I work with a lot of large organizations. Many of them are legacy institutions – think banks, insurance companies, telcos, etc. While the process of digital transformation is difficult for these companies they also struggle with attracting, hiring and retaining quality talent. This is particularly important as they seek to modernize their in-house capabilities and ways of working. Competition is stiff. Tech behemoths seem to suck up all the good talent. High-growth startups grab the majority of the rest leaving the traditional organizations with slim pickings. Despite our pandemic-driven remote work world making talent globally available to every organization, a common refrain has been emerging from the business unit leader I typically support: “We can’t find good people. And if we do manage to find them, we can’t retain them.”
When challenged to do something about it, many default to blaming Human Resources. “They don’t provide us with good candidates.” “We don’t have competitive incentives like other companies.” To these managers, I have some bad news. This isn’t HR’s fault. It’s yours. People come to work for and with you, not HR. It’s on you to build a team people want to join. It’s on you, as the team leader, to provide meaningful work and a psychologically safe environment where people can thrive. Passionate people want to work with a team and a leader who empowers them to do their best work, clears obstacles out of their way, incentivizes learning and celebrates collaboration.
The leaders who struggle to find good colleagues to hire will often use that as an excuse for suboptimal work. They’ll regularly resort to some variation of the phrase, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” (I honestly can’t believe I’m quoting Donald Rumsfeld but, here we are). That may be true in the military but in the workplace, forgive me, it’s bullshit. Unlike the army, people have a choice of workplaces. If you don’t have the right people applying to work with you or staying on your payroll ask them why. Every rejected offer or exit interview is a learning opportunity. Ask, “What could we have done better to get you to join us?” “What would have made you decide to stay on staff?” Very quickly you’ll start to hear themes that reflect the changes your org needs to make to turn this around.
I’ve mentioned before that everything you do is a product or a service. It has “users.” In this case, the service you’re providing is a place to work and a team to work with. If people are rejecting this service, doing some discovery work helps uncover the root causes. And the best place to start is talking to those people. In fact, you could even set some Objectives and Key Results for your team culture efforts. That OKR could look like this:
Objective: create the most sought-after product development team in the company by the middle of the year
Key Result: Less than 5% voluntary annual attrition rate
Key Result: At least 5 CV’s each month specifically asking to work on your team
Key Result: 50% of new hires are referred by current team members
Sure, culture is global to the organization. But in larger companies there are micro-cultures. Look around the company for teams that work well together and retain their staff. Look for the teams where employees recommended their friends who then later joined that team. Muster up some humility and reach out to the managers of those teams to ask what they’re doing to make their folks successful and engaged. Ask the team members too.
The talent market has gone global. You can literally hire anyone from anywhere today. This means that the diversity in your potential talent pool is bigger than it’s ever been before. Broaden your horizons and experiment with different sources of talent, geographies and backgrounds. Challenge yourself to build a better team and make the micro-adjustments that you can within your sphere of influence. Most of all, own this. HR has a responsibility to support you, it’s true, but as a leader the culture of the team you lead will determine who decides to join you on your mission and who decides to leave. It’s up to you.