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Assess corporate culture, then find the talent

Posted by Chad O'Connor  September 25, 2013 11:00 AM

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With the high cost of finding and training new employees, minimizing turnover incentivizes value-conscience business owners. After all, at critical stages of a company’s evolution, finding and retaining top talent can be the difference between long-term success and filing for bankruptcy.

There are two key tasks for finding great talent:

Accurately assessing the current corporate culture with annual audits
Sourcing and delivering top talent to amp up business and culture

In this piece, I’ll provide a playbook for assessing corporate culture and deftly finding talent to suit the team.

Understand the Culture to Find the Best Talent
Assessing the culture and defining the talent need
The single best opportunity for finding and keeping talent starts in the office; best culture drives the best candidates. Each culture is unique and needs to be accurately assessed and defined before onboarding new talent. As in professional sports, there may be a star-studded lineup but that rarely guarantees the trophy. In the business world, a high-profile executive from a Fortune 500 company would probably not play his best game on a lean startup field.

It is critical to assess why people succeed or fail in your environment. Frequently, perfectly good people (on paper) don’t fit in a corporate culture – it is likely that nuances, such as personality and motivation, instead of competency issues make the difference.

Assess the company culture by surveying current employees and doing thorough exit interviews. Bringing in outside help aids in accurately measuring team culture and recognizing proper fit for prospective candidates.

Identifying top talent
Sourcing talent can be conducted in-house or via outside recruiters - each search is unique and can make one approach more preferable.

In house
The Upside: Keeping the recruitment process internal, especially when finding top-level executives with steep compensation packages, can save money (in the short term) through eliminating recruiting fees. Internal recruiters already fully understand the work culture and can readily assess potential candidate fit. In most cases, in-house recruitment for staff level positions makes good economic sense.

The Downside: While in-house recruitment may initially save money, it may also lead to less effective searches and steeper long-term costs. Internal searches operate with a limited talent pool that may not provide the best available talent. When hiring for upper level management positions with a compressed talent pool, it makes good fiscal sense for a wider and more objective outside search.

Outside recruiters
The Upside: Executive recruitment firms have large networks of qualified candidates and proprietary databases developed over years of networking. Many top firms are paid for the search process, not just a placement, which keeps the focus on providing objective and unbiased access to the top talent in the industry not merely placing a candidate and collecting a fee. These key placements drive referrals for both future candidates and hiring groups.

The Downside: The main challenge for search firms is to fully understand the existing work culture. A top-notch firm will deeply investigate this aspect because ultimately offering a bad candidate eventually hurts credibility and repeat business.

Finding top talent takes time and involves 7 critical tasks to get the search right:

Top 7 steps for tapping into top talent:

1. Sourcing
Select your sourcing method(s): in house, via employee referrals, posting job openings online or through social networks, hiring a recruitment firm, or a combination of some or all of these. Next, be transparent and fully explain the business and its specific needs. Seeking an experienced Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) with consistently higher sales over a 20+-year period? Come out and say it!

2. Evaluating
Once a solid list of candidates is compiled, the analysis phase begins. Save time and resources by starting with a phone screen and limiting the in-person interview to top tier candidates only. In both phone and in-person interviews, avoid leading the conversation- instead allow the candidate to explain their experience and qualifications. Most importantly, be professional and polished with excellent preparation, extensive research, and thoughtful questions. This interactive phase provides a glimpse into the soft skill levels of each candidate. Listening well is a key ingredient of the evaluation process.

3. Choosing Winners
In preparation for the second interview (the team meet and greet), be courteous to the team and the candidate by limiting these sessions to top contenders only. Ideally, all candidates should be equally qualified for the position, but should now be tested for best team fit. Consider giving candidates an assignment for a future fifteen-minute presentation to assess communication, coping, and creativity skills in a high demand environment.

This should produce a clear list of better performers. Anyone consistently rated lower by the team should be removed immediately from consideration.

4. Validating Winners
Reference audits are important and provide great value beyond the resume and paper credentials. Degrees and awards are great, but what do peers, mentors, and subordinates think about the candidate? How do they rate this person professionally? Contact the candidate’s approved references and ask whether they have any further additional reference sources. Recruiters understand that “you aren’t living if you haven’t upset someone”, but they need to ensure that negative recommendations aren’t an established pattern by investigating with multiple sources.

Verify all degrees to avoid embarrassing situations, such as Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. If a credit score is needed, be sure to ask for the candidate’s permission.

5. Hire finalist
Once the best candidate fit is decided- document the offer and begin the salary negotiations. Providing accurate expectations for first year performance (or charter) streamlines the salary and incentive negotiations. Accurately aligning a candidate’s needs and skills with the job expectations should drive a realistic compensation package. ONLY move forward with a final offer with a strong agreement on these items.

6. Onboarding
A written offer does not always seal the deal. Sometimes candidates may get “cold feet” and walk away from the table. To best avoid this potential scenario, you should continually touch base with the candidate from acceptance of the offer to arrival on start date.

The resignation process can be uncomfortable for the candidate and it must be clear that this finalizes the new position. Upon resigning, the candidate should share their appreciation for their current appointment and agree to fully assist in the transition of the replacement. Having a planned exit strategy makes the resignation process easier.

It’s a best practice for the hiring business to welcome the candidate before he/she starts. Making the candidate and family feel comfortable helps ease the stress of a new situation. Sending flowers or welcoming gifts builds a good will and is appreciated.

7. Closing the loop
Once the search is completed and the candidate is in the new position, contact the other finalists and express appreciation for their participation. They may be a great fit for future searches and keep them in the active database. Also remember to reach out to the references and thank them for their time and insight.

Finding top talent takes time and energy. However, the reward is great- a better business and happier employees!

Charley Polachi is a Partner at Polachi, the leading provider of Access Executive Search™ services to technology, clean tech, venture capital and private equity clients. Polachi is a retained executive search firm located in Framingham.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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