Caring About Employees Is Not A Talent Strategy

September 27, 2013

4:00 pm

Almost every founder has the same mentality: talent can make or break your business. From finding the best talent to maintaining a strong culture, founders regularly wax poetic about how much they care about their people and their culture.

We all know that people and culture matter. The real question is what are you doing about it? 

Founders and leadership teams talk culture and people but rarely have an actual strategy in place.  They’ve got values, cool perks, and equity packages to offer.  But ask what the strategy is, and they fall silent.

Let me be clear: caring about employees isn’t a talent strategy. Imagine if you rolled out new product features just because you thought they’d make your users happy. Engineers everywhere know there has to be a roadmap.  You don’t add new features to make users happy if they’re not part of a plan to grow your user base or you know they’ll be outdated in six months.  Product development conversations are tied to revenue, growth and vision.

So why don’t startup leaders think about talent in the same way? Founders and investors don’t know how. But when they do, it changes everything.

Enter Dan Berger, CEO of Social Tables. Unlike most founders, Dan has both work experience in HR and has sought out mentors with HR experience. He uses terms like “hiring yield” and “employer of choice” regularly in conversation. More importantly, he doesn’t just care about his employees and culture. He can answer the question, “What are you doing about it?”

Social Tables is putting rigor into their hiring process. They’re starting to track employee satisfaction and aligning business goals directly with individual employee performance. They’re building out a competency model for their sales team so they can hire, coach and develop around specific success drivers.

Sound too corporate? Too formal? Too focused for a startup that should be spending time on product and growth. Try again.  Founders’ conversations with investors are always strategy-based. Talent conversations should be the same. So, how do you ensure you do more than just say you care about employees?

Define what you can do to attract, manage and retain the talent you need to grow.

You’ve likely already got a set of values. Look for ways you can pull those values through: hire for them, manage to them, fire for them. Don’t make exceptions. Align perks with those values, and define work rules—specific examples of how the values play out.  Share those examples with current and future employees. If they don’t want to—or can’t—behave that way, they shouldn’t be a part of the business.

At exaqueo, we use the term self-selection with our clients. We encourage them to be really clear and transparent about both the work experience and performance expectations. The clearer you are about the good and the bad up front, the more likely people who don’t fit will weed themselves out.

For every employee-related activity from adding perks to surveying your employees, ask, “Why are we doing this?”

It’s important to define a connection back to the business. Will it help the bottom line? Will it save money? For example, founders often use headhunters early on because it seems easy.  Is that the right reason? What does that do (or not do) for your business? Adding perks is another seems-like-this-is-fun idea. But with each perk, each benefit, ask why and make sure there’s a business reason.

Create an actual strategy for what you need to do.

Based on your growth plans, determine what kind of talent you’ll need and when. Market an honest depiction of your values, work environment and performance expectations. Create a hiring process that accurately assesses for those things. Then manage people to those values and expectations.

This doesn’t all happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen alone. Just like the rest of your business, you need time, guidance and advisors. But like finance, legal and sales, make it a priority to have a talent strategy.  Don’t just talk about it.

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Susan Strayer LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo. She helps startup and high-growth companies develop cultures, build employer brands, and create talent strategies to help scale and grow businesses. Follow her @SusanLaMotte.

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