Help Wanted: Really Smart People Who Care Deeply About Clients and are Great Cultural Fits


Posted by Joel Basgall - 15 October, 2012

Find, Select and Retain I.T. Rock Stars

By Dave Katauskas, Ryan McClish and Joel Basgall

Can you think of any organization that doesn’t rely on talent for its continued growth and success? Probably not.

From manufacturing to healthcare, finding and attracting talented people remains a top priority for every CXO. Most organizations also recognize the importance of creating a meaningful workplace culture so employees stay engaged through good times and bad.

Admittedly, hiring is very tough right now. But there are still plenty of things an organization can do to improve its value proposition for candidates who are looking for opportunities to work hard and accomplish great things.   

“But All the Best People are Already Working!”

In spite of the diversity of the organizations participating in our discussion, everyone agreed with the perception that the best people are simply not looking.

This is where social media can offer some help.  Just as the Marketing Department has discovered,  some social media tools can be effective in targeting  and building  relationships (even if someone is not apparently looking).  For example, think about  participating in collaborative tech communities like Github and StackOverflow to hunt for A” talent. You have a better chance of finding the top talent you want here rather than LinkedIn or job boards.  By taking the time to cultivate credible relationships,  you may find openings to discuss better employment opportunities.

What about growing people from within?

While some of our participants  feel frustration in their efforts to grow people into other positions,  others have had more success. Before concluding that you need to look elsewhere, renew your efforts to build up your IT department with “raw materials” already available.

Start by looking at non-IT folks to grow into IT roles.  For example, can English or engineering majors learn the skills sets required for project management or development?   With the right kind of mentoring, coaching and leverage programs, you may be able to avoid looking for outside talent by giving current employees more support to grow and stretch.

Another idea to consider is developing  a “farm system” (similar to minor league teams) as a way to train and grow talent organically,  instead of trying to recruit talent from competitors.

Behold the “Talent Magnet” Company

Whether real or self-proclaimed, you’ve heard about  “destination” workplaces: Cool brand name companies with innovative products,  creative perks, and high visibility in the media. These highly attractive organizations have invested the time and resources to develop cultures with the attitude, incentives and growth opportunities  that appeal to technical workers. Just as important, these companies also do a great job communicating their brand appeal, making that message an integral part of their website, marketing campaigns and recruiting dialog.

But even these companies have their challenges.  Automated filtering processes, put in place to manage the large volume of people walking through the door,  typically qualify candidates based only on perishable skill sets.  Other capabilities and the all important cultural fit are often not accounted for, resulting in less than perfect matches.

Make the Right Hiring Decisions

Because selecting the right candidates  can be almost as challenging as finding them, it’s  always a good idea to step back and re-examine your selection criteria:

  • Be open-minded about hard vs. soft skills: Look for hard skills on the resume but focus on soft skills in the phone screen.  For example, candidates who may not have the immediate perishable skills (Can they code? Do they know Ruby?) may actually be rock stars who can learn quickly.  Also, know what “different” looks like when interviewing new candidates so you don’t always fall into hiring the “same” every time.  External attribute differences may not be reflective of someone’s true capabilities.
  • Understand what drives people. If a candidate is passionate about things that are not relevant to your organization, it’s usually best to tell that person she might not be happy at your company. For example, if a very talented individual is not a people-person and prefers to work alone on projects, she might not be a fit for an organization that requires people to work in large teams or interact with clients. This person might do very well at a small startup where she can be an individual contributor.
  • Go for cultural fit. Ask the right questions that reflect your culture. For example, if you have a team-based workplace,  ask about  personal goals vs. team goals, attitudes about roles and responsibilities, and what happens when something goes wrong (blame game vs. solve and learn).  Make sure you ask for examples.

Retain Talent: Treat People Like People

We had solid consensus around the importance of investing in employees as people, not just as functional roles.  For most employees, the opportunity to learn and grow, work hard but still have fun, and deliver real value is as important as financial reward.  This understanding should be reflected in both on-boarding processes and workplace culture:


  • Use consistent metrics from hire to review: Often we hire people based on perishable skills. Then, after they’re hired, we review them on soft skills or other skills not originally discussed. While this approach may get them in the door, it causes frustration and can lead to attrition later on.
  • Make people a part of the organization from day one:  Don’t wait until new employees  start work to give them a laptop. Send it to them immediately after they accept the position. This demonstrates how important they are and kick starts the inclusion process.
  • Avoid future disillusionment: Be careful not to sell candidates on your vision of what you’d like your company to be.  Once they start, they’ll get a tough reality check and may become disillusioned.  Know what your brand stands for and be true to that. Don’t try to be all things to all people.

Workplace Culture:

  • Work  towards the same goal:  All employees should have clarity on team roles and goals. It is the group’s responsibility to check on each other (We’re half through the time … are you half done?) and the individual’s responsibility to speak up when in need.  Support and applaud the team that goes to the manager for help when someone is struggling. If necessary, pull the trigger and fire C-players. If you don’t, the A-players will get frustrated and leave.
  • Establish community:  Whether it’s through extracurricular events or social sharing sites like Yammer, personal connections are key in retaining employees.  If people feel personally  connected to others in the organization, they are more likely to stay. (Even if someone leaves a company, good peer relationships usually persist.)
  •  Support personal relevance:  Culturally speaking, few things are as important as understanding  individual motivation and recognizing  contributed value. For example, if  someone is philanthropic they might seek out organizations with employee volunteer programs. Or, if someone is passionate about building  systems, they’ll will look for organizations with cool technologies. Either of these individuals can excel at the same company as long as they feel their passions help move the company forward.
  • Help people stretch:  Give all employees the opportunity to grow, move into a different area, or take on a more senior roll.  Clear direction in career management and measured progress through feedback keeps employees interested and can extend their stay.

Remove Obstacles to Success

Finding and retaining talent is hard enough, so you need to do whatever it takes to remove organizational obstacles  and prevent more from being created.  If necessary, form a protective bubble around your group, but stay connected to others in the organization who share your thinking and  always maintain your credibility:

  • Expose toxic leadership: Make sure your leadership team isn’t inadvertently working against itself.  More than a few good people have left an organization because of poor management.  Toxic leadership can repel talent faster than a good brand can attract them.
  • Get alignment on your brand:  Does your leadership team agree on what kind of company they have?  For example, is your company transactional and antiseptic? Or, do you have more of team mentality that requires employees to be more emotionally engaged?  Once you define who you are, you’ll be able to ask candidates the right kind of questions and select the best fits.
  • Take a hard look at your recruiting processes:  Do you have sufficient, consistent selection/interviewing processes in place to make the best hiring decisions? Are you leveraging your marketing team to reach prospective candidates?
  • Assess your employee review process:  Change or remove the things that incent bad review behavior.  Learn how to provide good feedback that can genuinely be leveraged. Make sure you offer the learning opportunities to support that feedback.
  • Pay attention to team behavior: Are the right processes in place to keep people happy? Are you offering enough flexibility? Are you rotating people on projects enough? Do you have the right ratio of junior/senior talent?

 Executive Summary:  Not Just a Human Resources Problem

In most companies, the HR Department is busy enough with nuts-and-bolts things like payroll and benefits. Many of us do not have access to an HR team with deep expertise in I.T. talent selection and retention.  That said, the solution to the talent challenge must also belong to the organizational leadership.

In both good times and bad, it’s up to the leadership to remove obstacles and help employees be the best they can be.  In turn, employees will enthusiastically give back with new ways to deliver value to the customer, themselves and the company.

Although it may seem counter intuitive, it’s widely recognized that throwing money at candidates  doesn’t solve the greater problem of long term retention.  True, money is a factor, but candidates want more than money: They want personal relevance in an organization that shares their values and ample   opportunities  to push their boundaries.  This kind of culture can be the strongest ammunition to attract and retain great people.

Topics: Business, culture, Organizational Leaders, Project Blog, Software Product Development, Work and Lead Better

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