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The best kept secret for finding top talent

Recently I have been exploring doing some remote Ruby development work, specifically with startups and specifically with startups that interest me.

I find it humorous that everyone wants only the best. The best Rails developer, who is passionate about learning and speaks at conferences and eats and sleeps code and tests and works well with others and …

You get the picture.

Ninjas and Jedi

To make things even more ridiculous, employers try and appeal to ego by calling the roles they want filled particular dumb names like ‘ninja’, ‘guru’, ‘samurai’ and ‘jedi’. Statistically most startups fail — so pipe down, you’re likely building some almost-ran thing, not saving the Universe from some evil Emperor.

But here is the thing. There are not that many ‘bests’ about — and almost none of them call themselves ninjas and jedi.

And of few ‘best’ that are around, even fewer want to work their asses off and burn their passion for money you cannot afford to pay them.

So what is the best kept secret for businesses to attract top talent?

Stop trying to attract top talent and start growing it!

After working with over 100 teams, hundreds of people over 20+ years, hiring and helping hire dozens of people and being hired by dozens more, I think I have happened on the best kept secret for getting awesome people to share your work and life with.

The trouble with the ‘attracting talent’ approach is that you have to keep working to retain it. If you’ve ever dated someone on false pretences, you’ll know that sooner or later they will see the real you and then what?

Fundamentally the relationship ends. In the world of dating, you break up.

In the world of work it is less clear cut. People stay ‘together’ because for the employee ; their — paying bills — are met; for the employer — they get someone who is not agitating for change and is happy to follow orders.

But as far as trust and passion go, you can forget about those.

The secret is simple. Grow them.

That’s it. Stop trying to attract people that have preconceived ideas and hard to untangle bad habits, whose loyalties are based on how much you are prepared to pay them or who are really only working for you until something better paying shows up. Instead focus on attracting raw talent and, through collaboration and shared values, create the container for production together.

What is stopping you?

I have talked informally about this topic with many people — from executives to janitors — and I’ve distilled the reasons why people aren’t finding talent this way.

It seems the main things stopping people from ‘growing your own’ is a combination of time and timing, skills and appreciation of value.

Time & Timing

If you are in a loving relationship — how long did it take you to get there? In days gone by, people used the term ‘courtship’. How long did you court the person you love? And when you finally got together — how long did it take to be comfortable with each other’s edges?

Finding people who are passionate about anything takes time and investment.

Time to help them discover their passions even as they — themselves – are unsure what they are. It might mean funding and participating in community gatherings, working out of Universities and helping undergraduates deal with the everyday. Be creative.

It also takes investment — not really of money though. More of time, genuine care and active interest.

Timing is also critical. The earlier the better. Many companies grasp the idea of starting early — for example with university recruitment — but fundamentally suck at it because they don’t get passion and they really don’t care about it. They distil everything down to money.

The sooner you start and the more open heartedly you participate in helping people find their talents, the easier it is to have the conversations that they should combine their fate with yours to build something beautiful — the things that passionate people build are always beautiful.

Skills

Growing talent cannot be relegated to HR or to management — even if management instigates. Helping people grow to ascend a ladder from which a fall is not only emotionally catastrophic, it is also a very unhealthy way to grow talent.

It takes under exercised skills that most people have to help others grow. It takes the ability to trust deeply, be open and love genuinely coupled with empathy and a desire to collaborate as equals. This is the secret sauce of the best kept secret. You can buy it in, but ultimately you need to nurture it.

Appreciate the value

I expect there will be some who will read this and will say ‘show me the studies’ or ‘show me the numbers’.

If you are one of them — thanks for reading, now please go away — I don’t have the energy to waste convincing you of the benefits of people doing passionate work without the hierarchy, the ego massaging and the bullshit games of most companies.

However, if you are not averse to the possibility that people – whose basic needs are met and who are supported to find and explore their passions – will do amazing things with others of a similar disposition and will remain deeply loyal to their partnership, then you are part way to appreciating the value of growing your own talent.

It takes seeing passionate people do beautiful work to decide never to knowingly work any other way. It doesn’t matter what they make and it doesn’t matter what challenges they face — they will always be awesome.

Startups are perfect to grow your own

Ask any gardener at what point they have the most straightforward work to do and the most chance to create the most amazing garden and they will tell you it is when they are starting from scratch. Hope and opportunity are at their maximum. There are no established plants to work round, no constraints to their dreams.

Startups are like that — at least with regards to people. You get to start from as close from scratch as possible. Both with a team and with an idea. Conditions that make for beautiful experiences — if you know how to make it so.

Many startups tend to think of themselves as mini businesses — they are not. They are search engines and prospectors — trying to find the thing of value and a repeatable way of realising that value. When they find both, they become a business.

Getting to that point is rich with the fertiliser that aides ‘growing your own’. Very few other points in the evolution of a business afford that same richness of talent growth.

Why you haven’t heard about this

Quite simply. Money.

The recruitment business is worth billions of dollars a year.
The fixing of crappy companies that forsake organic growth rakes in billions more.
The process merchants and MBA industry that bellow the mantra of efficiency to the world of human work make billions.
The software peddlers who offer things to incentivise, gamify, maximise, track and otherwise aid in the management of human as a resource contribute huge sums to the industry that has emerged around the mechanisation of work — and more recently, creative and knowledge work.

Although there is now a growing movement of people and companies that are helping to change this, compared to the mainstream they are pretty insignificant. For every maverick book of a company choosing flatter more organic structures there are hundreds more that espouse established practices and promote people as cogs.

What to do with this information

I hope it changes you. If you shrug in disbelief and forget it, I will have failed.

If you do nothing and simply stay troubled — internally agitated that there is possibly another way, then I will have succeeded — a little.

If you read this and share it, get to work and simply float the question “What would happen if we focused on growing the talent we need” and refused to take dumb responses as an answer — then I would have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

I invite you to ask me for sources, examples and further reading. I am unwilling to make that further investment without you meeting me halfway.

It is up to you.

What do you think?

  1. Hi Mike,

    That’s pure gold.

    While I could discuss with a few details I couldn’t agree more with the main message.

    In fact, I would take the argument even further. Focus on technical skills, which is exactly what this whole ninja and wizard bullshit is all about, is actually paying attention to the wrong thing.

    What makes teams better and more effective rarely has anything to do with technical skills and a lot to do how team members communicate with each other and how much empathy is there (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz1dDiW2mvM). Now, would empathic, low-ego person, who encourages others to share their opinions and never dominates conversation fit the ninja picture?

    Didn’t think so either.

    Funny thing is that this is exactly what we need to make our teams effective and creative. This is exactly the secret sauce that also help everyone around to grow.

    Last time I checked software development was a team sport, not an individual effort. And yet most teams out there are built to optimize individual skills (and by the way the wrong ones).

    How frequently a day worth of work boils down to only few lines of code produced? In fact we are not is software development business. We are in solving problems business because this is how we deliver value to our customers. Now, how does being Rails rock star help in solving complex problems? Problems that are very rarely technical in nature? Even less so when we are in startup domain.

    In Lunar Logic we are working with a lot of startups helping to build their products. We’ve seen all the crap that is to be seen in the code bases. We’ve fixed a lot of that. I don’t pay that much attention to that. When I’m talking with potential clients trying to evaluate how successful our relationship may be the important bits are how quickly we can build trust, how well collaboration looks like and short feedback loops. If we have that, no matter how big were the gaps in technical skills – these are the easiest to be covered.

    If other bits don’t work it doesn’t matter how much tech skills our client or us would bring to the table. The progress of the project isn’t impressive and no one is really happy working on the project. And again it all boils down to the secret sauce: “empathy and a desire to collaborate as equals.”

    By the way: for those who are looking for the research, well I wouldn’t tell them to bugger off. Here’s a starting point: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.abstract

    Cheers
    Pawel