The Secret to Hiring (and Keeping) Top Talent

What is the hardest thing about starting a company? The list of challenges is long (making money, keeping customers happy, marketing, hours in the day, maintaining relationships, showering), but when we talk to founders the majority of them say the same thing. Hiring. How do you find the best talent and then (just as importantly) keep them?

Coming from a corporate background, being in a services business, and now running my own company have given me access to a range of approaches to hiring—some effective, and many, many ineffective. And then there’s retention. Many large companies assume people will leave, so why work hard to keep them?!? It’s so obviously self-fulfilling, there’s no need to say anything else. 

Hiring is hard for everyone, but there are some strategies we’ve picked up from many of you that make it a bit less hard. There are also ways (that we’ve learned ourselves, and from you) that we make it harder than it needs to be. This is my attempt to nudge more of you into the former category.

Be specific, be open, be creative. How do you even find the right person? It can feel insurmountable. First, be clear on what you want (yes, job descriptions aren’t just an annoying, time-wasting exercise), then start the search in order from narrowest to broadest. Go to your direct community, then to your broader community, and then to the general community where that type of person lives. For example, if you are looking for an engineer, put together a clear job description, then send that out to your friends and family, then post it to your social media community, then find out where engineers hang out (for engineers, I highly recommend Elpha). Then be open to the fact that the right person may be somewhere else entirely—someone you meet at a “conference,” you meet on holiday (I’m looking at you, Grace Kim), or a person you’ve known for years but were afraid to ask because, come one, what kind of crazy person wants to join a startup? Just ask. Be open. As an entrepreneur you’re going to get a lot of no’s, might as well start practicing.

Character > experience. Back when I was still trying to create change within a large organization, I read lots of articles about why women and people of color didn’t get hired or retained for high level positions. One of the conclusions that stuck with me the most was this: experience is not a good indicator of job performance. So for everyone who is requiring board members to have previous board experience, yet says they want a more diverse candidate pool . . . yeah. When it comes to character, everyone has a different view on what matters most. In my experience, the greatest predictor of success is this: is she the type of person who assumes everything is her responsibility or assumes everything is someone else’s responsibility? In an early stage company (and maybe any company), the former group is the group I want. 

It’s your job to make them good at their job. When I was a senior associate I was given a group of new associates to manage on a large project. I struggled. I felt like they got everything wrong and I was angry at how much time I had to spend training them. My dad, who ran his own business consultancy, told me that if I was having trouble with an employee the first person to blame was myself. Ouch. Not the answer I was looking for. But I’ve come to believe that he was (largely) correct. If you are a manager, it is your job to make your employees good at their jobs. You hired them because you thought they were capable, so you better invest the necessary resources to make it as easy as possible for them to succeed. If you’ve done everything you can, and have very openly listened to your employee explain why she thinks she is not succeeding, and it’s still not working, then it probably just isn’t a fit and move on.

Once you have found her, never let her go.  As a business owner myself, and one who thinks constantly about the value of hiring great talent, it blows my mind how little some companies do to keep their talent. Do you really want to go through that hiring process again, potentially with an ultimately inferior candidate? NO! To all those companies out there who think high turnover is just the cost of doing business, you are only hurting yourselves. Truly valuable employees are just going to leave for a business that does value keeping them. And then who are you left with?

Employees are human beings. As some of you may have seen, an article recently came out about the Chief Legal Officer of Morgan Stanley demanding that all the law firms that work with Morgan Stanley require their employees to return to the office or risk losing Morgan Stanley as a client. The article went on to quote the managing partners of some of Morgan Stanley’s biggest legal providers, who praised the CLO’s “leadership” and affirming that age-old (and I emphasize old) law firm adage: the more face time the better. Ew. One thing so many corporations seem to forget is that the people who work for you are human beings. They have lives and needs and preferences and a desire to lead a happy, fulfilling life. They may not work the same way you do. They may not be their most productive in an office environment surrounded by people who want to stop by their office to share the details of their weekend or their last (totally major) professional conquest. 

If you want employees who are happy, want to work for you, are women, are people of color, are under 50, don’t have a stay-at-home spouse, or are introverts, you’re better off thinking about them as people you care about rather than profit-generating automatons. 

--Jessie Gabriel

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