As candidate pool dwindles, P&G revises recruiting tactics

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At a reunion of P&G alumni in June, P&G President-CEO A.G. Lafley recalled one in a series of harrowing job interviews he had with P&G executives in hotel rooms as he prepared to graduate from Harvard Business School.

Robert Goldstein, the late P&G VP-advertising, then an advertising manager, called Mr. Lafley's bluff on a resume entry claiming fluency in Hebrew (gained from a U.S. Navy intelligence assignment) by conducting part of the interview in Hebrew.

A bit of halting Hebrew aside, Mr. Lafley made the grade. But as P&G faces an increasingly competitive market for talent, the company is trying harder to put recruits at ease by speaking a language they can understand.

This year, P&G will stop using its time-honored standardized tests of problem solving. Instead, P&G will gauge recruits' problem-solving skills through its online application and interviews in a process it hopes will be "invisible" to them. Groups of P&G executives will interview prospects at the same time to keep them from having to answer basically the same questions over and over and give executives more time to sell prospects on the company.

For some recruits targeted by a pilot program, a selling point will be the ability to join P&G in a sort of internal consulting role, reporting to senior management, rather than the conventional assistant brand manager training.

A NEW STRUGGLE

In decades past, when P&G was the destination of choice for newly minted marketers, it could afford to have a screening process that made fraternity hazing look fun.

No more.

"In the past [P&G] was getting the really top marketing students," says Kevin Keller, professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. "Some would leave and some would stay. But now some of the top marketing students are really not thinking about [P&G at all], and I think that's the worry. . . . They can do all they want with their organization, but if they don't bring in the best people, they're not going to get the best marketing."

At Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, one of the more marketing-focused MBA programs in the country, P&G's haul of MBA graduates and interns fell from 15 in 1998 to nine last year, as P&G's employer ranking fell from No. 5 to No. 14, according to Duke placement office figures.

Closer to home, an online memo from the University of Indiana placement office chided students for poor attendance at employer presentations from P&G and other companies, including Andersen Consulting, Harrah's Entertainment and Sprint Corp. "We would hate for these firms to stop recruiting at IU for lack of student interest in their opportunities," the message said.

Last year's dot-com gold-rush mentality on college campuses may be fading in the face of widespread dot-com failures, but that doesn't necessarily mean students will start flocking back to P&G and other package-goods companies, Mr. Keller says. Consultancies and blue-chip high-tech marketers are still very attractive.

"In general, [P&G] is still a desirable company here for MBA students," says Jeanne Wilt, assistant dean of admissions and the office of career development at the University of Michigan Business School. "They're still a blue-chip name to have on your resume. Great marketing training. Great brand experience. That's all still true. They have a serious and deep commitment to diversity that's important to students and employees."

But she acknowledges that "brand management at consumer products companies is less of a hot item right now," adding: "These types of trends wax and wane . . . investment banking isn't feeling as hot as it once did, either."

BUILDING ON FEEDBACK

Through thick and thin, P&G always has been willing to stick around and listen to feedback from college administrators and consider improvements, Ms. Wilt says.

P&G has started selling some students on the "P&G.com" concept of e-commerce careers within its i-Ventures group, Mr. Keller says, though he's not sure how well students are buying the idea.

P&G's idea of starting some students off in consulting-like "innovation teams" might also resonate, Ms. Wilt says. "I'm seeing companies in other industries that are having less success here than they had before . . . creating e-commerce divisions, for example, as a way to attract the high-tech focus. . . . I think it's definitely the right direction. More traditional companies have to start experimenting."

Getting talent is half the battle. Keeping it is another. P&G's "up-or-out" culture has always been designed to throw off large numbers of its marketing trainees in their early years. But the loss of dozens of brand managers last year, largely to dot-coms, was a little much. Still, Bob Wehling, P&G's global marketing officer, says the company is doing well both in recruitment and retention of marketers.

"The quality of our average recruit is better by every way we can measure -- leadership in their background, high test scores and all that stuff -- than it's ever been," he says. "And I'm particularly happy that our diversity is better than it's ever been, too. About a quarter of our marketing hires in this past year come from minority backgrounds."

CHASING P&G ALUMNI

The dot-com drain aside, retention is about average, Mr. Wehling says. "It's actually better than it has been historically at the marketing director level and assistant brand manager level. We did have a rough patch about a year ago at the brand manager level, where we lost a number of brand managers to dot-coms and other new ventures. But, interestingly, after about a six-month spurt, that dried up and in the last three months it's better than ever."

Perhaps more interestingly, P&G has done something it never did before: It formed teams to actively recruit alumni and dot-com rebound hires.

One symbolic rehire was that of Scott Cook, who founded Intuit after he left P&G in 1980 and was elected to the board this month. Mr. Cook put in a handy plug for P&G in the process, crediting his brand management training there for helping develop the insights behind Intuit's financial software.

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