Recruiting and Retaining Superstars
By General Management Resources

The quality of your people defines your culture. Your recruitment efforts leverage and replicate their strengths. Your best people, not just programs, can be your best sales tool in attracting and retaining superstars.

We all have read the articles. Over the past 10 years, companies have become increasingly creative in their approaches to creating cultures that look attractive to prospective employees and are achingly difficult for existing employees to abandon. Here, in Los Angeles, automotive companies offer terrific lease packages on you guessed it cars. Entertainment companies like Disney or Universal offer such soft benefits as free film screenings or family passes to their theme parks. During the Y2K hysteria, golden handcuffs equal to 20 to 30 percent of base salaries were being offered to anyone who could even spell "Cobol." When you look at elements of the programs offered from an infinite variety of compensation and benefits packages, to such perks as health and fitness programs you have to ask yourself, "why is it so hard these days to hire and hang on to good people?"

At inception, these programs create an aura of culture. Over time, employees may cite them as defining elements of their culture. No one set of programs works better than another for all employers, and there is no shortage of ideas in the trade press from which to draw. While many of these programs are terrific, programs in and of themselves do not define a corporate culture. Culture is not defined by your language, your race, or your nationality. Culture is defined by the behavior, education, creativity, and ethics of you and your neighbors. All executives need to be ever mindful that how they and their managers communicate these attributes is the pivotal factor for recruiting and retention (R&R) success.

R&R Success Demands Executive Leadership

Mr./Ms. Executive, you have to take charge. You cannot defer this matter to the Human Resources (HR) department. R&R is the biggest challenge you face, because in today's demand marketplace, if you can't find the right people, your organization will fail. You have to get involved personally, get all your best people involved, and you have to stay at the center of this campaign. The reason is not only to ensure that you succeed in your recruitment efforts, it is to ensure that your best people stay with you over the long term.

What makes many executives blanche at getting personally involved in recruitment is that a successful R&R program deals with something very un-linear, frequently illogical, and utterly unpredictable... people. Many executives offload recruitment responsibility to HR because they don't feel comfortable, or they prefer to tackle challenges that are, to them, more tangible, more predictable, or ahem "strategic." And let's face it, when a person makes an honest effort at recruiting (or retaining) someone they really value, they are likely to invest some emotion in the effort. When such an effort fails to go the direction you expect, it takes its toll on you. I'm no more immune to it than you.

I am not advocating that you take away recruiting from HR or God forbid professional recruiters. Everyone has their role to play, and as I'll address a bit later, you need a multifaceted R&R strategy. My point is that many executives forget that, whether they like it or not, they are the main attraction. You may look like Danny DeVito, but if you are an executive with a great reputation, the people you want most will view you as Brad Pitt. Don't shy away from that role. Embrace it.

Recruiting and Retention Truths

If you accept that it is the quality of the people that defines your culture, your recruitment efforts must be geared to leverage and replicate their strengths. Focus on these R&R truths as a means of improving the cultural wellness and retention levels of your organization.

  1. Every executive needs to be personally involved in the recruitment and retention of individuals in his or her chain of command at least as far as two levels down in the organization, perhaps more, depending on how effective your direct reports are at R&R. This includes defining and refining business needs and requisite job responsibilities, being personally accountable for R&R, and orchestrating whatever resources are necessary to lead good people to your door. Such resources may include colleagues, consultants, vendors, and recruiters.
  2. If your organization's culture is not healthy, the best people will avoid you like the plague. I wish a magic wand existed that could transform a dysfunctional organization into the "All Madden Team." Doesn't exist. Winning hearts and minds is tough enough for any exec who inherits someone else's legacy team. It's harder still to lead them through cultural change to light a fire so that they can believe there is a better way, that change is possible, that they can do it, and that they will benefit from the effort. Divisional or departmental cultures are systemic of their corporate parents; if you work under an ogre of a CEO who perpetuates the very culture you're trying to change, surrender and get out of there. If the source of dysfunction is resident within your own organization, and you don't take action to fix it, you can spend as much as you like on recruiting, advertising, "rah-rah" programs, and self-promotion, but your efforts will be wasted. In the end, your culture will still be sick, and the only people you will attract will be those who are either unemployable elsewhere, or are money motivated bottom feeders who will work for you only until they hear from a higher bidder, nine months from now. Physician, heal thyself.
  3. Involve only your best people in the process. Why would you allow a manager (who on a scale of 1-10 is a 4) to interview a candidate who may be an 8 or a 9? Un-involve them. A good recruitment effort may take anywhere from 2 to 9 months for a critical hire. Why risk all that effort with an employee who has the presence of Homer Simpson? The same holds true for your retention efforts. In your exit interviews, ask departing employees to be candid about their motivations. If Homer's name comes up repeatedly, you know what to do.
  4. Get everyone singing from the same song sheet. In recruitment, too few companies take the time to ensure that all interviewers understand the criteria that are to be used in evaluating prospective employees, and the role that each interviewer needs to play in the process. Establish everything up front when you initiate the recruitment effort, and rekindle your team's understanding once you are ready for interviews. Make sure your people understand how to interview (most do not), and that they understand that a balanced interview process is as much about selling your organization as it is about qualifying a candidate. A similar principle holds true for retention efforts: a consistent performance management program conducted uniformly by your managers will do wonders for your corporate culture's health and attractiveness.
  5. Orchestrate the right resources. Internet recruiting has been a boon to internal and external recruiters because it has sped up our ability to process raw information about people. Unfortunately, it does nothing about improving the judgment of those who must do something with that information. Therefore, you must be mindful to utilize qualified resources to do the initial filtering who actually understand the position, and who have the time in their process to affect proper quality control. These resources, whether they are the HR department, external recruiters or members of your management staff, must be credible to prospective employees, and when appropriate they must be able to sell. In their own respective disciplines, they must be superstars. Retention requires the same alignment of capabilities: only your superstars are likely to keep their superstars in the fold; marginal managers will always be a detriment to the process, not an asset.

Netting It Out

Exert your own leadership. The most elaborate, multifaceted recruitment and retention program will do you little to no good if your participants do not have a thorough understanding and commitment to the principles, objectives, and processes required. If you begin by leveraging the strengths of your stars, in time you will effect a cultural transformation where retention is merely a statistical footnote, and recruiting is a process run with confidence.

This article was originally published by 3Com InTouch, an online advisory magazine for CIOs.