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Bringing in the Talent: How an Innovating Company Can Get the Right People in the Door

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(Author's introduction: This post is an abridged version of a longer essay posted on my website.)

Despite the high levels of unemployment, many companies are constantly complaining that they can't find top talent. Since having great people on board is an integral part of being an innovative company, it is important to understand why it is so hard to recruit them.  While it is easy to blame education, parenting, social milieu, and a host of other factors, the most obvious culprit, and the one that organizations can control, is the hiring process.  Here are some of the best ways to get hot talent in the door.

Describe the position using goals, not skills

The first question to ask is: what are you looking for?  Typically, job descriptions are based on the last person who did the job, and the hiring manager is looking for that person's clone, which results in a long list of requirements that can box the role into a narrow space that can inhibit creativity, innovation, and (most importantly) initiative.  Instead, scrap the old view of the position, and rebuild it, starting with the goals inherent in the position.  Consider each of the following questions:

Questions for Designing a Job Description

1) What must the person in that job accomplish?  What would constitute meaningful progress on a day-to-day basis in that job?[1]

2) How does that person's role integrate with the department/division, the company, the clients, and/or the mission/aims of the firm?

3) What constitutes doing a good job in that role? (Remember: do not start with the person who occupied it previously!)

4) How do you want/expect the person in that role to grow with respect to knowledge, skills, attitudes, and capabilities?

5) In what ways do you hope the person will expand his/her role, and what career trajectory(ies) would (s)he be able to take?

6) What freedoms can you afford the new hire for defining his/her role?[2]

7) What opportunities are there for the person to find meaning and fulfillment in the position?[3]

From there, write the job description in the least-restrictive way possible.  Show the answers to the questions above, and include the essentials for the position.  Rather than asking for a standard cover letter, ask applicants to describe: a) their plans and vision for the position, b) how they intend to make a unique contribution to the company, and c) what excites them about the position, the company, and its mission.  While some might contend that such is the purpose of a cover letter, most organizations prevent that by posting laundry lists of skills and capabilities that need to be checked off using the resume and cover letter.

Create a realistic vision of whom to hire and make sure the new employee can thrive

In addition to having a clear, goal-oriented job description, it is important that the company be realistic about whether the job and employee both fit with the culture of the organization.  Companies frequently have unrealistic expectations of employees, the jobs they [can] do, and what kind of culture is necessary to support the roles and functions of the jobs.  As such, they can end up using hiring and onboarding practices that send the talent packing.

One major pitfall to avoid is "unicorn hunting"[4], which involves overloading the job [description] with so many items to check off that it will be next-to-impossible to find a suitable candidate.  One company that wanted me to recommend a candidate sent me a job description, and my response was, "This is a human being you're looking for, right?"  I know thousands of talented people (both employed and not), and not one of them was qualified to do this just-above-entry-level job -- the position required knowledge of accounting, marketing, graphic design, and web programming.  Eight months later, the company still had not filled the position.

Select for the factors that cannot be acquired on the job

While it is certainly great when companies can bring in a candidate who is ready-made for the job, this occurs far less frequently than one might expect.  There is always a certain amount of on-the-job training required, be it the tacit knowledge of the company, the specific procedures used by the organization, and/or the avenues through which the hire should channel his/her specific capabilities.

Thus, select a candidate on the factors that cannot be taught quickly and easily, like deep experience and required knowledge/skills (again, keep that list as short as possible!).  This includes factors like: a) interest in the work (do not judge by college major!), the company, and its mission; b) fit with the company's culture and people; c) a solid foundation in the meta-skills needed for the job.  The latter item is the trickiest to define, and yet it is the most important.  Meta-skills are the wherewithal to develop capabilities that fall under the same category as the meta-skill.

For example, many software companies used to pose computing problems to applicants without specifying which programming language (e.g., C++) to use.  This tests the meta-skill of algorithmic thinking, which can be applied to computing problems through the use of a particular programming language (skill) -- that is, good algorithmic thinkers are able to learn programming languages easily.

Recruit people from the places where they are likely to be

While this sounds like plain-old common sense, I would point out that most companies place a generic posting on a general job board, which results in a flood of applications with a couple of gems buried in a mountain of silt.  Other companies, looking for generically "smart" or "creative" people, tend to dig at the US News and World Report's supposed top schools, and those companies are riding on so many erroneous assumptions that they deserve the applicant pool that they get.  Still others hunt for prey at their successful competitors, hoping for a crumb that falls off due to someone getting annoyed or having to move due to life circumstances.

Instead, target potential applicants in places where you are likely to find them.  For example, figure out which universities are most represented by successful people in your company, and have them reach out to the alumni network of their alma mater.  Most especially, use internal recommendations.  Successful people in your company may know other great people to hire, or may know others who are well-connected in a given field (you might even consider rewarding people for good recommendations).

Use an open and communicative hiring process

I am continually stunned by the stories I have heard from people in the hiring process.  I know amazingly talented people who have been utterly dehumanized, and still others who were dismayed at the way they were treated.  This is bad news for a company's reputation (these stories do get out, and sometimes in public forums like Vault), and it costs them talented applicants.  It is crucial to remember that any candidate who is good enough to get onto your radar is probably good enough to be recruited by your competitor(s), too, so following these guidelines will make your company more competitive in the talent market.  If necessary, consider the time it takes to follow these suggestions to come from the marketing/branding budget, as they are all directly related to preserving your company's good name.

1) Confirm receipt of materials.
2) Create two short-lists of interviewees, and dismiss the others, in a timely fashion.
3) Schedule interviews in advance and communicate changes.
4) Make the interview experience a good one.
5) Follow up within a specified period.
6) When you have chosen the right candidate, proceed quickly and decisively.

There is plenty of talent; go get it (and keep it)!

There is enough talent out there that companies should not need to compromise .  It is important to remember, however, that talent is more related to meta-skills than actual skills, and this is why it is important to use a goal-directed job description.  Since there is enough talent to go around, but fierce competition for recruiting it, companies must engage in fair, timely, and communicative hiring processes, recruit strategically, and give every applicant a positive (or at least non-negative) experience.  Coupled with a goal-oriented job description, relevant application documents (like a targeted cover letter), and a sufficiently wide purview for seeing talent, companies should have no trouble getting great people in the door.  What remains is for the company to keep them with a strong mission, high job meaning, engaging challenges, and a great culture.[5]

Orin's Asides

1) A very large study by Teresa Amabile has shown the extreme importance of meaningful progress.  I highly recommend the book she wrote with Steve Kramer about the study: The Progress Principle.
2) Remember that creativity flourishes only when there is room for it to do so!  See research by Keith Sawyer, among others.
3) Many researchers, especially Dutton, Wrzesniewski, and Grant, have shown the importance of this matter in job performance and job satisfaction.
4) Great Wall Street Journal article on this.
5) The author thanks Scott Crabtree for his thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this post.

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in positive psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and a freelance consultant who helps companies maximize their human capital and become better places to work.

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