Nine Steps To Attracting and Retaining Creative Talent

Earlier this week I wrote that it takes more than just money to attract creative talent

In fact it takes more than just money to attract anyone capable of making a difference. Whether they have creative in their job description or not. Difference being a frame against which to measure the impact of original thought.

Against that context, here are nine steps that will draw difference-makers to your organization. 

  1. Pay Fairly. It’s true that it takes more than just money. But it does take money. Beating the market being neither an attractive nor sustainable practice when it comes to compensation. Many companies ignore this truth and apply a famine and feast mentality to paying talent. Under-paying early when the company has the leverage. Then over-paying later, in order to attract or keep talent from the competition. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market parity at every position, with bonuses for extraordinary results. This creates an environment in which financial resentment is not a motivation for your talent to look for new opportunities. Desperate competitors may still over-pay. But when talent feels valued, the premium required to convince them to leave gives you an immediate competitive advantage.
  2. Understand The Deflationary Value of Money. In Dan Pink’s excellent book, Drive, the author describes research that shows that many original thinkers are not only un-motivated by incentive based rewards, they actually perform worse. In part this is because when a task becomes ‘work’, talented people tend to feel more constrained. Organizations that tie creativity to money usually have less financial success than those that focus first on defining the intrinsic benefits of solving a client’s problem and frame the challenge in more valuable ways. When you are doing it just for the money - an economic reality in virtually every business - be clear about the impact that has on your most talented people’s satisfaction, and balance how often that is their only reward.
  3. Build An Evangelical Business. As a species we are united by our instinct to create. We want to make things. Especially a difference. Google’s success is driven by a simple premise. They want to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful. A  goal that has attracted, informed and unified some of the most original thinking of the last ten years. Define the change your company wants to make in the world. No matter how local. Nothing attracts like a clearly defined vision of a better future. And the opportunity to be part of making it come true.
  4. Measure Progress. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, measuring progress is one of the keys to harnessing creativity. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed that a sense of progress is the attribute which people value most in their day. Progress can only be measured on a continuum that has a beginning and an end. Defining the difference you want your business to make provides the latter. The former comes from individual reviews  - a subject worthy of its own post. And annual reminders of how far the organization has come. Celebrating the company’s anniversary with a retrospective comparison of where you were a year ago is simple and powerful. And offers the chance to re-present the vision as a reminder of where the future lies.
  5. Engineer Engagement. Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Maintaining inititial levels of enthusiasm is a two part process. The first is staying engaged with your best thinkers. Easier said than done given the temptation to focus energy on solving problems rather than building on successes. The second is being willing to clear the dead wood from the organization. Nothing de-motivates people more than an organization’s willingness to support under-performers. Be relentless about raising standards and expectations. It attracts and provokes greatness. 
  6. Invest in Individuality. Google's success is driven by the fact that the discipline required to create some of the most sophisticated software code ever written, has been balanced by a commitment to allow those same engineers to express themselves individually. Organizationally this means that eighty percent of their time is devoted to meeting the demands of keeping Google running. The other twenty percent must be used for solving problems of the engineers own choosing. An investment in individuality that Google attributes for all of their major innovations. Creative companies that charge by the hour have a systemic inability to match this level of investment. But deciding to invest not at all in your talent’s ability to create new forms of value suggests you think either they are not capable of that kind of original thinking, or your organization is not capable of taking advantage of it.
  7. Provide Boundaries.  Original thinking requires room to explore new possibilities. It also requires boundaries that focus its capacity to solve relevant problems. In the 1990s, Whirlpool’s CEO, Jeff Fettig, took the company's 25 most revered thinkers and assigned them to a dedicated innovation think-tank in Switzerland. 12 months later they came back with a single idea. A web-based game that linked stationary exercise bikes around the world in virtual races. Exactly. Since then, Whirlpool has invested significantly in training key talent to build and manage a defined and measurable innovation pipeline. Over the last ten years, the revenue generated by products the company defines as innovative has risen from $10 million to over $3 billion, funding further its investment in training, teaching and mentoring its employees. And Whirlpool’s ability to turn original thinking into practical differences has earned it Fast Company’s ranking as the 5th most innovative consumer goods company in the world. And put it on BusinessWeek’s list of, “Best places to start a career.” 
  8. Be Open. Be Honest. Transparency is the most over-worked word in the English language at the moment. Which does not make it less essential to attracting and retaining great people. Usually, it’s more effective to think of transparency as a commitment to open honesty, which we have had success applying as: telling what you can, and explaining what you can’t. You can draw the line between them wherever you are comfortable - with the caveat being that comfort is usually a poor measurement of what is in your best interest. Sharing more encourages others to do the same. And to give you the benefit of the doubt. Valuable assets in building loyalty.
  9. Say Thank You. The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise. Or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us make a choice where we work every day. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted

These steps require investment. Of time. And a little money. The ROI on which will exceed any scale you care to choose today.

Each will make an organization more compelling.

Collectively they will make your company irresistible. And invaluable.

The Art of Evolution

A short aside today, before we return next time to the Art of Change.

Dave Rolfe at Crispin Porter + Bogusky blogged yesterday about a powerful initiative that the agency is undertaking. As some people know, we are working with CP+B to help them design, navigate and implement this evolution. 

And while we make it a point not to discuss the specifics of our work with clients, Dave’s post speaks volumes for how successful companies become and remain so.

“We’re eyeing a model that will explore how post-production can best function in the overall creative process.” 

There are two truths on which to build a more valuable creative business. The status quo is where the funerals of once great companies are planned. And the future has no rules. Great companies live in the space between the two. They are pragmatically fearless. 

“We’ve been working like this since the beginning.”

Evolution is a state of conversion. The from being as important as the to. A business that sells subjectivity is built upon core values. Defining them clearly helps you make big leaps feel like small ones. 

“The best in talent will be sought to lead, and the best will be developed within the system.”

The art of growing a talent-dependent company is based on investing in those that can teach. From experience. And achievement. And in those that can learn. From others. And themselves.

“Made to take advantage of and connect the agency's geographic and cultural diversity.”

Geography can be an obstacle. Or a benefit. And culture is the DNA on which sustainable growth depends. First you need to recognize their importance. Then you need systems and processes to unlock the power of both.

CP+B’s evolution presents both threat and opportunity to many other companies. As Jerry Solomon commented at the bottom of Dave’s post, “We should view it as a challenge. If someone can do it better, faster and cheaper they deserve the business. And, if they can't our value becomes greater.”


The Value of Talent

Sports team are creative companies.

At their best, collections of world-class talent expressing themselves within a strategically designed and sensitively managed system.

At their worst, indulgent, inconsistent and reactive rabbles.

As a case study in long-term excellence, the English football team Manchester United takes some beating. Analytically as well as physically. A painful confession for a lifelong Chelsea FC supporter.

Last week, however, saw the removal of a cornerstone of Manchester United’s business success.

The belief that no one individual is bigger than the whole.

A critical foundation for any valuable creative service business.

Manchester United is a business with a history of having employed some of the greatest talents in its industry. George Best. Eric Cantona. David Beckham. Roy Keane. To name but four.

In each case, their individuality was the fuel of their genius. An explosive combustion the club measured and managed, and always framed within that cornerstone ethos.

And in each case, once the balance tilted, once complacency started to rival contribution, the club severed their ties quickly and decisively. Always before anyone else had recognized the threat.

Last Thursday, Manchester United threw those standards away. Deciding that a 24 year old forward by the name of Wayne Rooney, who has showed periods of greatness during his six years at the club, should be treated differently.

This comes in the wake of Rooney: dramatically underperforming during England’s World Cup this summer; being photographed publicly urinating on a golf course during a round with his English team mates; being photographed publicly urinating in the street outside a Manchester nightclub; alleged to have been repeatedly unfaithful with a prostitute while his wife was pregnant; publicly arguing with his manager - Sir Alex Ferguson - about whether he was injured; scoring one goal since March, and last week announcing his intention to leave Manchester United because of both their “lack of ambition” and his concern at the club’s inability to attract the world’s best players. A damning indictment of previously loyal, and world-class teammates.

Manchester United’s response to this series of self indulgences in the midst of growing pressure from their fans and the press?

To sign him to a new five year contract at more than double his previous compensation.

Thereby throwing away, overnight, one of the foundations on which more than fifty years of success has been built.

As a piece of adaptive preference, I understand why Manchester United would convince themselves this was the right decision. The need for talent being the most common rationale for bad decision making in any talent driven business.

As a Chelsea supporter, I am thrilled they did

Long term success takes a long term to create. But only a moment of self deception to undo.

Define your principles. Then resist, resist, resist the temptation to throw them away when the pressure is on. They will see you through.

West Point

We're on the train into the city today. A stunning ride along the magnificence of the Hudson.

As I write this we're passing West Point, a powerful monument to strategic positioning and strong foundations. I'm struck by its permanence.

And after being home sick for a week, by our fragility.

I emerged back into the real world this morning, grateful for the power of antibiotics, but regretting last week's decision to rub my eye in an airport terminal filled with germs. It seemed unimportant at the time. Six days later, it's now clear it was not.

The power of technology has allowed me to remain productive. Virtual meetings, online presentations and free conference call services maintaining both our methods and our margins. Important foundations on which to build a better business.

The diversity of companies with which we work continues to expand. One week, a solo entrepreneur. The next, a global holding company. The scale and complexities change, of course. But the fundamentals remain inexorably the same.

What are we trying to achieve?

Why are our customers our customers?

Who will be our next generation of customers?

Every other question becomes a subset of these three.

Profitability: Do you want to maximize operating margin or build scale? Are we a parity product competing on price, or have we found a way to articulate our value in unique ways?

Expansion: Are we taking full advantage of the talent and capabilities we've already built? Do we add offices, services, both or neither?

Marketing: Are we built to talk or built to listen? Are we consistent? Are we surprising?

Talent: Will the people we have today solve the problems our clients will have tomorrow? Do our systems and workflow help them do better work, and help us identify the great ones faster?

It requires discipline to ask these questions. And honesty to answer them clearly.

And you may have temporary success without them.

But if the effort you put into your business is not matched by the quality of the foundations you are building, one of two things are certain.

The cost to repair them will be memorable.

Or fifty years from now, passers by - whether physical or virtual - will be looking at something other than the business you so painstakingly built.

Getting The Most From Your People

I’m always interested in how business owners and department heads manage the people that work for them.

Over time, I’ve discovered one approach is very common.

1. Define the job

2. Find someone to fill it

3. Wait for something to happen

This approach is then put into practice in a number of ways that look like pro-active management, but aren’t.

The most significant of which is the concept of regularly scheduled raises.

A practice which encourages management to be passive in guiding the development of each employee until the next date comes along. Or something goes wrong.

And ensures that your emerging stars will regularly surprise you with better offers from your competitors who aren’t restricted by a calendar in your HR department.

A better management approach also incorporates three elements.

1. A willingness to look first for people’s strengths.

2. Regular development reviews with each employee that are separated from compensation increases.

3. An organizational structure capable of adapting to the potential of individuals by providing tools that take care of the day to day needs of the business - reliably and instinctively.

People want to be paid fairly. But more than that, they want to be given a chance to fulfill their potential.

Putting practices in place that encourage managers to focus on helping them do so costs much less than losing a talented and trained employee.

And ensures that you are building your business on ever expanding strengths.

Confidence and the Competition

A couple of years after we put our company the Whitehouse together, we made the decision that we needed to add some talent to our London office.

Adding talent on demand is one of the hardest things for any business to do.

In every industry, the pool of difference-makers is small, and the ability to offer significantly better terms than their current employer is limited by the economics of the business you’re in. If they’re not unhappy, a five or ten percent increase won’t normally do it. Offer more and you undermine your own company’s compensation structure. And the benefits of hiring them.

John Smith, the partner responsible for our London office at the time, made some calls including one to a highly regarded editor at one of our biggest competitors. We weren’t optimistic, but nothing ventured nothing gained. The editor wasn't around. John left a message, called me to fill me in, and went home. It was 7pm in the UK.

Several hours later, as I was finishing a meeting in Chicago, I got a message that the competitor’s managing director - whom I had met once - had called. He asked that I call him back that night. He left a UK number.

I looked at my watch, added 6, and wondered if he really wanted me to call him at midnight in London. According to our receptionist who had taken the message, he did.

Negotiation is a fine art. One of the keys is to know the relative importance of the issue to the other side. I knew the answer to that question before I started to dial.

He answered the phone on the first ring. And explained forcefully that he and his parters were very upset that we had approached one of their editors who, he added, was also a partner.

Approaching talent is one thing. Approaching partners is another. It crosses a line of propriety. And it’s illegal. In the States, it’s called tortious interference. And it’s a very big deal.

In this case, I explained gently, we hadn’t known. We hadn’t spoken to him. And we certainly wouldn’t pursue it now that we did know. That, I thought, would bring the conversation to a close.

He paused for a moment. “I think we should have an agreement that we won’t approach each other’s talent," he said quickly. "After all, we can both offer great opportunities. It’ll just be easier if we don’t hire from each other.”

Company owners use a variety of methods to keep key talent. Contracts and compensation being two.

But, while compensation is always part of the equation, I have never found contracts to be compelling. Other than formal definitions of the terms of employment. In my experience, they usually just provide a place from which to start the conversation.

Any key employee who is desperate to leave is not worth keeping. And by the time the lawyers get involved, you’re arguing about issues that were created long before you got to this point.

The key to getting employees to stay is to pay them fairly and provide them an environment which lets them explore their talent and cares about their future. Get that right and the only ones that leave will be those that yearn to own their own business. And some of those you can keep if you get your ownership structure right.

By the time I was on the midnight call with my competitor I was confident that these underlying philosophies had become embedded in the DNA of our nascent culture.

“How about this instead,” I offered. “Why don’t I email you our company’s address list so that you can contact any of our people you want. If you can convince any of them to leave, I’m not doing something right. I’ll get more value from finding that out than I will from creating an artificial situation that prevents people from working where they want.”

He declined. And hung up.

The free market is a powerful force.

And people do their best work in an environment they want to be part of.

Not one they are forced to be.

Keeping the doors to your company open requires confidence.

The best platform from which to run any business.