Filling Multiple Open Positions in One Department
In small organizations, it’s fairly common to have 2 or even 3 open positions in the same department at the same time. This occurs for a variety of reasons: sometimes a bad manager causes team members to leave, or one disgruntled employee makes everyone’s life miserable, or a failed business approach causes everyone on the team to feel like a failure, or sometimes it’s just the bad timing of unrelated factors.
The bigger question is how to handle it.
When you have multiple open positions, should you a) hire the most senior position first and then allow your new executive to select their team, or b) fill the jobs at the same time (recognizing that the lower level positions will probably be filled more quickly and will be complete in advance of the new executive’s arrival.)
No matter what caused the situation, multiple open positions make everyone very nervous. Employee turnover creates a domino effect. Situations can rapidly go from bad to worse - turnover begets more turnover, deadlines are missed, workloads mount, and suddenly stable employees wonder if they should also be looking for a job.
A fast return to full staffing levels can reduce the risk of further employee turnover. But bringing a premature resolution to an undiagnosed staffing problem might not help in the long run.
So Who Should Pick the Team?
Let’s say you are already preparing for the arrival of a new executive. Is it courteous to allow them to select their own team, or would you be more helpful by staffing their team in advance of their arrival?
There is no consensus answer to this question. I’ve been part of hundreds of situations like this, and I’ve found my clients to be evenly split in how to approach the situation.
There are compelling arguments to be made for either approach.
Two good reasons to fill lower level vacancies in advance:
- Having an understaffed team puts additional stress on the new executive and hobbles their effectiveness. Having a full team helps the executive achieve big goals faster. Early wins build credibility in a new executive, leading to a virtuous cycle of improvement.
- An executive’s first new hire is a high visibility, high-stakes gamble, and most executives are quite cautious about it. Hiring is the single riskiest responsibility for most managers. The new executive will be less knowledgeable about the culture and the “in the weeds” details of what must be done than the current team. So new executives often wait and gather more information for as long as 6 months before filling open jobs, just to be sure their first hire is not a mistake.
Two good reasons to let the executive fill their own vacancies are:
- The new executive might want to “bring in their own team” to do the work. (Although this is far less common than most people realize, as the new work environment may not be a good match for the old team member’s skills .)
- The new executive might want to explore the skill gaps in the current team, and then use the position vacancy to hire people who bring complementary skills.
How to Decide Which Hiring Approach is Best
The real issue is deciding who will do a better job selecting top performers. (The kinds of people who will get the best results working in an environment similar to your own.)
Your answers to these questions will point the way:
Go ahead and fill the lower level vacancies if:
- You are familiar with the lower level jobs and work to be done, and you have a strong track record of selecting people who succeed in those roles.
- Your current strategy in this area is generally working, and no major department reorganization or job redesign is needed or planned. If this is the case, you probably know more than your new hire about who can best fit into your culture and get the work done.
- Your reduced staffing levels are causing you to fall behind on your goals. If a full staff would put you on track to meeting your goals, and a 6 to 9 month delay in hiring lower level staff would cause you to fail, go ahead and make the hires. Otherwise, you might be setting up your new executive to fail, and you could have prevented it.
Wait, and have the new executive fill their own vacancies if:
- You do not have a clear, tangible, “in the weeds” understanding of the lower level roles. Never fill a job you do not understand.
- Your current strategy is not working, and you might need to rethink your approach to the work. As management guru Peter Drucker noted, "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." Don’t add staff before reorganizing the work, because you might require different skills when you change the strategy.
- You are not concerned about the snowball effect of employee turnover, and you are not setting up your new hire to fail. If you have outside support to help the current team keep up with the avalanche of work, and you are not concerned that your new initiatives will fail, then you can take your time filling the lower level roles.
In general, if you are not revamping your strategy, most new executive hires will be happy to arrive to a fully functioning team. That way they can focus on the work at hand and not need to be distracted by hiring. Simultaneously, maintaining a full staff reduces the risk of a contagion of turnover.
But if you are hiring a strategist and change agent, it’s probably wise to let them analyze and adjust the business strategy before picking their own team.
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