Talent Operations

Talent Operators of the Month - Eileen Kovalsky and Nicole Cochran

The rise of talent operations is no accident. Here we discuss the most important aspects of this critical function and why it’s an increasingly common role in modern talent acquisition teams.

Talent operations professionals have their work cut out for them. From systems administration to recruiter enablement and global process optimization, they have a wide remit. We want to elevate the work of this specific cohort in the recruiting organization and empower professionals in this evolving function, and there’s really no one more qualified than talent operations leaders themselves. We’ll be featuring key conversations every month in a Talent Operators series.

This month, we discuss challenges of earning trust, managing stakeholders and building a career with two leaders passionate about this function: Eileen Kovalsky from Avanade and Nicole Cochran from Humans Doing.

Ops isn’t a new function, but it’s certainly a more common role in the talent industry. You’ve both been pioneers in your careers, changing the way people think about what talent ops is and isn’t. How did you inspire influence, build trust and establish credibility?

Eileen — Each of these is difficult in its own way. Influencing, for example, takes persistence. A talent operations professional has to be okay with sounding like a broken record—saying the same thing, being consistent with the message until it finally breaks through.

Nikki — You have to use data wherever you can, because you can only stand your ground when you have data to back up your recommendations. In situations where you have not yet had the chance to earn trust and to build your credibility, the data doesn’t lie. If a talent operations person can tell an accurate and honest story with data, and lead a stakeholder to connecting the dots, it helps tremendously. Of course, this sort of interplay can become a chicken and egg problem, and you might feel like you need data to gain trust and obtain support, but you need support to implement the backend necessary to obtain the right data. It’s often a challenge.

E - The question of data is an important one. I partner closely with our recruitment marketing team, and recently, they built a campaign that came with a significant investment with an advertising vendor to push it out. 13 minutes before the multi-million-dollar campaign went out, our team realized they didn’t know how they were going to quantify performance of the entire initiative beyond some really basic traffic metrics.

This sort of example is exactly where the value of talent operations comes in. The talent operations team can partner with you to incorporate an attribution strategy into your recruitment marketing initiative from the start.

In my case, I built a process where the recruitment marketing team had to submit a ticket through ServiceNow when launching a campaign, so they could get input and support from experts on how to best track these campaigns. This system also enabled them to request ways of tracking campaigns that had already launched, with tracking pixels for instance.

Rather than dropping by my office with a random ask, this approach enabled both Ops and Marketing to manage ad hoc requests and it supported more consistent partnership.

N- “Enabled” being a key word here. Enablement is really what the recruiting operations team does best.

E- But to stay on the subject of using data to earn trust and credibility— the challenge with reporting is how fragmented talent data is in talent acquisition. Building reports often sits with a centralized team, while analysis of those reports—and any insights to be gleaned from them—sits within talent operations. There’s often multiple reports created and used across an organization that should be measuring the same thing, but they live in different systems due to a lack of integrated data.

Not only are those reporting efforts duplicated and disparate, they are also inconsistent. There is no common standard that every team around the globe uses throughout the company—not for what they’re measuring, or where they’re pulling the data from, how fields are defined from one system to another or from one team to another…

This affects the recruiting teams because, as a consequence, they don’t have the necessary information to understand what exactly they’re held accountable for. It’s yet another aspect of the challenge around talent data that recruiting operations teams can address.

talent operations is critical

This puts the talent team in the middle of an interesting power dynamic with different parts of the people organization, and sometimes beyond that—from Finance to Strategic Planning to IT, to Legal, to Procurement. How do your respective teams build relationships with these stakeholders?

N – The basic fact we start from is that no one side is always right. These relationships require courtesy and conversation, especially because they are often happening laterally and with no other way to get anything done than by influencing, making a good case, or rallying people behind a common incentive.

Ideally, all parties involved will be motivated to dig together into the core of whatever problem they’re facing; they will set ego aside and collaborate on possible solutions. For that to work, you need mutual respect, and the acknowledgment that today someone else may have the solution and you get to learn from them.

E – Another thing to consider is that challenging the status quo is a big part of the job. Our job is to ask questions, explore new ways of doing things, and turn things on their head. It takes a certain type of personality to do this repeatedly without creating tension and conflict with other teams. Of course, every person approaches the role differently—but we have this curiosity about operating more effectively, this appetite for change and transformation in common.

"Every person approaches the role differently—but we have this curiosity about operating more effectively, this appetite for change and transformation in common."

To make things work with new stakeholders, I have to be clear about my approach from the start. I explain that I shoot from the hip, I am blunt, but I am essentially a team player and will be happy to collaborate fully and listen to others. I assume positive intent, and ask people to do the same with me, so we don’t take it badly if someone misses the mark, or if we don’t get where they’re coming from.

I’m also careful to over communicate; when it’s time for me to challenge someone’s point of view, I am open about it.

N- Eileen will literally say: “I’m going to poke holes in this.” But she’s never disrespectful. Her intent is to fully vet the problem so that everyone is moving forward with the right solution.

These are solid principles to be successful at this job: Challenging the status quo, using data to establish credibility and grow influence, an appetite for change and transformation... What else does it take to have a successful career in Talent Ops?

E – When I ran talent acquisition in the past, I had a need for a talent operations role, but I didn’t have the budget so the work fell on my shoulders. As we grew, we created hybrid roles that were operations specialists but also coordinators. We picked the ones who were very thoughtful, who came with questions and suggestions for improvement, and who had the drive to constantly improve our process and stakeholder experience.

"If I had to put words on what this job is today, I’d say it is about always wanting to peel back the onion."

Day to day, this means thinking about how to integrate new solutions and processes into how recruiters do their job, or how a given change will detract from a recruiters’ ability to interact with candidates, or enhance it.

N – Is talent operations a discipline or a mindset? I think it’s both. Good operations people have this intrinsic drive to improve the organization they’re a part of.

I also think it’s a polarizing kind of job. You either love operations or you don’t. You either live and breathe it, or you don’t want to touch it with a 10-feet pole. That’s something to think about if you are currently in a coordinator role, and thinking about expanding your responsibilities and moving in that direction. I think you can’t really do this job if you don’t nerd out about it.

In my own career, I was the one raising her hand to take on more responsibility—systems, vendors, programs—but it was never an official part of my role nor was it reflected in my comp. I remember the first time that changed, I left a role in Recruiting to pursue another internal opportunity as an HR Business Partner.

My previous manager asked to come back to Recruiting a year later, I told him that things had to be different this time: “If I can work part-time as a recruiter and spend the rest of my time on operational responsibilities, I would be happy to come back.” He agreed, I was able to return with a more official function full-time, and I actually work with him now at Humans Doing!

I love that—both because I think a lot of aspiring Ops pros can relate to taking on more work without growing their salary bands, and because you came back to establish a new role that was clearly valued. How would you advocate for other talent teams to build the talent operations function?

E – From the perspective of the talent acquisition leader, it all comes down to demonstrating tangible value. If you want the resources to create this function, to get the headcount, you have to be able to quantify the impact that this function will have on the organization.

For example, when a team is pushing for digital transformation and wants to invest in the right technology, you need someone to own that transformation work. When it comes down to it, the talent operations role will do the work that no one else wants to do: the detail-oriented, tedious work of process mapping, reviewing reports, putting together threads of insights based on disparate pieces of information, investigating issues that are spread between multiple teams… Not many people want to own that work.

Another example: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my boss called me and said, “I need you to free up $X now.” And I was able to do it because I have full purview over our entire global talent acquisition organization. If you went to each of our individual TA leads, you would get ideas in pieces – because it’s not their job to think about things as holistically as we do in a centralized function. That’s the realm of a centralized operations function,that’s the kind of thing that a recruiting operations function can do for a global people organization.

N – If the question you’re asking yourself is: “How do I start a career in this field?” then you’ll have to do some research because this is not yet a well-established path. Know your company, know your organization and its needs. Know your unique skill set and the value of it. You might need to upskill, take a training course or two to expand or deepen competencies that will make a difference.

If you’re a generalist, you’re only as valuable as you are essential to your team— maybe you’re the person who has all the relationships with vendors, or maybe you have exceptional project management and stakeholder management skills.

Often, however, you’ll need some technical skills that might not have been part of your recruiting background—and you have to bring all of these different facets together.

Drive a career around where you currently are and where you want to be—know whether you need to be laser focused or broadly effective to drive the most impact in your recruiting organization and in your business.

E – It’s also important to step back and think about how you operate and what motivates you. As operations professionals, what jazzes us up is making others successful without getting a pat on the back when we win. If things are going well and everyone’s happy, that’s enough—in other words, you will only be noticed when things are breaking.

The talent operations job can be extremely satisfying to anyone who likes to know that their work is having a meaningful, measurable impact on the company—whether that impact is recognized by others or not. If you're bothered by the prospect of a thankless job, this is not for you. You have to be ok being the unsung hero.

"If you're bothered by the prospect of a thankless job, this is not for you. You have to be ok being the unsung hero."

Our main takeaway from the many conversations we’ve had with talent operations professionals is that this function is essentially about providing both support and momentum. It’s not only there to improve and course-correct, it’s there to make new things, better things, possible for the talent team. When done right, it takes the strategy of talent leaders from idea to execution, and lets recruiters focus on doing their recruiting work: assessing candidates for current roles, managing pipelines for future roles, and generally bringing human experience and judgement to hiring decisions.

Everything else, from identifying and solving execution issues, to streamlining processes, to deploying the right tools and programs, to measuring impact and returns—in other words, everything that enables recruiters—can and should be given to specialists like Eileen and Nikki, who will do their best work with it.

This interview was conductedd by Kyle Lagunas, Director of Strategy at Beamery.

Rise of Talent Operations

As talent teams are reexamining how they function and adapting to the new reality of the job market, now is the time to learn more about a more operational, more impactful approach to talent acquisition. Explore this 4-part webinar series on the Rise of Talent Operations, with speakers from IBM, Twilio, Avanade and more.

Discover the series

Nada Chaker

Content and Campaigns

Nada Chaker leads content and campaigns at Beamery. She writes and reads about the latest news in Talent Acquisition, but also about business strategy, startups, food and indoor plants.

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