Opportunities Abound in Seller’s Job Market

superstar employees
24 Feb, 2022


Opportunities Abound in Seller’s Job Market

superstar employees
February 2022

Sometimes, in this heady environment, all it takes to land a great job is putting yourself out there. That assumes, of course, a strong résumé, genuine expertise and a winning personality. “All I really did is dip my toe in the water,” says Kristin St. John. That was just a few weeks ago, and by mid-January she had become McKesson’s new senior manager for coalition and advocacy campaigns.

St. John comes to McKesson from the National Association of Community Health Centers. She had been there less than three years — a short stint, by an earlier generation’s standards — but her decision to leave by no means indicated unhappiness there.

“I loved my boss and I believe in the organization’s mission,” she says. “But it’s important to recognize when you might stay too long in one job. When you stay too long, you get bored, and then you get bitter. I hadn’t reached that point yet, but I was beginning to find myself saying the same thing over and over, and I needed a new challenge. And — in terms of the job market — the time was right.”

You can say that again. Two years after the pandemic hit, the hunt for talent has reached what feels like an unprecedented level of intensity, with ambitious professionals seizing opportunities that might never come again. Almost 50 million Americans quit their jobs last year, CNN reports, and many of them won’t be returning to the workforce. Goldman Sachs estimates that only a million people will come back, which leaves a lot of openings. And for capable people in the public affairs profession, it’s a seller’s market.

Conditions Are Ideal

All this could change — at some point it surely will — but for now, conditions are ideal for making a move. “In the early days of the lockdown, people felt a need to be loyal to their employers,” says Lisa Ryan, client partner with the executive search firm Heyman Associates in New York. “That was a scary time. No one knew what would happen next. That’s when we were all stockpiling paper towels.”

But by December 2020, Ryan says, people were feeling confident again — and more than ready for a change. “People were telling me they were burned out from working under COVID conditions. They had been working under completely new conditions, and it was stressing everybody out. Quite a few of them were willing to try something completely different.”

Julian Ha, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, D.C., office, was hearing much the same thing. “A lot of professionals — especially younger ones — took this time to reassess their careers. This was especially true of the ones without kids or mortgages. They began to ask themselves if they were really ‘feeling it’ in their jobs and wonder whether that is really where they could see themselves long term. If not, they’ve felt more freedom to move around and make a change. And this has also led to a new concern among employers about recruitment and retention.”

St. John says she hears from younger colleagues from previous jobs “all the time. They’re looking for information about opportunities or for references. After COVID, their attitude has changed. They’re taking stock of their lives and their careers and realizing that if they aren’t happy doing what they’re doing, it is nobody’s fault but their own. So then they started trying to do something about it. Their attitude seems to be that they’ll find a way. They might have a side hustle, so they feel they can take on more risk.”

Different Expectations

And they have different expectations about the workaday world than older professionals. “A lot of younger people have never had to go into an office five days a week,” says Conrad Woody, managing partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Washington office. “They have a different experience than people from a generation that took pride in staying with the same company for 30 years. And theirs is a valuable experience — it’s just different. In that older world, if you left a job after nine months, you were considered a ‘job hopper.’ That’s not the way to understand what is going on in our time, and it is not the way to understand the motivation of younger professionals.”

The idea that millennials “are ‘slackers’ with a poor work ethic is just misinformed,” says Woody, who heads his firm’s association and corporate affairs practice. “They are fast learners and they want faster experiences. Just consider how they consume information and how much of it they have access to. Also, they want to find meaning, purpose and community in their work.”

Something they don’t want to do is spend two hours a day, five days a week, commuting to an office where they punch a time clock. “We’ve learned over the past two years that people are actually more productive when they don’t go to an office every day,” Ryan says. “They get their work done remotely. We have to tell clients of ours — employers who are looking to hire — that if they are going to require people to go to the office every day, potential hires are not interested. If employers aren’t flexible, they are not going to be able to attract talent.”

Retaining Talent

Employers also need to pay greater attention than ever to retaining the talent they have. “When five of their superstars all walk out at the same time, they get the message,” Ryan says. “When people started working remotely, there was an awareness of the need to keep people engaged when they weren’t seeing each other face-to-face every day. But we all got tired of the ‘virtual happy hours’ pretty quickly.”

Building community and a corporate culture under these conditions takes creativity, and those organizations that devote enough care to it will benefit. “One company hosted a virtual ‘bring your pet to work day,’ and it was a huge success,” Ryan says. “People showed their dogs and cats, as expected, but there were also people outside with their horse or goats or even pigs, which afforded an opportunity for an executive to bond with a meatpacking worker in a way that would not otherwise be possible. People could see their co-workers — some of whom they’d never even met — in a new way. When it was over, people were asking when they could do it again.”

That’s on the lighter side of things. On a more serious level, organizations are also coming to understand that efforts to build a meaningful culture must be authentic. “The effort of some Starbucks workers to unionize is significant,” Ha says. “This is a time when employees want to know if companies are as ‘enlightened’ as they like to think. It’s a test. People want to know if organizations are really living out their values, and it is much easier to gather information about potential employers these days.”

Feeling the Love?

Ambitious workers “want to know if the company has a mentorship program or an onboarding program and whether they’re genuine,” according to Ha. “Will somebody be looking out for me? That’s a question that is especially important to diverse candidates. Will I be feeling the love or not? Is my employer delivering on what they promised?”

The answers to these questions are easier than ever to access — and of greater urgency. “A company’s DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] programs must be authentic and not merely performative,” Woody says. “People want to know if a potential employer offers a workplace of psychological safety, meaning whether a person of a diverse identity will be confronted continually with microaggression or whether they will feel valued and protected.”

Ha says there is comparable concern about a potential employer’s commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. “Professionals today are more mission-driven [than previous generations],” Ha says. “People today want to know if an organization is part of the solution or part of the problem — that their supply chain uses forced labor or not, for example. The time may come when people once again think ‘a job’s a job,’ but for now, it is still a seller’s market, and the sellers care about such things.”

A Different Kind of Talent

But smart employers have also changed how they evaluate potential hires in recent years, and some of them are even taking advantage of the seller’s market. This is especially the case in the public affairs profession. Pete Slone, who hired St. John at McKesson, is the company’s senior vice president of public affairs and a former Public Affairs Council chair. “We’ve been building up our teams for the past two or three years,” Slone says. “And we’re going to the market for a different kind of talent than we might have a decade or even five years ago.

“What we’ve been looking for is expertise with specific audiences or with rock-solid business and financial acumen. The work we do has changed,” he says. “Public affairs professionals have to be able to discuss with their executives opportunities to catalyze business growth strategies through legislative and regulatory policy engagement, as well as third-party ally recruitment and mobilization. Understanding competitive market forces and opportunity spotting are increasingly important competencies. Public affairs is no longer just risk mitigation in fending off regulatory or legislative threats, for example. At least for now, that makes an MBA and corporate experience every bit as attractive as experience on Capitol Hill or with political campaigns or a degree in political science. We’re less likely to hire an ex-Hill staffer on the strength of their Rolodex of contacts alone, especially since there is so little of a bipartisan nature going on in Congress, which makes bipartisan contacts in that Rolodex unlikely.”

Slone went on to say “we practice center-out solutions to some of the most vexing policy challenges.  Regrettably, that sensible center has yielded, for now, to the ideological extremes.  This has made it harder to hire Hill staff and has made it important to find new pathways to critical mass.”

Kris is an unconventional hire for us, and we’ve had a lot of success with unconventional hires, meaning people who do not come with a pedigreed Capitol Hill résumé,” Slone says about hiring St. John. “Her career has been with organizations that advocate for patients with chronic diseases and community providers. Her expertise in that area will be especially valuable to McKesson as it evolves to a set of businesses that are more healthcare consumer-facing. Kris will help us see our work from the lens of the patient’s journey, including issues like drug pricing, medication access and adherence, and clinical trial enrollment.”

She also brings “an understanding of the importance of health equity and social determinants, and unless an organization brings that to the table, it can easily be dismissed as provincial or myopic. The patient is at the center of everything we do.”

‘Just Do It’

St. John’s advice to restless colleagues is “to act like an entrepreneur and just do it. I came to Washington not knowing anybody and not having a job. I started temping, and 25 years later, things seem to have worked out pretty well. This is a good time for others to take risks as well, as a lot of them seem to realize.”

Her experience — even the way she talks about it — echoes what Ryan says about the opportunities professionals now face. “This is your chance,” she says. “Go for it. Do what you really want to do.”

And if this advice makes some employers fear they’ll lose their superstars, then they should create an environment fit for superstars — the ones they have now and the ones they want to attract.

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