2012, Year of the Next Level

by Mitch Arnold, CEO and president, Preferred Partners LLC
(see also 2011, Year fo the Rolling Toolbox; 2010, Year of the Survivor; and 2009, Year of the Employer)

(hear Mitch Arnold discuss this article on the Grow Omaha radio show)

Over the past four or five years, we've seen a remarkable evolution in employment. Before the recession, the market was employee-driven, with candidates securing high compensation from employers desperate for talent. An almost complete reversal of that trend was one of the effects of the recession, as employers trimmed payrolls , jobs were scarce and applicants were plentiful. Recently, both sides have come to terms with the employment market, and they have approached the hiring process very cautiously.

As recruiters, we have a front row seat to this transition. We have heard from shocked candidates who are astounded that companies do not recognize and value their skill-sets, and we visit with employers frustrated by their inability to attract the talent they need. The reality that both sides are discovering is that employers have positions for next-level candidates, and that too few available candidates fit that billing.

"Next-level" is a common term in high school and college sports. The top athletes at the high school and college levels are evaluated according to their potential to play at the next level, college for the high school athletes and professional for the college athletes. To play at the next level, an athlete must have exceptional natural assets and achieve remarkable success at their current level.

Many candidates actively seeking new opportunities are often not "next-level" candidates. Just like a small-in-stature bench player for a struggling high school basketball team won't attract much attention from recruiters at the college level, a professional who hasn't exhibited tremendous potential or accomplished notable success in his career will have a very difficult time advancing to the next level.

Fortunately for professionals, unlike student athletes, they don't run out of eligibility. If they are not ready for the next level, they can take steps to make sure that they will be. Unfortunately, it's far too easy to procrastinate with professional self-improvement, and any procrastination can set a professional's career back for years.

My recruiting company (Preferred Partners) works with a lot of consulting engineering firms across the country, and almost all of them require a professional engineering license for every position. I am consistently amazed at otherwise talented engineers who have not invested the time to prepare for and take the professional engineering exam. Without that, they'll never get to the next level.

Every candidate needs to take a serious look at his or her profession and at what professionals advancing in that profession are doing to advance. If extra education is the key, enroll. If deeper involvement in projects is key, roll up your sleeves. If performance is key, create a performance enhancement plan. The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to do this.

Like star athletes, next-level professionals are in high demand, and because their employers know this, they are rewarded very well. A savvy employer will protect his assets, including his top-level talent, by ensuring that they are properly compensated and appreciated. In 2010 and 2011, we saw many companies fail to properly compensate and appreciate their top talent, and they paid the price. Their top talent left them for better opportunities with more stable companies, creating a void of next generation leaders.

I think that we are past that now. Companies who struggled the past two years are either back on their feet or out of business. Top talent who needed to move has already moved, and this has created the stalemate we see now.

Next-level professionals know their value, and, more often than not, bypass new opportunities if those opportunities are not compensated at the high end of market value. Many times, for employers to get these next-level employees, they must offer salary and benefits at higher levels than they ever have before, and that's not easy to do in an economy that is struggling to recover.

On one side, we have top talent professionals ready to go to the next level, but hesitant to leave a well-compensated and stable role. On the other side are employers with next-level positions who occasionally struggle to afford the talent that they need. For these two sides to come together, both sides must share some risk for the possibility of future reward.

We see this a lot with our sales positions. When properly managed, high-performing sales professionals easily justify their expenses; however, when top-talent sales professionals move to another company, their performance typically takes an initial step backward before lunging forward. During that backward step, when their sales volume doesn't cover their employer's investment in them, as typically happens in the early stages, both sides must persevere through some discomfort. How long and how much discomfort are the looming questions when sales professionals look to make a move.

In these situations, a thorough, well-defined performance plan can alleviate anxiety for both the professional and employer. If both sides know what to expect and how performance will be measured, there is a lot better chance that they will be successful in coming together to maximize opportunities.

This is an exciting time with high stakes for both next-level talent and next-level employers. Those who can be creative, focused and willing to share risk will prosper, while those who want to participate at this level must take steps to position themselves for that next level. Everyone else risks being left behind.

Copyright © 2012. Preferred Partners LLC. All Rights Reserved.

13936 Gold Circle, Suite B, Omaha, NE 68144

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