Trouble Finding Good People? Stop Trying to Hire Them

The Business & Economic Review - Fall, 1998

The good news about the economy is that unemployment is down and there's more money available for people to spend on your products. The bad news is that everyone has a job, and there are fewer of the right people to work for you.

In your product market, you compete with only a few key players. In recruiting, you compete with hundreds. This is one of the two problems that consistently keeps CEOs up at night.(1)

In this article, we'll look at a different model that you as a CEO or owner can initiate to bring the right resources to key opportunities. It may seem obvious, but it will require leadership to change how your managers look at recruiting. This is not an HR discussion: it's a line management issue.

The competition for recruiting gets great press in the technology arena, but it goes well beyond. Even in the industrial Midwest, Kay Casey of Standard Register notes that, "We run ads now and get one or two responses. We used to get 30 or 40."(2)

Much of what your company does today may make the problem worse. Co-op programs, job fairs, recruiting out of school and halfway houses, increasing benefits, and offering signing bonuses are all necessary and good. But they deliver diminishing results! Raiding your best competitors provides a solution - but it's only a matter of time until they, in turn, raid your firm right back. Instead of providing you a solution, these tactics actually increase the competition as others do the same things.

It may be time to look outside your normal recruiting processes. There are other ways to get the brightest and the best minds focused on your most important problems.

Minds

Your need for people comes in two forms. For some positions, you need lots of good people to satisfy an ongoing role. For those, you can get away with hiring in bulk. You count on losing some as part of the process, and that's acceptable.

But there are some key tasks where churning people will not work. You need single, specific skills and backgrounds. For these, you want the best minds.

Why minds and not people? Superb strategy execution is a result of individual effort. When you put a person on a key task that requires judgment and experience, you are betting your strategy on that choice. An average mind will produce results far inferior to the best.

The distinction between minds and bodies is control. Your managers are used to controlling people, but they know they cannot control minds. With a great mind, you aim it in the right direction and keep it excited. As venture capitalist Ann Winblad notes, "A capital-efficient, people-driven company is not an assembly line; it is a community of skilled craftsmen able to make decisions at every level."(3) You can throw bodies at some tasks, but for the execution of key strategies, the issue is which individual minds to apply.

Where would you apply a best mind? Many of your development projects require that kind of intellect. Writing code that works without increasing your support costs requires a better-than-average mind. Some key customer relationships deserve the best minds you can get. Solving production problems so they stay solved requires a superior mind. Positioning products to get high margins needs more than the average thought process. You may have 10 or 20 important projects that do not seem to ever get completed. Would an exceptional mind with the right background help you bring these to conclusion?

The bad news is that some of the best minds in the business are not available to you as employees - because they have decided to opt out of the corporate environment. These minds will never respond to a recruiting pitch for a job, and would not be likely to stay if you got them. They are not money and benefits driven. They are project and idea driven.

If they are not employees, knowledge workers, consulting firms, or traditional contractors, what are these people? We have named them "Indies," for independent minds. The name intentionally brings up the image of Indiana Jones, the brilliant, highly independent, very successful archeologist hero of the movie trilogy. If these are the Indies, you are the museum or government who contracts for results. Your goal is to have someone go get the Ark of the Covenant.

For many jobs, you would hire full-time employees. For finding the Ark, you would want someone with the skills of an Indiana Jones. You know, almost without thinking, that you can't and won't make Jones an employee. But to have him acting in a self-motivated way will be very valuable to you and your search. So you ask him to achieve a clear objective, one that attracts him. He goes after it with skills you could not hire. He is an Indy.

In your real world, there are many projects that need the brains and self motivation of an Indy. The good news is that if you can't hire them, neither can anyone else. But maybe you can attract their minds to your needs.

Indies

Joan(4) is one of the best root-cause analysis and process minds in the country. If you have a nasty customer-affecting problem that keeps repeating, Joan is exactly the sort of person you want to solve it. Getting to the root of this kind of problem excites her. Teaching your people to do the same is part of what she enjoys. She works fast and well, and does very high quality work.

Joan has worked for a university and for a large computer company. She will never work for a corporation again. In fact, she won't work for a boss again. She doesn't need to and doesn't want to.

Oscar writes communications software for fun. These are things he can produce in months, and you can then sell for millions of dollars. And by introducing new capabilities, they move the market forward. Oscar can help to create and dominate new markets.

Oscar has worked for large software firms and a hardware firm. He will never work for a boss again. He writes good software because he enjoys it. Oscar does not collect a paycheck, often no money at all. He gets his reward as equity in your company.

Pat listens well. By asking good questions, he can identify the core business problem and show people how to solve it. He helps companies smooth incoming revenue so it doesn't all appear at the end of the quarter. He helps companies find revenue where they are missing it, and increase margins.

Pat does not work for a boss. "Been there, done that, got the T-shirts." He helped someone find $2 billion in otherwise unidentified prospects, but won't take a salary. Pat likes to know he can fire companies whenever they get boring.

Pat, Oscar, and Joan are typical Indies. There are thousands of people like them - i.e., expert minds you'd love in your business. You can't hire them. But you can rent them for a few dollars and a very interesting problem. When you start to define your needs as minds, not employees, you start to open yourself up to this pool. These are the people you can get, and the people you want, working on your most pressing problems and opportunities.

Indies ebb and flow into your business on two symbiotic conditions. One is that you need them. The other is that they're interested in working on your problem. They are not telecommuters, they are the true virtual work force: minds that are there when you need them and gone when you don't.

This is all contradictory to how we run businesses today. Using Indies probably violates your internal rules and practices. Your legal and HR teams can show you 50 reasons not to do it. Your line managers will need guidelines so they can start to change how they do things. This is change that will require your leadership.

This is so counter-intuitive few companies will do it. That gives you an advantage in recruiting. Fewer companies competing for the best talent pool substantially increases your chances of getting the great mind you need.

Strategies

To get the best minds doing your most important work, you will need to do things differently. Try the following strategies.

Start by making your most important work as interesting as possible. Indies work for themselves and for fun as much as for money. To attract them, build up opportunities for self actualization as much as you do for money or health plans. Winblad notes that, "We can attract talent by offering two kinds of opportunities: to contribute to a vision for the future, and to share in the rewards."(5)

Know, and then target, whom you want. Instead of using HR to go to brokers to get more contractors, get your line people to look in places where individual Indies hang out. Your line managers are the ones who can define the opportunity best. They are the ones who can recognize the right talents.

Depending on the skill set, each Indy has a network he or she likes to work with and talk to. It may be a Ascend group on the Interne, it might be a particular conference. A good place to start is to ask several of your knowledgeable people to participate in Ascend groups. Pick the groups and lists that focus on the kind of work you want help with the most.

When you begin to find Indies, be sure you do not take people who are "good." Only take the "insanely great." Check references, and don't cut corners because they're not permanent hires. Then set up the right flexibility. Be sure you have an HR person who is proficient at contracting with individuals and willing to treat Indies as business people, not employees. Be prepared to make innovative deals that reward for performance, even if it means paying for performance.

Reduce the "pain" of working for you. Don't ask Indies to go to staff meetings or serve on task forces. Don't require them to work in your office. If your company is slow pay, be sure you pay these people on time. They help you best when they are focused on your work, not your administrative process.

Some people you find may be employed elsewhere today but thinking of leaving. Stan, a vice-president at a high-tech company, is one of the best operations trouble shooters in the country. He will leave his present company this year, but not for another company. He will follow his dream to become independent. Stan could use the support; you can provide that.

Instead of trying to hire him, consider putting Stan (and others like him) in business as a sole practitioner. Then become his first client. He will be happier, and you will have the mind you want. You can grow your markets as you help him realize his dream.

Most important, keep the work interesting from the start. It will excite them and make them likelier to innovate for you. When you start an Indy on your key projects, be sure you invest the time to guarantee success. Since you will be asking for team work between employees and Indies, take time to get that started correctly.

Ask the work team to sit down for two hours before they start. Many Indies (and your own good people) have little patience for classic team building exercises. But most will respond to a request to come to the office to negotiate and set success criteria for a project. Start with introductions and a little chat, but make this a very high-content meeting. Ask the team to return with an action plan with specific success criteria attached. You want all the participants to be focused and excited about the results.

Our corporate habit is to want to control our resources. But access to the minds is more important than that control. To get the best people, you have to change your habits as an organization. To get the best results, remember that these experts are most effective if you let them work at the top of Massless hierarchy. Let them do it from their deck in the redwoods or at the beach.

All over your industry there are companies trying to hire the best and hardest to find minds. You can be the company that gets the cream of this crop. They are brilliant, different, and extremely valuable. And they will never work for a larger company again. Get them on your key efforts and save your competitive recruiting efforts for other things.

Right and Wrong Expectations

There's a lot of talk about virtual teams and alternative work forces - and there are many disappointments. Why the latter? Because unreasonable expectations get set. See below for some common but incorrect expectations.

  1. The cost of people and benefits will drop. You will find that using virtual experts is not cheap. Save it for the key projects, where the value of the result is very high.
  2. Uninteresting work will get done by nonemployees. Indies are people who are excited and rewarded by the task. When it gets unexciting, they may opt out.
  3. Infrastructure costs will decrease. Minds and ideas make things happen for you, not bricks and mortar. Sometimes that costs you less, sometimes it doesn't. Either way, focus on the effect, not the cost to support it.
  4. You'll reduce the risk of bad hires. Putting the wrong mind on a task will hurt no matter whether it's a permanent hire or a short-term assignee. You can get rid of the assignee with less effort, but that doesn't help you get the result you need.


So what are the correct expectations?

  1. Break your own rules to attract and use the right minds. Some great minds are available, even if they do not meet your normal hiring standards and you don't meet their employer standards.
  2. Define clearly stated success criteria. Indies want this because they respond best to a clear definition of success, a goal on which they can focus. You want to know when they are done so you can end the relationship or give them another assignment.
  3. Move your people who are doing the wrong jobs to the right assignments. Why is your Vice-President of Engineering trying to design interfaces? An Indy could do that faster, and free up the VP to do tasks only he or she could do.
  4. Focus on results instead of control. Indies have climbed Maslow's pyramid. They like self-actualization. They work best when they work for that internal sense of contribution. Traditional bosses need control as a tool. Indies feel that as claustrophobia - it diminishes the sense of contribution. Indies left the control-oriented corporate environments long ago. They will often refuse to work in another one: they don't have to.


Peter Meyer speaks and writes on management issues from Scotts Valley, California. A Principal in The Meyer Group, he is also a Contributing Editor for the Business & Economic Review. Meyer responds to his E-mail. Try him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Endnotes

1. See, Peter Meyer, "What Keeps CEOs Up at Night," Business & Economic Review (October 1997)

2. In conversation with the author, Dayton, Ohio, April 24, 1998.

3. Ann Winblad, "Leadership Secrets of a Venture Capitalist," Leader to Leader (Winter 1998)

4. The people used here as examples are real Indies, but these are not their real names. If you want to contact one of them, please get in touch with the author.

5. "Leadership Secrets of a Venture Capitalist, Ann Winblad - Leader to Leader, Winter 1998, Page 13"

Copyright 2002 by the Meyer Group, all rights reserved.