Hiring and retaining top talent in a high-performing environment
Every founder and business leader quickly learns that a talented and high-performing workforce is the first and foremost prerequisite for success. But in the war for talent, it’s easy to feel like David taking on Goliath. Unfortunately, there’s no silver slingshot — no simple way to stand out from the crowd of employers when the latest and greatest perks quickly become table stakes.
As a general rule, few companies thrive by competing exclusively on price – around virtually every corner lurks an Amazon to undercut you or a Goldman Sachs to outbid you. The latter is especially true when it comes to recruiting, where deep-pocketed incumbents can offer in-office massages, discounted laundry services, and complimentary transportation, in addition to top dollar.
The key, whether building solutions for emerging industries or recruiting in cutthroat labor markets, is sustainable differentiation. Company cultures with differentiated value propositions gain an edge in the war for talent.
At Alpha, we offer unlimited PTO, continued learning opportunities, and plenty of snacks, but overall we largely don’t compete on perks. You won’t find ping pong, massages, or catered lunch at our office.
Instead, we emphasize what we can uniquely offer and tailor the interview process to assess for candidates who will uniquely benefit. Doing so enables us to prioritize the candidates with the most potential, both in terms of talent and likelihood to accept an offer. By understanding what differentiates our culture, we’re able to rapidly recruit top talent and keep employee turnover rates low.
Change the game, not the players
The mistake is to compete in another company’s game. It’s undoubtedly an enticing trap to fall into, as that game appears to be all-encompassing. Google would seem to be an obvious choice for any candidate, as the company offers more money, perks, economic security, pedigree, work-life balance, high-profile projects, continuing education, and so on. What’s left other than simply hoping Google doesn’t give your target candidate an offer?
Turns out, quite a bit. Any sufficiently large employer necessarily has to dilute their culture over time to accommodate a massive workforce, which means that, for startups (and independent business units), there is always another game to play so long as you’re committed to focusing on a different set of players.
That’s why a great question to ask candidates early in the interview process is “What types of companies and opportunities are you currently exploring?”
If a candidate is seriously pursuing roles at companies like Google and Goldman Sachs or is particularly concerned with title and hierarchy, they are optimizing for a set of benefits for which we can’t compete. Not only that, but our unique offering likely won’t resonate with them, so rather than arguing about the merits of joining Alpha, we simply move on.
We often forgo even trying to recruit some great candidates. As a rule of thumb, candidates seeking a ‘Google’ are not seeking an ‘Alpha,’ and vice versa. Perhaps counterintuitively, zealously filtering out candidates doesn’t slow down the recruiting cycle. It speeds it up by enabling us to prioritize and invest in candidates who uniquely value and benefit from what we can offer.
Because company culture is the manifestation of intended and unintended behaviors, determining what makes or will make yours unique requires some combination of thoughtful observation and deliberate steering. Companies of varying sizes and ages have devised creative value propositions to attract talent who wouldn’t otherwise be attracted to other opportunities.
For example, some companies offer a unique style of working. “Work from anywhere” if you’re interested in joining InVision’s 1,000+ remote workforce. “Dog people welcome,” proclaims Barkbox, where employees bring their pups en masse to the office.
Suffice to say there are countless examples of companies that win at their own games rather than compete fruitlessly in someone else’s. Often, the challenge isn’t in figuring out what makes your culture unique, but in communicating it effectively to prospective candidates throughout the interview process.
Selling the opportunity is easier said than done, especially at scale. Consider that your employees may be uncomfortable focusing parts of an interview on the differentiated aspects of a culture if they don’t think it will resonate with the candidate. Rather than acknowledge that the role and candidate just might not be a mutual fit, they stretch the opportunity to encompass what they think the candidate wants to hear. This is particularly true when it comes to title inflation or when the candidate has an impressive background.
Moreover, there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating a company’s unique culture. Aligning it with the candidate’s perspective takes some deft, which is why another useful interview questions is simply “What do you want to be doing five years from now?”
There’s no right or wrong answer, but any response provides directional insight into how to align the role and company with the candidate’s objectives.
At Alpha, we are building the world’s most powerful on-demand insight platform. This is an entirely new category which means that we are doing what no company has done before. The types of employees we hired early on had diverse backgrounds but were all generally drawn to Alpha because they explicitly sought an adventure.
And what do adventure-seekers tend to do? They travel, experiment, and continuously learn. They disregard norms and disdain the status quo. They prioritize the future over the past, results over pedigree, and open-mindedness over ego. They are mensches with the perfect dose of chutzpah. They go on exciting off-sites to unfamiliar places, like Mexico City and New Orleans. Ultimately, they create amazing shared experiences and memories.
Over time, adventurousness has become a cornerstone of our company culture. It’s even one of our four company values, along with experimentation, empowerment, and generosity.
A podcast interview for 7:47 Club I did on the interaction of gratitude and adventurousness.
Perhaps more importantly, adventurousness is one of the elements that uniquely differentiates Alpha as an employer. When we learn throughout the interview process what challenges and opportunities a candidate is seeking, we can efficiently screen for adventure-seekers. When we understand how a candidate thinks about their future and the types of environments in which they think they’ll be most successful, we can efficiently align our journey with theirs:
- Adventurousness comes in the form of a unique role, responsibility, or challenge that doesn’t exist elsewhere
- Adventurousness comes in the form of our company’s mission and product offering, enabling clients to do something they were never able to do before
- Adventurousness comes in the form of shared memories that candidates want to create and talented employees stick around to recreate
The last form of adventurousness is the most critical in that, like the best types of sustainable differentiation, it has a built-in flywheel effect. Adventure-seekers are drawn to an adventurous culture and enhance the experience for everyone when they participate and contribute. Those shared memories are not only a compelling reason to stay, but a nearly impossible ‘feature’ for a more established company to instantly and easily replicate.
Once we established what makes working at Alpha uniquely attractive, our recruiting process became more focused, efficient, and effective, enabling us to hire diverse and talented people for challenging and dynamic roles at all levels. We close the vast majority of candidates we give offers to and rarely lose employees to other companies in the same geography (unsurprisingly, we sometimes have to say goodbye to adventure-seekers when they move to faraway places!). Founders and business leaders can find similar success when they emphasize their culture’s unique differentiation, compete on their own terms, and ultimately attract a workforce that appreciates and excels in unique cultures.