At some point in the last couple of years there was an industry wide realisation that companies are only as good as the people within them. Perhaps it was sparked by Steve Jobs’ obsession in hiring A players or emphasised by the continued success of the PayPal Mafia. Whatever the reason, every company is now in a competitive fight to recruit and keep the best talent. At the same time, more people than ever are starting their own companies. In this landscape, how do you recruit the A players?
Firstly, who is an A player? Whilst there is no exact definition, a good proxy for an A player is someone who could, with confidence, be successful in starting their own startup. The question is, how do you convince someone, who could go out and start their own startup, that it would be better to join yours?
Give them a mission
A hiring company needs to be able to convince a potential employee their work will have an impact. Taken from their about page, “Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. In 1996, when the company was started and most of the world’s information was still stored in books, you can imagine why this mission was so impactful. The best employees want to attack problems that have a bigger scope than just making money, they want to add value to the world.
Every company has a mission and it’s important to know how your mission is unique. Realise that stating your mission clearly is the best way to qualify your candidates. Candidates who are not interested in your mission will step back at this point (saving you time) and candidates who want to know more are more qualified as potential hires. Emphasising the company mission and how it will change the world is an important part of hiring ambitious people.
Contribute to their personal growth and future success
As well as being valuable to the world, employees want their work to be valuable to their future selves. You should position yourselves as an investor in their future, providing a structured environment for them to learn in. Your role provides them a place to take on responsibility, work with other intelligent people and make mistakes, all whilst being paid.
To truly understand how to contribute to a candidate’s growth, you must first understand their aspirations. By seeing where they want to go in their career you can offer them a role or project that will give them specific skills to go forward with.
It is also helpful to understand that many ambitious candidates will not stay in one company for several years. Naturally, the longer you stay at a company, the marginal lessons learned decrease. You can become familiar with the challenges, the role and the business model. By moving company, there is always going to be an extra lesson to learn and new people to learn from. I like the way Reid Hoffman put it in his post Managing Talent in The Networked Age.
“We must perceive an employee’s career not as a monolithic entity owned by one employer, but as a dynamic entity that consists of successive “tours of duty.” These tours should give employees the opportunity to transform their careers and the company they’re working for. They should encompass both the employer’s goals and the employee’s aspirations. Based on this alignment, employers can construct a mission that leads to a fulfilling tour of duty for the employee and significant advances for the company.”
Offering tasks and projects that develop key transferable skills are likely to satisfy an ambitious candidate. Avoid making them do niche tasks covering only a small section of an overall process. Challenge them to launch a new product, developing a sub-brand or cover the whole sales process. Often the reason why large corporations are not a good place for top talent to go is because early on in their career they are sheltered from these core tasks.
Let the best ideas win
Smart people have good ideas. To get smart people to work for you they need to know that when they suggest a good idea, it will be considered and respected by those above them. Steve Jobs said it best:
If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy (Source)
By creating a meritocracy for ideas a company empowers all employees to have the impact they desire. There is nothing more validating for an employee than seeing their idea materialise in the product or strategy.
Startups’ unique advantage
Over time, large corporate companies can see their mission diluted. They spend more time maintaining old products rather than creating new value. As a company grows employees become divided into niche teams completing specialised tasks. Large companies become process oriented rather than idea oriented and, with increasingly bureaucratic communications structures, ideas can get lost. Higher wages and multiple perks can only make up so much for diminutive tasks or low-impact work. In comparison, the small, resource-light nature of a startup gives them a unique advantage to offer candidates each of the above.
By being clear of your mission and positioning yourself as an investor in a candidate’s future, startups have the unique ability to build great teams motivated by impact rather than wages. Furthermore, by being realistic in your expectations that they are unlikely to commit to ten plus years of service, you will be in a better position to offer work that gives them shorter term goals that contribute to both the company’s success and importantly their personal growth. What tactics have you found to be effective when recruiting highly talented individuals?