Looking to attract and retain the talent required to take your company out of start-up phase and onto the next level? Be open to change.
In 2006, my consultancy, User Insight, was in the midst of a fourth year of better than 25% growth, and poised to grow even more. In order to get to the next level, the company needed seasoned professionals to help with management. I made one of the first such hires: Rachel Walsh, a serial manager with experience working in companies transitioning out of the start-up phase.
Rachel came to us with strong work ethic, experience creating organizational hierarchies, an understanding of what it takes to be operationally excellent, and perhaps most importantly, a devotion to our company's cause: promoting client needs in a collaborative team-oriented environment.
I put her in a role that made the most sense to me-that is, the job that took the bulk of my time. I was the project manager on almost every project for our customers, but in order to grow the company, I realized I needed to focus on higher-level goals, and not the day-to-day grind. I had intentionally hired someone who had a different skill set, someone who'd be good at nurturing employees by implementing human resource structure (which I'm not). Isn't that what the experts tell you to do? But I made a critical mistake. I gave her a job that fit my personality, not hers.
She was miserable. She hated the job. The project manager role was external facing and required being heavy-handed with our clients to keep projects on task and within scope. While Rachel is great at getting employees to tow the line, she struggled with this requirement when it came to our clients.
My instinct told me she was exactly the type of employee User Insight needed to be successful based on her background, professionalism, experience, and approach to the job, but I also knew she was on the way out if things didn't change, and change quickly.
So, in the lobby of a hotel during a business trip, Rachel and I sat down over a stale cup of coffee to discuss how we might carve out a job that would entice her to stay at User Insight.
This is how I did it:
1. I was transparent.
I told Rachel she was the kind of employee User Insight needed, and that if I couldn't figure out a way to keep her, I was afraid User Insight wouldn't succeed in the long term. I asked Rachel to be just as candid with me. Could she envision a place for her at the company, and what did that look like?
2. I was willing to think differently.
During that conversation, I drew a new organizational chart, and created a brand new role, operations manager, focused on being an internal bridge between the sales and delivery teams. This role became one of the most important at our company and capitalized on Rachel's strengths for nurturing and growing other employees. As a result, she prospered, quickly moved into a director-level role, and became the first non-founding executive at the company.
3. I took time to understand her skills.
Rachel and I found that her skills were best used internally, to focus on the in-house processes needed to grow the company instead of focused on external client management. By listening to her and carefully learning how she works, I understood her strengths and created a position that allowed her to thrive-personally and for the company.
4. I creatively filled the gaps.
This approach influenced the way I hired the next two User Insight employees: Jonathan Yardley, who hates details but can turn the most irate customer into butter, and Michele Hughes, who thrives on details and rules. This dream team: the internal champion (Rachel), the external crusader (Jonathan), and the rule maker (Michele) are essential to User Insight's continued success. The experience of shifting Rachel's role was a necessary hurdle to overcome before I could see what else was needed to move ahead.
5. Offer support.
I emphasize what each employee brings to the table and encourage them all to work to their strengths. They can then use their individual abilities to support each other. As a result, the company culture is more collaborative, even as we have grown and job roles and processes became more formalized.
Ours is a success story. Rachel went from on the way out to celebrating her sixth anniversary with the company this year.
Making such a dramatic internal shift for one employee is a big risk, and not every employee is worth going to those lengths to save someone. Sometimes it's best to admit a hire was a mistake, understand what went wrong, and move on. Always ask yourself tough questions. Is it that you can't find the right employee? Or is it that your company may need to change to attract and retain the employees you need now?
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