Continually Evolving Thoughts on Talent and Hiring Vol. 2

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Almost 4 years ago, I wrote down some thoughts I had been having about talent and hiring. These were the main points I made:

  • A great hire can instantly bring new energy to the team and elevate the output of the entire company. A jackpot hire–perfect cultural fit and impactful contributor–is incredibly valuable.
  • Investing in recruitment functions (e.g. 3rd party recruiters and in-house recruiting resources) to go beyond inbound applications and to proactively find talent.
  • Build infrastructure to support the nurturing of junior talent in order to create our own supply of future stars and leaders in the agency.

I still stand by these points and feel that, at Barrel, we have a great deal of work to do in order to continue improving our recruitment functions and our ways of developing junior talent. Some of our disciplines, by virtue of being larger and having hired a greater volume of people, have some well-established processes and structures in place. It’s one of the most satisfying things to see junior talent progress through the years and become leaders within the org.

In this new volume of thoughts on talent and hiring, I have some observations to add.

1 – Fight the inclination to settle for good enough.

I’ve come to believe that no matter how thorough we are with our qualification and interview process, it’s very hard to gauge with absolute certainty that someone will be a great hire. In many cases, because of sunk costs, we will default to giving the new hire some slack and benefit of the doubt early on. As they start to show their true character, working style, skills, and collaborative capabilities, we’ll highlight their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, a sort of confirmation bias on our decision to hire them.

Even when we start to have a nagging feeling that this person isn’t a good fit or mediocre at best, our inclination will be to “work it through” with them and provide feedback to help with their development. In rare cases, these interventions work, but they are typically only effective with employees who already have a great attitude and are strong cultural fits with some gaps in skills or working styles. In most situations, after all feedback and development attempts have been honestly exhausted without noticeable improvement, the hard but right thing would be to part ways with that employee as quickly as possible.

This is incredibly hard to do, but one way to make the org more resistant to mediocrity is to draw a clear line on what it means to be excellent. What things are non-negotiable when it comes to certain behaviors, attitudes, and communication styles? The more an organization has invested time in defining, living, and defending these, the easier it will be to weed out those who don’t immediately fit in. Those who don’t will speak ill about the “cult-like” culture or how people at the company “lack empathy”, but I believe this is a small price to pay in order to preserve a certain level of excellence.

2 – Compatibility in communication style matters greatly.

When I talk about communication style, I’m talking primarily about a person’s way with emails, Slack, and other channels where collaboration with their team members take place. I’m of the mind that when it comes to communicating, especially with co-workers and clients, faster is better and confirming receipt of a message is paramount, especially if you can’t respond right away with a well-considered answer. Those who respond quickly, often, and in clear and reassuring ways always end up gaining the most trust within the org. This is not a personal preference – this is how all clients and team members end up feeling better about working with someone.

As a remote-first team, our demands for responsive communication has become stronger than ever. We can’t physically walk up to someone’s desk anymore, especially in urgent or time-sensitive situations. Hence, it’s important for people to be overly communicative. If they won’t be able to respond quickly because they’re out somewhere, then it’s important they make this clear. If they’ve received an email with a clear ask but can’t get to it right away, writing back with an ETA promise should be standard procedure.

People who struggle to work in such a manner will become problematic in the long run. They may be talented in many other ways, but because we are engaged in collaborative knowledge work, being a weak link in our daily communications chain can bring everyone else down. And from what I’ve observed, those who lack responsiveness usually lack a system for managing their “inbox”, the daily demands of tasks, thoughts, and obligations that David Allen talks about in his book Getting Things Done. They’re overwhelmed and weighed down by all the information coming at them each day.

In my experience, it’s often (9 times out of 10) better to hire someone less experienced with compatibility in communication style versus someone who is mega-talented and experienced but with a very incompatible communication style. It’s as important in our work, I believe, as someone’s attitude and character.

3 – Embrace collaboration with freelancers and build deep relationships with them.

The gig economy is a real thing. There are so many talented people all over the world who can jump into projects and provide immense value. There are people who can be long-time “permalancers” on select engagements and bring specific expertise that may not be needed in a full-time capacity. And then there are freelancers who, after years of working together, may become perfect candidates to join the team full-time.

The takeaway here is that it’s well worth our time and efforts to keep investing in a network of freelancers, to treat them like valued team members, and to find win-win situations with them.

In our early days, a common complaint was around the notion that freelancers could not be fully trusted because they juggled many clients and would perhaps flake out on deadlines. It’s true that every now and then, we might come across a freelancer who disappoints with poor communication or poor quality work. But one could argue that there are full-time employees who fail to communicate well, meet deadlines, and do good work, so it’s less about freelancer vs. full-time but about finding the right people who are able to deliver consistently and be absolute professionals.

The other complaint we’ve heard over the years is that freelancers are unreliable when it comes to availability because they may be too busy on another project or they’ve taken a full-time job somewhere and so no longer taken on freelance work. To this, I have a couple rebuttals: 1) build a network large enough so that if one freelancer is unavailable at a specific time, you can move on to another and another until you find one who has availability and 2) embrace the fact that freelancers come and go, just like employees who take jobs elsewhere and quit. Growing and maintaining a freelancer network isn’t easy, but I’d argue that nothing is easy, so might as well grind it out and invest where we can at least enjoy upside if we do it right.

4 – Prize those with curiosity and willingness to learn.

A key trait of an impactful employee is their curiosity and willingness to learn. It first starts with a humility that grounds them in a belief that they have much room to grow. These people also seem to have boundless energy when it comes to reading up, watching videos, and going out of their way to talk to people and find out more on topics that often are not even directly related to their daily work. However, they “get it” that expanding their knowledge and exposing themselves to new ways of seeing things or doing the work can lead to valuable insights and increased productivity. These people are also resourceful and proactive, so they don’t wait for others to spoon-feed context and information but are quick to look for it and seek clarification. They ask many questions and are not shy about asking what may seem to be the most basic kinds of questions. There is no desire to look smart or sophisticated, just a desire to learn.

These types of people are rare, but they are a delight to work with when you find them. They’re most likely going to be your most impactful employees as well. Help them grow, keep on challenging them with ever-growing responsibilities and interesting work, and find ways for them to be standard-bearers in your culture.

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