EP77: Visa - How to Rethink Executive Talent Acquisition

January 24, 2024
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State of Recruitment 2024

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All-In Recruitment is a podcast by Manatal that focuses 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. I'm your host, Lydia and with us today is Alёna Romanenko, Global Head of Research, Executive Talent Acquisition at Visa. A pleasure to have you with us today, Alёna.

Alёna: Thank you so much for the invitation, Lydia.

Defining Best Practices for Executive Search

Lydia: So Alёna, tell us a little bit about your background. What motivated you to pursue a career in Executive Talent Acquisition and how did you get involved in the field in the first place?

Alёna: It was really a conscious decision for me to join that field. I was aware of Executive Talent Acquisition because of my studies. One of my mentors at the University of Vienna in Austria was the head of HR for IBM at the time. We knew that this is how global companies acquire senior talent.

So for me, when I was approached by a recruiter several years after that, one of the roles they offered was an analyst for the technology, media, and telecom practice for one of the global search firms, Spencer Stewart. It was an easy choice for me, then I consciously went for it.

In my first executive search job, I was a practice analyst for the EMBA practice at Spencer Stewart, then became an associate. I moved to executive search in-house now at Visa. So, I’ve seen both sides of the fence, if you will.

Lydia: What goes into your role as global head of research? I understand that you're also focused on building a global center of excellence for sourcing and building warehouse competencies. Tell us a bit more about it.

Alёna: Our research team is part of the broader Executive Talent Acquisition team. When it comes to the Center of Excellence, there are definitely multiple pillars to that. There is a foundational operational excellence element to it. For example, defining best practices for executive search. To give you a specific example, our team has developed training that we have now showcased regionally and globally across Talent Acquisition, not just executive Talent Acquisition. We are now turning that into our learning pathway, as they call it, with our Visa University, which is an educational arm.

There is also the setting of different standards in terms of timelines. What is a healthy amount of time across various process stages? How is the quality of the long list and shortlist defined? This broader knowledge management piece involves best practices, adhering to them, and ensuring consistency regionally and globally. We’re thinking about tools, platforms like CRM, ATS, and external platforms like LinkedIn Recruiter, and utilizing these tools to develop our pipelines and build candidate engagement. So, that’s the foundational pillar.

There is also, of course, more programmatic work and finding solutions to that, but also succession planning. I would probably point that out separately because it’s about identifying and mapping the critical skills across the various functions and then creating diverse talent pools to develop these external slates. I would probably call it building proprietary Executive Talent Acquisition intellectual property in order to develop our advisory capability.

A new one that only came this year is integrating and championing the use of Artificial Intelligence into the routine of search practices. Whether it’s relatively simple things like using ChatGPT to summarize hiring manager meetings or maybe creating some bullet points for a job description. But it can also be more sophisticated things that are more future-forwarded, more aspirational. We have our meetings where we think about these kinds of things exclusively. So, that’s also part of that Centre of Excellence, at least in the programmatic sense.

Building the Foundation First

Lydia: That’s a broad scope that you have there. It's so many different elements within those pillars that need execution as well. There's planning and then there's the setting of best practices and the execution. So, where did you start with these plans?

Alёna: This is why I also broke it down into those two pillars for simplicity. Because you got to lay the foundations first and you’ve got to know that this is the best practice. Once that is taken care of, then you start to think, “Okay, what's the next step?” Because you can't just take a shortcut to do succession planning. There are so many foundational things that need to happen before you do that. This is why I broke it down into these things.

Because at the very foundation of it, you start building your house on top of it. If your foundations are sound, you can be as creative with the rest of the design as you'd like to be.

Lydia: And what stage are you in right now, in terms of this whole plan?

Alёna: Everything I mentioned to you is our reality today. As you can imagine, if we talk about something as big as succession planning, you might have some regions or some functions that are a bit further down the line just because of capacity. Honestly, let’s not look for complex explanations here. At the same time, we’re trying to be very consistent and systematic in how we do these.

Our team is truly global. We obviously have a research team, but we also have recruiters, we have coordinators. So, we’re working as one team, and delivering as well. We have this ‘One Visa’ expression; ‘Delivers One Visa.’ That’s our motto and our philosophy in how we think about things, how we conceptualize them, but also how we execute them.

Using AI to Personalize Candidate Experience

Lydia: What are some trends that you’ve seen in Executive Talent Acquisition that you find most significant? I mean, we’ve seen pretty critical changes in the past two or three years in the demands of candidates, not just candidates, but at every level.

Alёna: The first one I will mention is AI and automation. One could argue it’s just for Executive Talent Acquisition (Exec TA) and then just ignore it. It’s affecting all of us. I think it’s being used today even in the early stages of technology to streamline and speed up the recruitment process. There is such a huge opportunity there to free up time for proper value-add work, which I think everyone is trying to do in their space.

You heard me say that we’re developing intellectual property for Exec TA in order to expand our advisory capability. That’s the secret sauce. Maybe in Executive Talent Acquisition more than in other functions like professional hiring or early careers, it’s important to be proactive. The only way to achieve that productivity in your approach is to free up time from anything that is routine or manual, to really think deeply, understand, develop relationships, and then leverage that to improve the service and improve the candidate experience.

That leads me to another trend which is employee branding and personalized candidate experience. I think part of it is connected to AI. The next level of AI and Process Automation is hyper-personalization. It’s the opportunity to not only be able very early on but very automatically, to get suggestions on what skill set might be a good fit for something.

So, that hyper-personalization and that tailored approach determine which roles are going to be interesting for these specific subsets of your executive talent.

We’re able to not waste time on finding these things and really spend the time in relationships, in understanding your talent, and also in organizing information that you know about your talent. Then, leveraging that to improve the way the team operates, improve the candidate experience, and also weave in the qualitative bit about the employee brand like what is your brand? What is the culture of the company? What are the values? What does the company stand for?

I think there is a huge piece here, where we, as an in-house team, probably have a little bit of an advantage over, let’s say, an external advisor. There is always the piece about thinking about the hiring manager and the business. We advise them and we show them the best talent. We’re not wasting their time. We’re really focused on actually providing the answers and being a pre-selection mechanism that helps everyone be targeted.

The last piece.. and I won’t dwell on it, but I will mention it because it connects everything that we were talking about, is succession planning. It’s about continuously refining your efforts. Leveraging technology like CRM as the backbone for being able to find the talent, but then also being very pragmatic to identify your digitally important roles in every region. Just working with a business to be like, “Okay, let’s prioritize this.” Again, we might have some capacity restraints, but we can deliver, let’s say, five out of 10, or eight out of 10, in this timeline. Let’s prioritize together, and let’s get started.

I mentioned that as a trend because this is the future specifically maybe in Executive Talent Acquisition. But I actually think it’s a broader point for all of Talent Acquisition (TA) because best practices are best practices. Some of us might have longer cycles, just like it is in Executive TA, but the principle is the same. When I talk to my colleagues from professional hiring, that’s what they say. They want to be more proactive but sometimes they can’t. By the way, I’m not talking specifically about Visa here. It’s an industry observation, I would put it like this.

It Is More Than Just Forecasting

Lydia: It's data-driven forecasting that you're doing in order to protect or future-proof the business's needs in terms of talent later on. That's what you mean by succession planning and making sure that it's also included in your overall strategy.

Alёna: Absolutely. But it’s also not just about forecasting, it’s about having the actual answers. What is your top 10? What is your top 20 for this specific role? What would you do after that? This can be at the stage of being a paper exercise, if you will. But you can also, of course, take it to the next level. Let’s get to know these people. How about we introduce them to our leaders? Do we organize a fireside chat? Because maybe this is more long-term succession planning or should they just meet the leader for whom this succession is happening?

So, there are absolutely very different flavors to that. But there isn’t just a paper exercise element to it, or there isn’t just a data analytics piece of it. There is actually what are the answers to the questions that are asked? Or maybe haven’t even been asked yet? Which is my favorite kind, when you can answer the question that hasn’t been asked yet.

Lydia: Yes, that's right and these are also applicable to passive candidates. Those who you've seen, and they may be in the organization as well as outside.

So, what will be some best practices when it comes to sourcing candidates such as these passive candidates? Those who show potential in-house maybe and also those who are outside?

Alёna: There isn’t really a secret sauce. I think we all are operating in a world that is changing fast, is fast-paced, and will occasionally also be volatile. So, it’s disruptive. Let me set the baseline here because I would like to answer that from the position of strength that Visa is in. I really acknowledge how fortunate we are, or I am, to be answering a question about challenges and best practices in an environment where we are a growing and innovative company. We are strong enough to work through those volatile conditions and difficult market fluctuations. It’s a solid ship, and we beautifully survived COVID. All the things that we’ve learned in that, there’s definitely a huge gratitude piece that I almost want to say and put out there.

What helps a lot, and I’ll come back to the brand, is growth, profitability, and being a trusted ethical brand. These are the factors that actually set everyone up for success, no matter what the challenges are in the markets. It’s great to be answering this from a position of strength. But we are working a lot with these complex environments where we have to have a very unique approach.

I’m probably specifically speaking about global, large enterprises. The combination is so unique, and the requirements are so unique and so broad, that you need to find the right fit for each role. It’s kind of like the search for the proverbial purple unicorn. We are looking for someone who is able to operate in a global matrix but also possesses strategic thinking, and commercial acumen and is a strong people leader.

And then there is probably, on top of that, subject matter expertise in a specialized functional area. Visa has a huge portfolio. We have commercial money movement and value-added services. Some of these things really require a lot of industry knowledge as well from a Talent Acquisition professional. So, a best practice is really that of learning and education and that curiosity piece. We all need to constantly be learning and just never stop. Because in the complex and ever-changing environment, the list of requirements is only getting bigger.

It is part of our task as well to understand where we need to negotiate, and where we maybe need to push back.

Maybe not everything out of the 100 points that we need to have is a priority, and how to have a dialogue with the hiring managers about that. But I will say that that holistic view of talent is a best practice.

Also, it’s very important how not just Talent Acquisition works with it, but also how you work. For example, with talent management on connecting and bringing this together, because there is a piece here, sometimes you can’t find that purple unicorn, and sometimes you need to grow your own purple unicorn and develop it.

I think there is an element here, where you need to work together in partnership and collaboration with talent development, and the business. What are we growing? What are we developing? What are maybe some of the risks that we’re taking? How can you be creative, innovative, and brave when it comes to developing leaders?

Our Chief People Officer actually does not have a classical HR background. In her past roles, she was our Chief General Counsel, who was brought in to lead and reimagine the people team globally. She’s been very public to say that she isn’t an HR person. She, however, is a fantastic, smart, driven leader, who is transforming the people team’s organization today, and leaning into her strengths of being a transformational leader, being a living example of how organizations can take also bold risks. Could we have hired a Chief People Officer externally? Yes, we could have. But also, we can grow that talent.

That kind of constant dialogue and also not seeing ourselves as Talent Acquisition leaders and professionals in a silo. We are not just trying to fill targets to achieve targets and fill roles. We are actually collaborators, first and foremost, who give solutions to achieve the best outcome possible. Hopefully, I gave an illustrative example for that. They’re not obvious. They’re not what is actually within your domain. So, you need to be exposed to others in order to actually get to the solution.

Hiring in VUCA Environment

Lydia: There are all these disruptions that you mentioned. It's VUCA, ultimately, that we're living in and there are also these technological advancements. We’re seeing AI, as you mentioned, extensively earlier, AI automation, and digital transformation as a business moving into different business verticals, for instance. How have these elements influenced you? Or have they influenced the qualities that you seek in executive leaders?

Alёna: Absolutely, yes. But I think the quality has remained the same in terms of what is a great leader. I go back to the point about complexity and the purple unicorn. We are the original fintech. We have always had that digital savviness as a prerequisite on our list. If I think about these things, as you might have seen, it’s been publicly announced that Visa launched a **$**100 million initiative in generative AI ventures. Visa launched Artificial Intelligence Advisory Services. The business is there and thinking about these things. So, of course, that requirement of understanding what the business is doing is just always there.

It’s not that understanding how to operate ChatGPT is on the list of important things. But, I think Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), or Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) as it’s sometimes called now, is just such an important topic. I think a lot of companies are having their own flavor of D&I challenges. Some industries may suffer a little bit more than others. But ultimately, the root cause of this is the availability of the talent pool, especially niche skills that are limited by default.

In the spirit of everything being interconnected, I think there is this big question; “Do you build or do you buy?” As we’ve discussed before, some of these problems can’t just be solved in a silo by Talent Acquisition. They shouldn’t be. Maybe they could, but they shouldn’t be. The reasons are collaboration, talent development, and talent management.

Are we looking at this problem from all directions and are we investing in our own talent, identifying and filling the skill gaps? So, I don’t know if anyone has figured this out completely in the industry anywhere.

But, we aren’t dealing with a lot of parts with historic trends and changing demographic trends. For example, with maybe women in engineering. There is a really strong pipeline of talent at slightly more junior levels than what the definition is for Executive Talent Acquisition. So, Visa’s Executive Talent Acquisition starts at the VP plus level. By the way, it doesn’t translate across companies. But for example, at the director and senior director level, even today, we can find so many women. They are there if you just really map out the whole talent pool.

They are there, and they are a very strong percentage. It might not be quite 50%, but it’s a much higher number than when you look at it at the VP plus level. Historically, that’s how it is, what kind of degrees people got, and whether women went into engineering. I think it is quite illustrative, this example, but we need to bear that in mind.

There is another concept here that I want to highlight, because I think it just helps us to think about things differently. It’s that diversity of thought. It doesn’t have to come from any specific dimension of diversity, it doesn’t have to be gender. It’s really the versatility as in it can be an industry that you hire from. Say we work in payments, but we don’t exclusively hire from payments or from financial services. We hire from tech and information services.

There is really breadth and depth and arguably, this is a more important point; how we solve this, if we understand it differently, reframes the problem a little bit. I will also say that usually, our job in getting a position doesn’t end here.

That’s why our teams have practices going from pre and post-hire referencing. For example, we talk to colleagues and really do this piece where we ask, what is the support that the leaders joining the organization can get? Are there some ideas that their former colleagues or managers have? In this 360 view, how can we help them onboard? This is actually part of our efforts that our research team does, and the broader executive team does, that inclusion piece.

So, I will end this answer to your question with that sort of productivity of outreach.

You can only solve the diversity challenge if you are out there proactively identifying, engaging, and working with that talent with a diversity of thought and minds.

Because again, diversity will mean something else. There are some functions where the usual agenda diversity piece actually should be flipped. Because majority and minority can be defined differently, depending on the context.

So, just having all these things in mind, and I know, it’s a lot, but it’s very important to be able to maintain that perspective and that holistic view in order to do our jobs well.

It’s More Than Just Bringing Talent Through the Door

Lydia: You mentioned a really good point earlier about how Talent Acquisition, the work doesn't stop at just bringing someone in and getting them through the door, and then that's it. There's also this retention element that goes into that. So, what strategies have you found to be particularly successful or useful in terms of thinking about retention strategies?

Alёna: You’re absolutely right. Do we attract and retain? I think it’s the piece with talent management and talent development. Often in our first conversations with talent, we actually ask them, “What drives you? What motivates you? Talk to us.” Because you have to and Talent Acquisition in general is in a unique position to actually know. So, what is happening with this role? What’s the path? If you come into this role, who could you be? What doors does it open internally, and building that understanding in that proactive engagement that you’re driving?

Have a dialogue also with the hiring managers because it’s not just about filling the role. We ask that question in our hiring manager briefings, “Why should people be excited about this and where is this going? How do you know if this is your successor? Who are the main stakeholders and collaborators of this role?’ Because potentially, those are the paths for this person to come in. As much as you might know, it’s an Executive Talent Acquisition world. There is a certain cycle to also a successful sort of stint, if you will, in a role. It’s risky to put a number here, but it’s around three years. It can be longer, it can be shorter, but it’s probably around three years, because of assessing, making a plan, and then executing.

If you want to say we’ve actually done this, and you want to really fully own it, you probably need a couple of years. But you need to know as long as that might sound, you need to know what you’re building towards that with talent management and development. Including this thinking, at the early stage, the person hasn’t even started the job you’re actually discussing with them. But that proactive thinking and that proactive caring approach of like, “So, how are we developing this?” I think it will serve you well as an Executive Talent Acquisition professional in general because you understand routes to success.

Some executive search firms, as you might know, published this series right through to success; what are the paths leading there? This will also enable you to be stronger at being able to predict what might work or not, and be much more creative than just saying, “Oh, okay, someone has an engineering in their title today. That means they might be an engineering professional in the future.” Oversimplifying and making a joke here. But it goes back to the education piece here as well.

Ensuring a Successful Executive Hire

Lydia: We’ll be discussing successful collaboration. You mentioned earlier a very pertinent point, which is ensuring that all the pieces come together. This requires a solid foundation, not just in technology or best practice video communication, but also in the people involved. It’s about making sure your highest success is taken care of. So, what constitutes a successful collaboration among all these stakeholders? Especially when it comes to an executive leader making a good hire at the executive level.

Alёna: We have a hybrid approach whereby we have a growing and developing in-house research team and we also work with agencies. The successful collaboration lies in respecting the choices that have been made listening to the strategy of the company and being a truthful partner.

It’s interesting that whether we look at it through these internal lenses or external lenses, being a true thought partner, and a trusted advisor. That piece really doesn’t change in the process and we find things specifically about agencies and externally.

It’s understanding what helps us activate whatever our strategy is. On our side, we’re very clear and honest when we choose to partner with external stakeholders and treat each other respectfully and lean in, in order to be able to navigate any complexities. Be it in terms of stakeholder maps and strategic engagement or even level of coordination. Just really partner properly, provide value, and whatever that means.

It’s a partnership, it’s not one versus the other, and internal recruiters are experts on Visa and what the business needs. External partners are experts in headhunting and whether it’s done with our research team or with an agency partner, it probably doesn’t matter. Close partnership and collaboration are the secret.

Lydia: Indeed, and being timely, and being updated with what’s happening internally, and probably even moving into the partner, and making sure that they also hold a little bit of that DNA, that secret sauce of Visa with them as they go out there and get the candidates that you want.

So finally, this is a question I would really like to hear the answer to, what is your favorite or maybe most memorable recruitment or TA story that you’d like to share with the audience?

Alёna: My favorite recruitment stories tend to revolve around scenarios where your practiced relationship with the leaders truly unlocks the power of networks, your networks, and their networks, be it through developing a connection with your talent, engaging with them meaningfully, understanding their profile, and their strength. Then, staying connected with them until the right role comes along.

It can also be, just getting advice from leaders like getting their views on top talent in the industry who might be uniquely suited for your role. You might not know this, but they might have the answer and they will give you that answer. If there is a dialogue, if there is trust, and those placements where someone brought them up like, “I share a challenging role that I’m working on.” The leader says, “Have you followed that person?” And those placements feel so effortless and natural. To me, this is where the true magic happens and those to me are the favorite stories without giving names here.

Lydia: That forms the backbone that leads to all your favorite stories, isn’t it? Thank you so much Alёna, this has been great. I loved particularly all the different perspectives that you’ve brought to rethinking Executive Talent Acquisition, and really looking at it from a collaborative, data perspective, and even from a long-term perspective. Even unlocking the value that you get from different partners as well as the information that you can glean for yourself and continuously learning.

Thank you so much for your time and your insights I’m sure someone from the audience will want to pick up a conversation with you later after this and would want to know more about you and your company. So, where can they find you?

Alёna: I think LinkedIn is the place where you can find me 24/7. So, just search for my name, Alёna Romanenko on LinkedIn and maybe add Visa to it, and you'll find me and we can connect offline or online. It'll be my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Lydia: We have been in conversation with Alёna Romanenko who is a Global Head of Research for Executive Talent Acquisition at Visa. Thank you very much for joining us this week and remember to subscribe to our channels to stay tuned for more weekly insights from All-In Recruitment.

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