need to rely on. But if you didn’t have the data beforehand, then you’re going to be scrambling to try to get some information.
I think one thing that is also important, and I think that we don’t do this enough, is to understand how to structure your team. When can it help to actually rely more on external partners? How do you build your talent acquisition team so that you have a really good mix of folks who understand the culture, understand the brand, have been with the company, and can actually deliver for different profiles, whether it’s in tech, in sales, or in corporate? But also, how can you bring folks whether through an embedded model and RPO model, or just freelancers or agencies, to supplement your workforce in a way that gives you flexibility if at some point you have to do fewer hires because business situations have changed?
So we don’t necessarily plan for this. And I think that when you do plan for this, there are many opportunities for you to protect your recruiters in a way that they can feel relaxed and comfortable doing their work without having to worry whether they will have a job in three months. So, all of that is also important. You have to think in advance as you’re putting your plans together for the coming year.
Understanding and Leveraging Existing Team Strengths
Lydia: In terms of teams or leaders, HR leaders, and talent acquisition leaders who are coming in to build their team from scratch, they can do the segregation. They can look at the ratio of full-time recruiters to external agencies, etc.
But for those who are inheriting a large team of recruiters and then moving into a period in which the business itself is uncertain as to where it’s headed, how can they strategize?
Virginia: Again, I think going back to the sustainability of talent, it’s very easy for the first cuts to be felt in HR for some reason, not only in talent acquisition but if there is an issue. There’s nothing necessarily guaranteeing that you won’t go in. That’s what we’ve seen, many recruiters lose their jobs. I think that if you’re coming in, understand and get to know your team. Understand what strengths they bring individually. A lot of people end up in recruiting, but they’ve started somewhere else. Maybe they were in another function, customer service, or some sort of compliance function. There are many things that we see people have had experiences with, and sometimes we don’t know.
But there’s also quite a lot of fungible talent within talent acquisition. Our recruiters are great at many things. I gave you an example of how we used recruiters at Zalando during the beginning of the pandemic, but recruiters at the end are sales folks. They also care about individuals and HR. So if you can actually get your recruiters to consider other roles within the company, even if it’s on an interim basis until you can figure out where you’re going to go with your organization, I think this works really well.
Some may actually find a calling and when we’ve seen it, where they’ve gone to do a temporary assignment and they finally love it. I’ve seen many of our recruiters move into HR business roles. They’ve also moved into employee relations, they’ve moved into compliance, they’ve moved into perhaps a sales and marketing role. There are many things that recruiters can do.
So, I would advise that coming in and if you are inheriting a team, get to know them before you start making decisions about whether it’s too big of a team and you need to get rid of people or the company can’t support such a big recruiting organization because they’re going to recruit less. I think it’s important that you figure out how and then you can lead by example because then if you want to have an agenda on sustainability of talent, you can be the first one to show what is possible.
I think that will make a huge difference. We’ve seen it happen, and it is possible, and it’s appreciated. Normally, you will also increase the engagement of your staff of your employees which tends to produce a better return on investment because folks will stay with the company longer as well. So, that would be my advice on what I’ve seen works really well.
How Technology Transforms TA and How to Embrace It
Lydia: That’s excellent. We’re just moving into the topic of technology itself. You mentioned earlier about data and how it is critical to make sure that you have a strategic plan in place and dealing with partners inside an organization. Technology is often a key driver of change and evolution, as you pointed out with what happened at Zalando.
So, how can companies utilize technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, like we’re seeing today with generated AI, data, and analytics to enhance their efforts in recruitment, especially during periods of disruption?
Virginia: That's a really good question. I think a lot of it is still quite new. The best thing we can do is not be afraid of it. When considering technology and the changes, especially in AI, many people claim that recruiters will no longer be needed, as applications can be automated and selections streamlined. I tend to disagree. Yes, there will be changes, especially in high-volume roles where in-depth skill assessments are unnecessary. However, as we become more technology-driven, the human element becomes even more crucial. Recruiters should recognize the value they bring as they represent the company's employer brand externally when dealing with candidates. An online application cannot convey the reasons why someone should work at a company as effectively as a recruiter can.
Recruiters play a pivotal role in selling the candidate experience, connecting candidates with similar experiences, and helping them understand the roles. So, my biggest advice is to embrace technology, learn it, and not be afraid of it. Look for ways to become more efficient. Historically, every technological advancement initially frightened people. I began my career as a lawyer, and it was acceptable to have an assistant handle typing because my time was billable. However, as technology evolved, we all learned to type, and secretaries became less common. Now, AI assists us in various tasks, freeing up time for more value-added activities.
Recruiters should aim to spend more time sourcing the right talent and understanding specific markets and talent pools. AI can help improve job descriptions, eliminating biased language that may deter potential candidates. However, we must ensure that AI is developed in an unbiased manner. There are numerous other potential applications for AI, such as managing performance reviews and drafting documents efficiently.
Embracing AI requires reskilling and upskilling. The World Economic Forum's latest jobs report highlights substantial skills gaps. It's not enough to have smart employees; they must be willing to learn new skills. The younger generation is resilient and eager to learn, making it essential to invest in skill development and workforce engagement. The evolving job landscape, driven by technological advancements and the green transition, presents numerous opportunities. There are emerging roles in fields like sustainability and recycling that were unheard of before. Embrace technology, think strategically about how to leverage it for efficiency, and prioritize continuous learning.
If you don't know how to map a market, consider learning this valuable skill. Collaborate with talent managers to identify and develop internal talent pools. There's a lot that recruiters can do to generate significant returns, both personally and professionally, and most importantly, for the businesses they support.
Supporting Business, Talent, and Candidates
Lydia: You’ve talked about sustainability being key, which is great because ultimately it’s about reducing waste of time, resources, and skill. It’s about looking into how to make use of that to enrich the operations of a business long-term, keeping the institutional knowledge as intact as possible, and seeing the business grow. Pairing that with technology can enhance and free up time, giving you the intelligence you need to make those kinds of decisions. So looking ahead, what else excites you most about the future of talent acquisition?
Virginia: I think that we get to play relevant roles more and more. We have moved from just executors to strategists, and it’s up to us to continue to carve our place in these conversations and be prepared. We’ve been asking for a seat at the table, so now that we are sitting at the table, what do you have to say? Why should people listen to you?
We’ve just talked about the skill gap, talent shortage, the green transition, climate change, AI, and machine learning, and how all of this is revolutionizing the future. Can you talk about it? If your stakeholders came to you, do you understand what that talent shortage is? How can we change that? What can we do differently? How can you support your own colleagues and employees who might be at risk because one function, such as customer service, may become automated? What are the talent skills that they have? Look at those gaps.
I’m excited about the role we can play in supporting the business, supporting talent, and supporting candidates. I’m also excited about continuing to learn about all these exciting topics that are coming up. Maybe we will become reskill engineers. We can engineer programs to support our internal talent and diverse talent and support our own communities and employee resource groups to become much more savvy about understanding what opportunities they can apply for within the company. So that we continue to grow the diversity of the team that we have and don’t lose people that we’ve brought in because we don’t have the opportunities to show them.
There are lots of things to be excited about. But I think this is just the beginning.
Lydia: Yes, in the beginning, there are so many more things to come with technology. And with that enhancement of skill, I think the vision will become far more splintered. I wouldn’t want to say fragmented, but really splintered because that’s where it’s come from. There’s always an origin.
Thank you very much for your time, Virginia. Your insights have been great. I particularly liked the emphasis on sustainability because it goes across the board in terms of how you use technology, how you envision the people’s strategy in your companies, and also your own team in HR and talent acquisition. Thank you so much, Virginia. Drop us your contact details so the audience can maybe carry on a conversation with you later.
Virginia: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me. Yes, I will share my LinkedIn profile. Please feel free to reach out if I can be of any help. It’s been wonderful to have this conversation. Thank you so much for providing this platform so that we can come together and share interesting ideas for the future.
Lydia: We have been in conversation with Virginia Tirado, an experienced HR Executive who was formerly with Zalando SE. Thank you for joining us and remember to subscribe to stay tuned for more weekly episodes of All-In Recruitment.