Thursday 8 July 2010

Finding Talent Part 1

Here’s a synopsis of my recent talk on recruiting high performance teams (you can find the slides here) which was made famous at this year’s IT Directors Conference.

The talk breaks down to 3 areas; recruiting, retaining, and running. The emphasis was on recruiting – because it was a talk about finding and hiring talent rather than general management instruction – so I’ll go over recruiting in detail in this post and combine retaining and running in the next:

Keep a bench – you are always recruiting

Any decent manager I know is constantly assessing everyone they meet – socially or professionally – and sorting them into ‘would hire’ and ‘wouldn’t hire’ buckets whether or not they are even currently hiring.  This way they can start to build a relationship and get a real life feel for how the person performs outside of the artificial construct of an interview situation and then they have an extant ‘bench’ of talented people that they know of, and might even have been grooming, when positions come up.  You see roles filled quicker and cheaper with better quality people.

Attracting talent – what YOU say doesn’t matter

One thing that attracts good people is what other good quality people have to say about working at a certain organization – and anything said by another employee or associate of the company automatically has weight and credibility that the official company line doesn’t carry.  People expect YOU to say that your company is a great place to work, and therefore they take your recruitment sites/company spiel with a pinch of salt, but they’ll pay much more attention to what your guys say on social media platforms.  So encourage your team to blog about work and the team and the projects.

HR is not going to help you

Now, let me just say that up front that I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but the fact is that the role HR departments take in modern organisations is changing.  The focus is now much more frequently on compliance (employment law) and health and safety legislation and in putting in place cost reduction measures around recruitment (enter good old efficiency at the expense of effectiveness).  Seldom is an HR department oriented toward courting talent.  That said – if you do have HR guys that are all about the talent then you should hug them dearly and make them feel appreciated.  They’re getting rarer.

Nobody is better than the wrong body

A common mistake in recruitment – especially under deadline pressure - is compromising on the person your looking for.  This can be a tough one to stick to.  In the worst of circumstances you’ll have no-one in a role, a business demanding quick progress (and maybe even viewing vacancies as one of the reasons things aren’t moving quicker), and you’ll have seen literally hundreds of CVs.  But every single time I have taken on the best person I’ve seen so far – rather than holding out until I meet someone I considered to be the right person for the role – I have regretted it.

Salary is only part of the equation

There is no correlation between the best people I have ever had working for me and the people who have been on the highest salaries.  Top talent are much more interested in taking a stake in something they believe in (read: equity), performance linked bonuses, the challenges of the projects, and the culture/working environment.  Salary has to be enough to take pay off the table as an issue but the best people I know don’t chase salaries, they chase challenges.

Crazy about technology - not the industry

It’s easy to fall into the trap of hiring engineers that love the company subject matter over engineers that love engineering.  Mistake.  Your best technologists will understand the commercial forces that drive the business, the market, and the customer in their organisation – and it’s nice to have a passion for the product you’re building – but not at the expense of loving and living the bit you do.  That’s code.  I’m hiring guys who build world class highly scalable data distribution systems, not a football team.

PLU is nice – but I’d rather have talent

People Like Us (that syndrome of only ever recruiting a very narrow band of like-minded people) is a good way to make sure you end up with a group of people who seldom disagree, but no variety – no alternative points of view, no challenges to the status quo, no new ideas – doesn’t make a high performance team.  Lumped into here I’d also underline how important it is to hire people smarter than you are.  Not as clever, or less clever so that you can feel nice and superior, but more clever.  That’s how things get pushed on and it shouldn’t be feared – it should be expected.

Agencies – surrogate networks

The best way to hire anyone is through your network – that is, people who are known quantities and proven performers who have the right personal qualities (which is why I say keep a bench) but eventually you will have to use agencies anyway because everyone goes to them (which I think is because, historically, everyone goes to them).  The secret to dealing with agencies is to remember what you’re doing – buying the value of their network – so don’t accept ones that just keyword-match CVs or phone around on a per-engagement basis.  You want to look at how long they know a candidate for before they put them forward, whether they’ve met them in person, and whether they’ve placed them anywhere before.

Paperwork is an artefact of good people

And finally remember that the goal is to get the right people in place, not to have completed the right forms and followed the right steps.  Don’t establish an overreliance on artefacts - process is important but not at the expense of results; it exists to help you get the right outcomes and is not an outcome in itself.  Not convinced?  Test it yourself this way – imagine you’ve brought on board a series of poor performers who haven’t lived up to expectations.  Your boss is going to be firmly asking you why (if they’re any good that is).  You followed all the right steps and completed all the right forms.  Do you think that absolves you of responsibility for those results?

Obviously this talk is aimed at the engineering end and, even then, only for those of us lucky enough to have tough technical challenges and interesting business problems to solve.  I appreciate that isn’t everyone but I hope there’s something in there for you anyway.  In a few days I’ll post a summary of the retaining and running sections.


Unknown said...

Interesting article, very well written.

In a slightly different but still complimentary context to this article, I see a lot of people talking about hiring good talent and even about retaining it but very few people talk about nurturing good talent. Every organization has a bunch of talented people or atleast thats what they are hired for. Imagine a good chef in a restaurant making an excellent pasta dish is asked that he has to make the same pasta for the next 2 years. No wonder he will get even better at it in time. People eating it would always appreciate it as well but how worthless that chef may feel doing the same thing over and over again. We spend more time at work that we spend with our family so unless companies think about nurturing the talent by giving people a horizontal growth, I feel good talent will either move out to find new challenges or get erroded to the extent that the organization will start feeling that the so called 'Good talent' was not a 'Good Talent' after all.

Unknown said...

thanks for the feedback and you make a very good point - being so focussed on acquiring talent from the market that you overlook what's already sitting in your lap would be a real shame...