“While CEOs and top business leaders rate talent as a top priority, only 5 percent of survey respondents rate their organization’s HR performance as excellent,” states the 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report.
Our 20-year-old social entrepreneur support organization, LifeCo UnLtd, has recognized that the importance of harnessing human capital is central to our mission. Since our inception, we have committed time, energy, and resources to recruit, retain, and develop the right people to deliver on our mission. This conscious obsession has been important to our success. It also remains our greatest challenge as we grow. Our approach to people has been rewarding, maddening, and sometimes exhausting, but we would have it no other way. We see people as central to our strategy, not as an unavoidable frustration and expense.
Over the years, we have made many mistakes and have felt their full impact. The array of missteps along the way sometimes makes it difficult to forget and move on, but within the organization, we agree and openly discuss our recruitment failures so that we can improve.
Here are our top three landmark blunders and what we learned from them.
1. Holding on
A few months after hiring someone we thought was perfect for the job, we realized that while they had perfected the art of resume writing and interviewing, their actual expertise in the job was sorely misaligned. Despite unnerving signals pointing to this mismatch, we told ourselves, “Our process was robust. We spent far too much time finding this person, and we can’t just end the relationship. Maybe we should give them more time to settle in, and offer more mentoring and coaching and on-the-job training.” After many months and many performance conversations had passed, still there was no real improvement—yet we held on.
Holding on not only compromises organizational and team morale, but also the individual who has wasted their time, energy, and talent in a misaligned opportunity. Holding on has blown up in our faces and cost us far more than if we had the courage to let go.
Today, if we see misalignment, we have two focused conversations with the employee: We have noticed that you have not sustained the momentum we expected—why? And is the reality of work at this organization matching your expectations—why or why not? If the situation doesn’t improve, we exit the relationship quickly.
2. Turning a blind eye
A closely related mistake is turning a blind eye and not confronting reality. For example, we noticed that a highly skilled, talented team member was not as connected and engaged as they used to be. Something had shifted, and we didn’t know why. We chose not to confront the person for fear that it may lead to a conversation about them wanting a change, or—heaven forbid—wanting to leave, which might upset the current team dynamic or hamper operational delivery. If we had been courageous and had the conversation, I believe we would have had a very different outcome; instead we lost the opportunity to build a workable solution for all.
Solutions can include making allowances for flexible work hours, adjusting communication channels, identifying bottle-necks, providing additional support, or—if it’s time for the person to move on—implementing a smooth handover and exit plan.
Now we schedule monthly conversations between managers and employees to discuss progress, concerns, and any shifts in thinking. We ask questions like: Are we still aligned? Have your life circumstances changed in any meaningful way to impact the organization and its mission? If so, how and what are the implications?
3. Giving in to pressure
We pride ourselves on building recruitment and retention strategies that give us the best outcomes, and they are constantly up for review and refinement. Yet we have caved under pressure, whether from potential candidates who complain that our processes are too intensive or from operational demands that want the position filled yesterday! We have compromised the very process we have so painstakingly built and wondered why we didn’t get the desired result.
It’s important to trust the process and resist the pressure. During our self-audit and review, we now make sure to ask: Have we been true to our process? And is the process still current and useful for our purpose?
Our most valuable lesson has been to continuously examine our thinking and talent development practices as individuals, as a team, and as an organization. Our guiding principles are applicable to almost any organization that truly values talent. They include:
- Look for attitude alignment: When recruiting for a new position, look for alignment in thinking first, then competency and expertise.
- Be fanatical: Fixate on building a cohesive, robust team that believes in and lives your values so that you have a culture you are proud of—and enjoy being a part of.
- Be brutally honest: Share the frustrations, challenges, and demands of the job upfront, as well as the mandate of the organization. No sugar coating. Share who and what the organization is—authentically.
- Develop a compelling, audacious vision: A strong vision will attract people who are courageous, tenacious, and hard working.
- Disrupt: The social sector is challenging, rewarding, but above all, disruptive. Build disruptive strategies to recruit, develop, and retain talent.
- Experiment: Constantly improve processes and policies to unleash talent at all levels.
- Expect excellence and reward high performance. Obsess over quality. High-performing teams and winning cultures aren’t born out of mediocrity. An organization’s leaders must be exemplars of excellence and high performance.
Unleashing talent is open to interpretation, highly subjective, and emotive. It is an art, and as philosopher Elbert Hubbard said, “Art is not a thing—it is a way.”
The social enterprise sector’s talent philosophy needs to be in service of vision and its beneficiaries. We have a responsibility to build robust organizations. And as social change leaders, we have a choice: Is talent recruitment and retention an unavoidable expense or a strategic imperative?