Battlefield Promotions: The Recruiting Edge of Finding Who’s Next

In my spare time these days, I’m reading Masters of the Air, which is an account of how the modern US Air Force was built with the express purpose of conducting daylight bombing into Germany during WWII ahead of D-Day.

If you want to be humbled, read the book. Less than 25% of the airmen involved made it to their 25th mission. WTF. The sacrifice of that generation makes a lot of partisan bickering and positioning we’ve been doing as a country seem small.

But there’s one concept from those days that is particularly relevant to your Recruiting/Talent Acquisition strategy – battlefield promotions.

Battlefield promotions in any war theatre are pretty simple. An officer gets taken out of service (hopefully to recover), and someone has to be in charge. It’s usually someone from the ranks underneath who is promoted on the spot and has a LOT more responsibility than they had two hours ago.

Let’s pivot away from armed conflict. Battlefield promotions happen every day in the workplace. We have a long history of promoting the best individual contributor as our next manager of people. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The strategy is usually used with internal promotions.

A little-used strategy in recruiting is to look outside of your company for the equivalent of a battlefield promotion. While risky, there are rewards for this approach as part of your recruiting strategy if you can get better at it than your competition.

Here are some examples of external hires that are the equivalent of the internal battlefield promotion, you’re just using external sources:

1–You allow individual contributors to apply, and you seriously consider finding the smartest, most agile, early career individual to fill a key role. This is the riskiest way to use the external version of the battlefield promotion. Are there smart kids out there who could be successful? Of course, but you better have unbelievable L&D available to ramp them up once they land. Related: Make sure they make it past the first day when their new direct reports find out that their new superior doesn’t have any more experience than they do. VERDICT: Probably not. You like your job.

2–You actively look for people in similar roles with smaller scopes than your hiring executives would naturally consider. This candidate has been doing the work, they just haven’t been doing it at scale. They normally wouldn’t be considered, but if you’re seeking to extend your candidate pool, there is unbelievable talent to be groomed in this market space below you, and the direct reports will have less reason to eat them alive on their first day. VERDICT: Strongly Consider.

3–You bring someone out of retirement as a means of getting the position filled today. This just in, there are a bunch of older workers who can do the job, and they are available. For my AARP friends, please note: Just because you have experience doesn’t make it a slam dunk that you’re the best candidate. Stay relevant, stay thirsty. Related: Bonus points for using a battlefield promotion to bring in some sage advice and DEI coverage at the same time. VERDICT: Strongly Consider. The old kids are alright.

We’ve been trained and have deep experience related to battlefield promotions involving internal candidates. Providing the equivalent of a “promotion” to external candidates is a great path for your company.

Get better at identifying external candidates who aren’t obvious but have the right stuff, and your Talent Acquisition function gets better overnight.

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