Forwardfilling Jobs

In every company, regardless of its industry or its size, turnover is inevitable. For example, some people leave voluntarily to pursue better jobs, to retire, to care for loved ones, or for myriad other reasons within their control. Sometimes, turnover results when companies replace underperforming employees with potentially higher performers (a practice that’s become popular among many organizations). Conceptually, the pursuit of high performers makes a lot of sense, but companies often fall short in their execution of this staffing strategy.

A few years ago while helping a client enhance their talent management practices I ran into the typical response to a newly vacated position.  I was meeting with the company President Robert and his HR team when he expressed his strong belief that the organization did not have the right talent to meet its current and future needs. One of the HR leaders mentioned backfilling a key position—the usual strategy for this situation. Robert, who was frustrated with the company’s slow pace of change, took issue with the term “backfill,” because it meant that the organization would seek someone with the same skill set and capabilities as his or her predecessor in that position. Robert wanted his team to focus instead on moving the position forward by filling all openings with talent that was even better and more capable. In other words, he wanted his organization to “forwardfill” its positions.  As a result of that meeting we coined the term “Forwardfill” and it changes Robert’s organization’s approach to addressing open positions.


With the concept of forwardfilling in mind, the approach to filling an open job changes.  Rather than looking at the existing job description, HR should challenge the hiring manager to start with a blank job description and answer the following questions:

  • What work needs to get done?
  • What are the success metrics for the role?
  • What traits or characteristics would be showcased in a stellar performer?
  • What knowledge skills and abilities would be needed for success?
  • What were the incumbent’s shortcomings?
  • Where do we typically look for candidates for this type of role and what if those sources were off limits?  Where would you look outside of our industry?

With these questions in mind, you can build a new job description, not to backfill the role but to forwardfill it.  Forwardfilling takes a different mindset and a different skill set for both the hiring manger and the HR business partner.  It is a skill that can be developed through practice.  Start with your next opening by removing the term backfill from your company’s jargon and replacing it with forwardfill.  The results will surprise you as you begin to move your organization forward through talent rather than stagnating or moving backwards.