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Why the Best Hiring Strategy Is to Look for Diagonal Thinkers

Friday, March 23, 2018
Fatou Darboe
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At least according to Anna Malmhake, Chairman and CEO of The Absolut Company.

Nicolas Cole of Inc. recently had a chat with Malmhake about how to find the right talent for any organization.

Malmhake believes diagonal thinkers are key to innovation, creativity and pushing boundaries in large companies. She advises that organizations should hire more diagonal thinkers and do whatever they can to keep them.

But what exactly is diagonal thinking? Are you a diagonal thinker? What value do such people bring to organizations?

We’ll answer those questions here; and also look at ways you can optimize your recruiting process to hire diagonal thinkers, and the best talent for your company overall.

What is Diagonal Thinking?

You may be familiar with linear thinking (the ability to think logically) and lateral thinking (the ability to think creatively).

Well, diagonal thinking is a relatively new concept created by the advertising industry to describe the combination of linear and lateral thinking that is needed to succeed in any creative job.

Linear thinking, or thinking in straight lines, is when you think of things from point A to B, i.e. thinking inside the box.

Lateral thinking is when you try to solve problems using unconventional methods to come up with unique solutions and ideas, i.e. thinking outside the box.

The third type of thinking is diagonal thinking. Diagonal thinking is when you switch between linear and lateral thought processes.

It demonstrates the thought processes of creative people who are able to combine both intellectual and practical information to solve problems and execute complex tasks. Those are the people who make it to the top in the advertising industry.

Hamish Pringle, director of the advertising trade body, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), describes diagonal thinking as follows: "it's the ability to switch effortlessly between linear, logical thought processes to lateral, creative ones.

And it seems to be one of the defining characteristics of people who do well in our industry [advertising and media]. If you're just linear, you should, perhaps, be an accountant.

Just lateral and maybe you should be in fine arts. But if you're a diagonal thinker, you are equipped to succeed in all the main roles in advertising."


Image credit: Factor 3

According to the IPA, only 9 percent of the population can think diagonally – yes, the skill is that rare.


Image credit: The Drum

Malmhake emphasizes, "diagonal thinkers are rare. The chance you will find one from a formal standpoint of browsing resumes is slim. Disregard the fact that they might be missing a required Master's degree, or they might lack a certain experience you thought might be useful.

If they have done astonishing feats of diagonal thinking in the past, they will do them again.”

You can become part of that 9 percent if you master the ability to keep your mind focused on the solution you are trying to solve and then let your mind wander a little further to other things that are related to the problem you are trying to solve.

In doing that, your mind is moving diagonally.

Are You What the IPA Refers to as a Diagonal Thinker?

Or the person Anna Malmhake is referring to? That someone with a balance of rational thinking, lateral creativity and linear thinking skills?

Well, you can easily find out if you are a diagonal thinker here. You can encourage people you know who want to get into the creative industries to take the test as well. It takes an hour to complete.

The project and test was developed by Agency People and the IPA, with funding from Creative and Cultural Skills (the council for the advertising industry).

The test has been endorsed by the UK government – they included it in a Creative Britain strategy document, published in 2008.

The test is quite important for advertising and media agencies because the industry is in urgent need of the best candidates who are highly capable of doing their jobs.

Traditional methods of hiring usually look for the best academic qualifications, as a measure of the high intelligence that is needed to do the job.

However, the Diagonal Thinking test is a more relevant and insightful method than any other test in the industry.

The test is quite comprehensive in comparison to other self-assessment psychometric tests: It uses a mix of psychometric measures which identify lateral and linear thinking styles, as well as personality traits that have been proven to be inherent in people who succeed in the creative industries.

It also helps job seekers to figure out whether a job in the creative industry is right for them.

It is difficult for people to fully know whether or not they will enjoy a career in advertising and media, since the subject is not as widely taught in schools (relative to the availability of other subjects). It doesn’t help that few people know anyone that works in the industry either.

So the test is what could help them break into the industry.

It has so far helped quite a number of graduates (who would have otherwise gone into different fields) get placements into top creative agencies. For example, it helped Lucia Hargasova to obtain a trainee position in media agency Starcom in 2008, after she took part in the Diagonal Thinking test trials.

Hargasova immigrated to the United Kingdom from Slovakia as a child, and worked on improving her proficiency in English before enrolling at London Metropolitan University.

She then took the Diagonal Thinking test and found that she scored in the top 10 percentile. Those results consequently helped her secure a training position at Starcom.

She recalled, "it was straightforward. Time pressured, but not difficult. But there's no doubt that my test results opened doors for me that might otherwise have remained closed."

The test has also validated the qualifications of key figures and senior executives in the creative industry.

Tim Lindsay, CEO of British Design & Art Direction (D&AD) is an advertising industry veteran who has led quite a few advertising agency giants. He has a client list of international brands like Apple, Mars, Adidas, McDonalds, Lego and PlayStation, to name a few.

But Lindsay isn’t your standard conventional CEO. He took the Diagonal Thinking test and, among the 200 people who trialed the test, he scored the highest, making him the most diagonal thinker in the world (at least at that time).

He was surprised by his results, stating, "I've always known I have both linear and lateral thinking skills, but always thought I was never quite good enough at either."

But the test also confirmed what he has always looked for when hiring new talent. He said, "I always ask them about their enthusiasms - whether they read the FT and the Economist....but I also ask them who their favourite directors are and why.”

Indeed, it is currently helping the advertising industry to attract better candidates; and promotes diversity (the advertising industry has been in a white, middle-class trough for decades).

The assessment has changed the way recruiting is done in the advertising industry; and anyone that is considering getting into advertising is recommended to take it.

Why are Diagonal Thinkers So Important to an Organization?

Malmhake explains that diagonal thinkers can bridge the gap between creative types and more structured business types within a large company.

Lindsay says, “you need diagonal thinking in advertising to be able to come up with relevant creative ideas and innovative business ideas, and secondly to be able to judge creative ideas.

But most of all you need it to manage creative types - often borderline sociopaths who just don't play by the rules."

Let’s take a look at the value diagonal thinkers bring to the creative industries (since they are the ones that actively seek out diagonal thinkers in their recruiting processes).

So why do they want diagonal thinkers so badly?

Let’s restrict our analysis to the UK market as it provides the best case study to fully comprehend the importance of diagonal thinking.


Image credit: The Guardian

The financial sector was in crisis back in 2008 (and is still in crisis, particularly in the UK with Brexit uncertainty) so the government saw – and still sees – the creative industries as a vehicle to Britain’s future economic survival.

In 2016, the creative industries contributed almost £90bn net to UK’s GDP, and it is growing at two times the rate of the whole economy. It is well on its way to becoming the second largest contributor to the economy this year.

Furthermore, jobs in the creative industries are least likely to be lost to automation.

However, the creative industry has long been perceived as the industry with the highest level of institutional elitism. And that high level of institutional elitism is viewed by many as a barrier to growth and progress in the industry.

That may be the key reason why the British government backed the diagonal thinking project by the IPA. As Pringle stated, diagonal thinking is seen, by many agencies in the industry, as a key tool to destroying the haven that the industry has created for the pampered working class.

He said, "there's a self-reinforcing cycle of largely white, middle class, university-educated students who are friends and family of similar people already employed throughout the top levels of the industry.

They're the ones who get the scarce work experience positions, receive coaching on completing job applications and the interview process, and end up winning one of the rare jobs on offer."

He’s not wrong. The IPA conducted a survey 10 years ago and found that, back then, only 6 percent of advertising professionals come from ethnic backgrounds. The national average for the UK was 8 percent and the (pretty shocking) average for London was 40 percent.

Well, perhaps not shocking as London is a melting pot of diversity. Although, some could argue that the average should have been higher considering how diverse the population is in London.

Perhaps the reason for the low average is that a lot of creative agencies have a practice of unpaid internships or work placements and low starting salaries.

The average starting salary is £25,000 ($34,632 USD) compared to £40,000 at law firms ($55,411 USD). That makes it hard for graduates with student debt to survive in a city like London without help from family.

Pringle says, "if you're not already in our 'village', and from a non-white, non-graduate, non-middle class background, it's very hard to break in. And the lack of role models makes it look as if Adland doesn't want you anyway."

So the Diagonal Thinking test is a tool for creating more diversity in the field and for attracting the very best talent. The UK government is onboard with it, especially since it promises to grow the industry they are relying on for economic survival in the next few decades.

They need diagonal thinkers to innovate and lead the industry to the heights experts and economists predict it will reach in the next few years.

All in all, diagonal thinkers are important to the survival of the creative industries and essential to large organizations that are in other industries. Simply because diagonal thinkers are the main drivers of innovation and creativity.

So if you want a job in advertising, or a job in an organization like The Absolut Company, that values diagonal thinkers; take the test and find out if you’re a diagonal thinker.

Pringle says that "anyone scoring more than 90% can print out an IPA certificate proving their scores and attach it to their CV."

That proof of talent will, according to Pringle, be one’s “passport to Adland.”

If you are not looking to get into Adland or feel as if diagonal thinking is not a skill you need to do your job well, it won’t hurt to have it as a life skill.

7 Tips for Hiring Top Talent

Your business is only ever as good as the people who work in it. So it is worth spending time to optimize your hiring, onboarding and retention strategies or risk losing top employees to your competitors.

But hiring the right people can be quite challenging (especially diagonal thinkers who make up only 9 percent of the population), while hiring the wrong people is easy, expensive, time consuming and detrimental to your work environment and culture.

Hiring the right person, on the other hand, increases your employee productivity, improves your reputation and has a positive impact on your work environment. That is why it is important for you to have an effective strategy for attracting and retaining top talent.

Side note: it is important to highlight the importance of retention in any recruitment or HR strategy. As Malmhake notes when it comes to finding the right talent, i.e. a diagonal thinker, “once you find him or her, don't lose them.

Be aware that they might ruffle feathers in your organization. They will look for ways to innovate and find better, faster, smarter ways of doing things.  Most people don't like colleagues who rock the boat, so you might have to protect your diagonal thinkers a little bit extra."

That advice applies not only to your diagonal thinkers, but to all your highly talented and qualified employees.

Let’s get to it. Here are 7 tips to hire top talent.

1. Get Your Branding on Point

The first step to hiring top talent actually doesn’t directly involve new hires. The first step should be about making your company the type of place where top talent want to work.

Think about it this way: you won’t hire someone based solely on their resume and your prospective employees won’t decide to work for you based solely on your job description.

Your branding is how your company is viewed by prospective and current talent. Excellent positive branding can not only help you attract and retain the top talent, but also helps you to reduce your hiring costs by attracting more qualified talent per job opening.

What does employer branding involve?

It starts off with defining your cultural and management values; and explaining how working for you would be beneficial to employees.

A key part of your branding involves the top benefits you offer employees. The benefits that are most attractive to employees, according a 2017 Harvard Business Review study, include great healthcare benefits, flexible hours, vacation time and the ability to work from home.


Image credit: Harvard Business Review

You can communicate your benefits package in your job description or on the careers section of your website, similar to what Facebook does.

2. Write a Good Job Description

You need to put out a great job description in order to attract the most talented and qualified applicants.

You should describe the most successful person in the role and not only focus on job qualifications. So, you should primarily focus on the soft skills that are vital to success in the role.

A LinkedIn study found that good communication, organization and interpersonal skills were the most sought after soft skills by employers.


Image credit: LinkedIn

If you are looking for diagonal thinking skills, make the Diagonal Thinking test a requirement in the job description.

Your company culture and personality should shine through when describing your company and the position. Avoid using a dry tone of voice and try to make it as engaging and fun as possible.

Try to aptly convey why your company is a fun place to work, including the key benefits you offer, and your company’s unique vision and goals. Don’t shy away from humor, it wins every time.

3. Start an Employee Referral Program

To widely spread the word about your open positions, you should use a variety of channels, starting with employee referrals. A SilkRoad survey found that employee referrals is the top source of referrals for new hires.

That is because candidates that are referred by your current employees are often more knowledgeable about your company and you will be better able to retain them when you hire them.

Current employees also have a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for and can help steer rare talent like diagonal thinkers your way. Perhaps enable diagonal thinkers to refer like-minded talent your way.

You can create an employee referral program and prioritize it in your recruitment process.

It would help if you communicate your enthusiasm when talking about your open jobs with your employees. And the enthusiasm will hopefully be transferred by them when they speak to others about your company.

4. Post the Job on Indeed

Indeed is a great referral job search site that you should post to. According to the SilkRoad survey, it accounted for 52 percent of job interviews and 43 percent of hires. So you should maximize your presence there.

You’ll first need to set up a company page on the platform if you don’t have one already. It is where applicants can find detailed information and reviews about your business. So make it great and informative.

There are other job boards like Monster that you can post on. If you have recruiting software or applicant tracking software, you can post to almost all job boards with just one click.

5. Hire a Recruiter

According to the SilkRoad survey, another common source of new hires is recruiters.

Small businesses usually try to keep their recruitment process within the company. However, it might be helpful to use an external recruiter in certain cases, particularly when you are looking for a unique candidate, like a diagonal thinker, for a specialist position.

It is also helpful if you need to make quick hires or to hire for senior positions.

6. Filter Through Candidates in an Efficient Manner

To save time and resources, it is best to screen through candidates in an efficient manner and then do a structured interview.

If you are looking for diagonal thinkers, start by looking at candidates’ Diagonal Thinking test scores (you should ask candidates to take the test in the job description) and interview those who scored “double top.”

You can further screen applicants by setting up a 5-10 minute first round phone or video interview. That method is the most efficient first filter. You can use Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom to conduct the interview.

What you’re trying to figure out in the initial interview is whether the candidate is articulate, fluent in whatever language(s) you want them to speak, how their temperament is, whether they are prepared for the call and whether they fit into the culture of your company.

The next round is all about structured interviews that enable you to compare candidates fairly and more accurately by asking all of them the same questions and giving them the same assignments and evaluations.

Lazlo Bock, former the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, conducted in-depth research into Google’s onboarding process and recommends structured interviews.


Image credit: Wired

He says, “assess candidates objectively. Include subordinates and peers in the interviews, make sure interviewers write good notes, and have an unbiased group of people make the actual hiring decision.

Periodically return to those notes and compare them to how the new employee is doing, to refine your assessment capability.”

You will need to give problem solving assignments in most of your interviews, especially for job openings that require diagonal thinking skills. Recruiterbox provides some excellent tips and strategies you can use in the interview process.

7. Have an Efficient Onboarding Process

Once you hire the right candidate, you need to get them onboard efficiently. This step is highly important because it’ll make sure they’re successful and they will consequently be more likely to stay.

New employees will know if you haven’t put in much thought or effort into onboarding them so spend time optimizing and streamlining your onboarding process.

Wrapping Up

Diagonal thinking is indeed a rare and essential skill for success in the creative industries.

Diagonal thinkers are the people that make it to the top of those industries simply because they possess the skills to drive innovation and creativity in an organized and efficient manner.

That is the reason why CEOs like Anna Malmhake are seeking them out.

If you want them in your organization as well, restructure your recruitment strategy to attract them.

The good news is that you don’t have to work that hard to find them. There is an accurate and insightful test available to help you spot and onboard them.

Incorporate the test in your recruitment strategy to attract even better candidates and to increase diversity in your organization, particularly if you are in the creative industry.

They are a rare demographic, so once you find them, work hard to keep them.

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