Attracting, developing, and retaining talent in a hyper-competitive market: An interview with Cynthia Burkhardt, global head of talent acquisition at Kimberly-Clark
Talent Strategy Management

Attracting, developing, and retaining talent in a hyper-competitive market: An interview with Cynthia Burkhardt, global head of talent acquisition at Kimberly-Clark

Kimberly-Clark’s Cynthia Burkhardt discusses the war for talent and how HR leaders are preparing for the future.
Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Google Play

In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Kelley Lang and Adam Howe speak to Cynthia Burkhardt, the global head of talent acquisition at Kimberly-Clark. Burkhardt discusses the hyper-competitive talent market and how organizations must adapt to the changing needs of the workforce, including by moving from hiring for pedigree to hiring for skill. She also shares what leadership capabilities and skill sets will be needed for future success.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Kelley Lang: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership podcast. I'm Kelley Lang, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles Atlanta office and a member of the global Consumer Markets practice. Today I'm excited to be joined by Cynthia Burkhardt and my colleague Adam Howe. 

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Cynthia over the past few years, both personally and professionally. We placed her in her current role at Kimberly-Clark, where she serves as the head of global talent acquisition. Prior to KC, Cynthia was at Phillips for over 14 years, most recently serving as the global head of talent acquisition, talent intelligence, and total workforce demand management. Cynthia is a frequent speaker and featured subject matter expert at events and on podcasts and has been featured in publications such as the Harvard Business Review.

My colleague, Adam, is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles, in the New York and London offices. He leads Heidrick Consulting's work in the consumer sector, where he advises executives on how to align their talent. Culture and organization to accelerate their enterprise strategy. Thank you both for joining us today.

Cynthia Burkhardt: Oh, you're welcome, Kelley. I'm happy to be here. 

Adam Howe: Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

Kelley Lang: Well, Cynthia, to kick off the conversation, maybe we should start off with you sharing a little bit more about your current role at Kimberly-Clark and a little bit about your past career journey. 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Yeah, sure. I'd love to. First of all, thanks for having me. I really enjoy getting out of the day-to-day and having these talks, and they always make you a little bit sharper for your role. So, thank you for that, Kelley and Adam. 

So, currently, I am the head of [talent acquisition] at Kimberly-Clark, which you mentioned. For those folks who don't know exactly what Kimberly-Clark is, we're more known by a lot of our brands. Think Kleenex, Huggies, Cottonelle, and so on; those all fall under the umbrella of Kimberly-Clark. And I have been here just going on two years. I was brought in to upgrade talent acquisition. 

As we all know, there's been a lot of disruption in the labor market in the past few years, and KC was feeling the pain of that. They were feeling, you know, that hyper competitiveness of the labor market. At the same time, they were making a lot of transformational changes, exciting changes, and their previous talent acquisition model just wasn't fit for purpose anymore. So I've been brought in to kind of upgrade that and allow us to compete in a really tough labor market for top talent. So that is the role here so far. Prior to that, I've been primarily in biotech. I was with Phillips, which is a health and wellbeing company. At Phillips, there was very high level of STEM hiring. So that's a big, significant difference. What's great about that experience is that, in the STEM area, we felt that labor market pinch a long time ago, right? It didn't just come right after Covid, like everything else. It started a long time ago. We had to get good at it a long time ago. And that experience has really translated well as I've come over to Kimberly-Clark. So, I definitely value the experience I had there. 

And before that, at Johnson & Johnson, I had a little different start. At J&J, I started in an operating company and then got promoted to go to the corporate office where I first led sales recruiting for all three sectors, and then got promoted to lead the med device recruiting for all things, including sales. So, it was a great experience. It's really there where I got very deep into biotech for the first time and had to think about how to differentiate your messages and cut through the noise to really attract talent that just everyone was trying to get. So, it was a good learning ground.

Kelley Lang: That's great, Cynthia, that's when you were thinking about considering the opportunity at Kimberly-Clark. What inspired you to join the organization just based on some of the cultural dynamics of the company that were attractive? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Well, you mean besides that you called me, right, Kelley? 

Kelley Lang: Well, of course, yeah.

Cynthia Burkhardt: So, yeah. You know, I love this question. I think that the common thread for me is that I always am attracted to a company that has an authentic desire to care for the world. And that may look different at different companies. You know, at biotech, they're working on technology that's going to keep us healthier longer and thinking about how the population's aging and how we're going to work with that. Now I'm in [consumer packaged goods] and I'm at a company that just literally lives and breathes the vision, which is “better care for a better world.” That's our purpose. I felt it when I was interviewing and I see it daily, that we want to care for the world. From a product standpoint, that looks like quality and affordable products, and focusing on sustainability because we of course do have a lot of paper and we need to figure out how to do that better to take care of our environment.

So, if I looked at all three, which have all been amazing experiences, that's the thing that's run through: caring for the communities, caring for the people that work for us, and just that in general care for the world. 

Kelley Lang: Great, great. That's good. Let's shift gears a little bit, talk about a couple of other topics here. When you think about the labor market, how would you describe the disruption and volatility over the last three years? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: OK, so, besides all the struggles that we've all had, I think it's a really exciting labor market. I know that sounds a little crazy, but the word I use time and again, is hyper-competitive, right? It's not just competitive, it's hyper-competitive. And it's interesting because you see a lot of news out there that says there are layoffs and all these things. But the reality is that that hasn't made a dent. Right? It's just come down from incredibly bad to still really bad, right? So, it's interesting. And in mature markets, in the span of time than I've been in talent acquisition, we've gone from more workers than jobs to less workers than jobs, and especially when you're hunting for top talent in the innovation spaces, as I always have. So, it's a really interesting labor market because the candidates are in charge. And the other big change is that everything used to be for the baby boomers, and it wasn't that there weren't other generations, there always were, but the baby boomers were such a large portion of our labor market that if we got that right, we could survive. And now we can't. Now we have the other generations in control and it's a candidate's market. It's really been quite disruptive. It's not going away either. I keep hearing, “Oh, it's going to come back. Covid caused it.” And that's not the case. And in fact, McKinsey predicted this decades ago, they called it the War For Talent. It became part of our everyday HR speak. Right? And you know, it was going to be caused by the baby boomers retiring and in the mature markets. Our birth rates are down and so on, and Covid did accelerate it for sure. It accelerated some of the retirement also, but the rest of it wasn't new. It's what everybody was saying was coming, so it came as predicted.

Smart people got in front of it and the rest of us are reacting to it. So that's where we sit in the labor market right now. 

Kelley Lang: Yes. It's definitely been a journey for sure, even on our side as well. What about in terms of when you think about Kimberly-Clark as a very global business? As well as Phillips from your past, were there any particular trends that you noted over the last three years in terms of this disruption and volatility of the labor market that maybe were different across the regions?

Cynthia Burkhardt: The regions are all, I mean, you can overall say that there's a war on talent. I think you could safely say that for literally every region. But that war can look different locally, if that makes any sense. And what I would say is, as an example, as we look at the markets, I always look at the population data, mature markets. We replace ourselves one-to-one. You look at a continent like Africa, and the last time I read it—haven't read in a while, could be less now—but they're replacing themselves six-to-one. That's a huge shift in the labor market statistics, and those are the kinds of things that continue to drive the way we do our work.

Also, look at future predictions all the way to the 2100s. You see some of our heavily populated locations around the world becoming less populated as other pieces start to come up. So, all of those things lead to labor markets disruption. I think the first big one that we felt in a long time has been the baby boomer retirement in the mature markets. And, in fact, I just read that last month, in the United States at least, was the lowest unemployment we've had in over 50 years. And that's on top of what we've been experiencing in the last three years. So, it's not going to go away. The challenge will be different locally, and we're going to have to segment and really customize how we hire, develop, and retain talent. But it is going to have to be at the local level a little bit to adapt to whatever that labor market's change is. 

Kelley Lang: And I think that sort of dovetails into my next question nicely. As we think about some of the trends you just highlighted in terms of the disruption and the volatility in the labor markets, how should organizations be preparing to manage through these circumstances and be competitive in the talent market? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Oh, I don't have a crystal ball, but here's what I would say. I think companies are trying to figure it out, and what I have noticed is, I don't think everyone's doing all of it, if it makes sense, but I think companies are attacking their pain points first. And their pain points might be different depending on what type of company it is or where they sit, right? So, I think, in general, companies are still trying to figure out how to attract in the candidate-driven market, and that looks like [them saying,] “We know we've got to get more flexible. What does flexibility look?” And it creates a little bit of conflict, right? Because the leaders are often of a generation that feels less flexible and, and yet the labor market's demanding more flexibility. So, I think that companies are trying to figure out what the right level of flexibility is, where we can still maintain the culture that we enjoy, but also offer people the freedom that the labor market demands.

The other one that I've heard a lot is switching from hiring for pedigree versus skill. And what I mean by that is that we had an introduction of a lot of new skills during Covid. A lot of people did stay at home learning, and I had a friend who is a chef and learned how to program, right? They learned how to code. So now as you enter back in this labor market where we have almost full participation, again, you see companies adapting and saying, “OK, so, the old resumes or the old pedigrees, however you want to say it, that don't exist anymore. So, let's break our jobs down and figure out what skills are important and let's go higher for skills.” And that's a lot of pressure on HR because breaking apart jobs and building a capability profile by skill can be very difficult. But I have seen companies doing that as well. 

And really, the last one is, how do you engage all the workers? And this also isn't new, right? This is the conversation about gig, about retirees, about stay-at-home moms, consultants, freelancers—whatever that looks like before this hyper-competitive labor market. Those could be, well, you know, we could look at those labor market sources when we are feeling that pinch. I think companies are now trying to figure out new ways to leverage that labor market, because we've got to get work done and it's not easy to get it done anymore. That's what I would think. I haven't seen anybody doing all of it, but I see people kind of diving in a different point, depending on their companies.

Kelley Lang: Right. Yeah. Adam, do you have any thoughts on this particular subject? 

Adam Howe: Yeah, I do. I was at a conference this morning, Kelley, in New York with about a hundred CHROs and a couple of the topics that Cynthia is alluded to, were really part of the debate. So, the first one was around the kind of personalized employee experience really being prevalent. And actually, I think it plays, Cynthia, to the point around flexibility and how different parts of the workforce just really expect different things from work. So, employee experience is nothing new, but it's definitely having a renaissance and it's something that, with better data and better profiling— there are some data privacy concerns that come with that—you're able to provide a much more tailored experience for people at work. And then I think the link to that is EVP—employee value proposition—is also having a renaissance at the moment. Again, talked about extensively at the conference this morning. I'm hearing a lot with clients at the moment—we're getting k really clear on, in this hyper-competitive labor market, what is the give that you're able to offer to bring best-in-class talent, in particularly for some of these hard-to-recruit-for roles? So yeah, I think those are aligned with what we're hearing in the marketplace.

And what I'd love to do, Cynthia, is actually go a little bit deeper on that. So, just trying to get into your thoughts on whether you see a scenario where the gap between what the talent market wants and what organizations actually need from a capability perspective is widening. Is there more of a gap there? Is there more of a difference, more of a delta? And if so, what do you think about the biggest implications for an organization? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Yeah, I think it's definitely widening and I don't think it's going to stop any time soon. And I think about this a lot, you know, as I sit in conversations and I listen and I—similar to you—sit in these calls and you hear about all these things happening, and I often had the thought of, if I were to whitepaper HR today, all the constructs that we have in our heads, if we took that away and we built for today's labor market, how would it look different? And it's interesting because, you know, I always start with how do you get work done? And I've read this article and I can't honestly remember where I read it, so it's brilliant and it's not mine. But it was the five Bs: how do you get work done? And it was you “build, buy, bot, borrow, or bridge.” So, build and buy are what we're used to, right? That is, we hire people and then we develop people. So, you know, that's what we're used to. That's been more traditional. The bot is the automation, which is catching up, but isn't really there yet. We've got a long way to go, and depending on what country you're in and the infrastructure that exists, we can catch up. Borrowing is kind of that contingent. I would put freelance in here. I would put the silver generation in here. I would put the gig workers. And it's also, the borrow kind of goes into a different level. When you go beyond the worker, it's borrowing services. And that looks like, you know, the best one I can think of that's out in the marketplace is how you can take Amazon returns to Kohl's now. So, borrowing services, right? And then the bridging part is, what we're more used to, again, the contingent worker, right? That's more the bridge. So, if you think about that, it used to be building, buying. But now it's bot, borrow, and bridge. 

So, what that means is, the labor market didn't get bigger, so building and buying already shrunk. But now some of the people who would've been in our old building buying categories, they've moved over and some of them are in borrow category and some of them are in bridge category because they want to be, or because they've retired or whatever that looks like. So now your workforce has decreased because the population and your workforce has decreased because of new ways of working, and that means you've decreased your recruitable talent. That then has implications for recruitment, but it has implications way beyond recruitment. So again, for recruitment, we've got to think about how we recruit differently. Like I said, we have to do skills, not pedigrees. I always say to my team, what used to be a horse is now a unicorn. So, the job of a recruiter has always been to turn that unicorn that the hiring manager wants into a horse. But now we're turning things that used to be horses, [starting] from that point. So, it's kind of an interesting dynamic. Think about it from a talent management perspective. If you decide that part of your getting work done strategy is the silver generation, those folks aren't on your plan for your future leadership, right? They're there to stay vital and they're probably there part-time. And if you get gig workers, does it matter if your gig workers are a cultural fit? And if you have your FTEs and they're heavily different generations, then they might want a meritocracy versus, you know, our traditional hierarchical job ladder.

So, you know, we have all those things coming into talent management to think about. And then I think the biggest, biggest, biggest thing to me is that, managers have to think about not managing people in the future anymore, but instead managing work. So just sit on that for a minute. So, I have to get something done. I don't hire Jenny to do that because that's what Jenny does somewhere else. Now I think, I’ve got to pull this thing apart and I have to make it a series of several objectives. And I have to think about, do I get this one done by building, buying, borrowing, or bridging, right? So yeah, that's a huge pressure on a manager who's been in business for a while. It's huge pressure on HR to build that capability, and I've seen companies kind of dipping their toe in, but I haven't seen anybody go full boat in because I think we're all just kind of figuring it out. 

Adam Howe: Yeah, I love the five Bs, by the way. I'm definitely going to be partnering with you again maybe on an article for that. I think that's really going to resonate with a lot of listeners to the podcast. 

Let's double-click a little bit on the manager piece here. So, as you start to think about working with the business in terms of this kind of new thinking, in this new hyper-competitive labor market, business models being disrupted, strategy cycles are shorter than ever before. How do you work with the business to help them think about this in a new way? How do you break conventional wisdom and partner with them to think about some of the possibilities here? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Yeah. I think first of all, you have to start with a leader who's sort of forward thinking and already kind of abreast almost of what's happening, right? Or even already feeling pain and needs help. I think that if you just go and you talk about these things that are going to happen, there's enough pain in the industry right now with the post-Covid recession and everything else, that this isn't probably where they're going to focus. So, what we're trying to do instead is kind of influence at the hire. So we're trying to hire really good recruiters who can not only just recruit but influence, and they need to educate and they need to push back and feel comfortable with that. And that’s sometimes a tall order for recruiters, who sort of by nature are people pleasers, right? So from a talent acquisition perspective, we're trying to kind of hit it at the lowest level organically versus kind of doing these broad sweeps at the top and trying to make those changes. At the same time, from a shrinking labor market perspective, as an HR organization, we're trying to make sure that we retain our people by ensuring that we're doing right by them. And we've got a lot of initiatives in leadership at Kimberly-Clark right now, you know, making sure that we're doing right. We're double downing on engagement and making sure that the employees having the best possible experience. And in all those pieces, I mean, we all felt the great resignation, at least for us, it seems to have now kind of leveled out. I don't think we got hit as hard as some companies, but I do think we've leveled out. So we're trying to kind of come at it in different ways. And it's mostly where, you know, this is something that we can do within our own function right now and we'll go tackle the broad sweeps later. 

Adam Howe: Yeah, no, it makes a lot of sense. And in a tight talent market, being able to keep people, is going to help your odds in the overall equation. I guess before I transition back to Kelley to close this out, Cynthia, are there any other organizations that you've seen in the public domain that are doing a great job on any of the build, buy, bot, borrow, or bridge things that you've talked about? 

Cynthia Burkhardt: I think companies are doing pieces of it. I think where I've seen it work the best is at tech companies. You know, I got into this a little bit in one of my last organizations, and I think it's because in that type of work it's a little bit easier. Like, you can farm out, “I need this piece of code written.” That's an easier thing to take, package, and give away to a different type of worker. So I think the tech companies are kind of ahead of us on that because it's just kind of natural. I have seen it again, more on the business side than HR. You know, I gave the example of the Amazon–Kohl’s partnership, but there's a lot of those things out there that I'm starting to see, but I haven't seen HR, again, do any of it. Other than, you know, in my last organization, we very much tried to look across the whole landscape for specifically in our STEM talent, our software developers, and our coders, because we had to, right? So we had to look across that whole five Bs to figure out for at least this part of our business, which is coding and development, how are we going to pull every one of our levers to get this work done? And it was simply a necessity. And I think the necessity is what's going to drive this full scale across industries.

Adam Howe: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Kelley, any thoughts from you on that? 

Kelley Lang: I think the technology comments that you made, Cynthia, are interesting because I do think when you think about talent acquisition and processes and you know, how you show up externally as an employer of choice with the talent in the market, I think technology companies do a better job of leveraging technology and AI technology and those types of things in their processes, and I think it's particularly relevant in terms of how you show up as an employer to a younger candidate in the market. There are some really interesting things going on in that space as well.

Cynthia Burkhardt: Yeah, I mean, absolutely that. It's what you were saying, Adam, that consumerization, that personal experience, I think that's really critical. And thank you, Kelley, for bringing it up. You know, one of the things I should have mentioned as we were talking about the attraction of tech talent is you can't just do an EVP and throw it out there and expect it to work. You've gotta go deep. You've gotta understand your consumer in a very targeted way and kind of cut through that noise. Whichever company I've been at, Kimberly-Clark now, Phillips before, we got very deep, approached it very much like a commercial organization and said, “OK, so here are the personas that exist within that population and here's what they care about. And therefore that means that this is our approach to this segment, and this is our approach for that segment. And I don't mean that on a local geography basis, because, of course, that's always different, but it's actually within the tech vertical. So, it could be as narrow as coders, for example. Or you know, at Kimberly-Clark we're kind of going at it through a population standpoint and we have a couple of locations where we have working mom programs. So then it's not about the skills so much that they're playing, but we need more people. So how do we access? We've got some great working mom programs to help them on-ramp back in, and that lets us get to an untapped talent source that, prior, wouldn't have been as much of a focus, but now absolutely is the start of us focusing on the more non-traditional labor market.

Kelley Lang: Right. Yes. Thanks, Cynthia. That's a really good perspective. I guess one final question as we bring this conversation to a close. Looking ahead, what specific leadership skill sets and attributes do you think will be most valuable in order to help Kimberly-Clark continue to meet its strategic goals as a business, be competitive in the market and help drive the ongoing transformation at the organization?

Cynthia Burkhardt: Well, first of all, thank you for letting me talk about my company a little bit. I'm very, very proud of it, and we're on a really exciting journey, but we're doing it a lot in this space because we would naturally, but also you need to with this labor market. We've got to retain and develop people, and so we're looking at a couple of things. One of our more prevalent things that we've just started is helping leaders to balance performance and care. And it's really fascinating. We've had some people come in to help us with that. And you know, it's interesting when you start to read the research because if you, if you over-index on care, employees are actually not as engaged as if you over-index on performance. But neither of them engages employees as much as if you have the balance between performance and care. So, we're bringing that in, helping leaders to do hard things in a very human way, and making sure that our leaders continue to have a bias for action. They continue to be accountable, but at the same time, we don't lose that caring part of us that makes us very uniquely Kimberly-Clark. So that's one of the big ones. And then the other big focus that I'm seeing is just that we're starting everything from the point of the consumer now. And that is a really important capability, understanding the insights from a consumer, and we're not just trying to assume the consumer need and build for that. We're actually starting to try to delight our customer, so not just meeting a need. Of course, we're always going to meet a need, but how do we go further and how do we delight? And some of it, to Adam's point is, you know, we've gone through some more personalization and pieces like that without saying too much. So I think those two things: I think the leader of the future is really one that can combine that performance-driven mindset with the care we need to take care of people. And at the same time, a laser focus on consumers. Because at the end of the day, that's who we're here for. So those would be the two things.

Kelley Lang: All right, Cynthia. Well, listen, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. This has been incredibly informative, and we look forward to staying connected with you. 

Cynthia Burkhardt: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Enjoyed it.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time. 

About the interviewers

Adam Howe ( is Adam Howe is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York City and London offices; he leads the global Organizational Simplicity and Digital Transformation service offerings and is a member of the Culture Shaping Practice.

Kelley Lang ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Atlanta office and a member of the Consumer Markets; Marketing, Sales & Strategy Officers; and Human Resources Officers practices.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast