Preparing for rapid headcount growth, whether you are a newly formed start up, a growing SME or a large scale MNC, poses similar challenges that are recognisable to all categories. In fact, you could apply the same golden principles in all 3 cases and all would be correct. However, based on my observations over the years, different considerations have varying significance depending on which phase the overall business or team is in its evolution. In my view, the hardest phase for new employers to get right is in it’s earlier, nascent stages, especially given the significance of ‘employer brand’ or EVP, though this could apply to some extent to new ‘digital’ departments (COEs) or entities that sit within larger or more established brands, though of course the reputation of the parent entity could play a role in this case.
With this in mind, here is my top 10 pick of key considerations for businesses in early start up mode, in no particular order.
Establish your vision
If you are going to develop a compelling employment proposition to a niche skillset that is in demand, in a market full of other exciting opportunities, you have to make your offering stand out. Just because the investors and leadership get the proposition, it doesn’t mean the candidate audience will get it immediately. Invest in a well-structured on-line presence that clearly highlights the key value of your products and services or at least be willing to outline clearly to potential candidates at the interview if the products and services are more stealth like. Be willing to invest time and energy in upselling to your candidate audience using clear communication and be patient regarding this process.
EVP - Employer Value Proposition
Why should someone join your organisation outside the opportunity to contribute to building your product base? It takes more than a funky coffee dispenser and a fruit bowl to build a compelling employer brand. What makes your brand stand out? What does your management stand for and what values are you governed by and make sure these are clearly articulated to your workforce. More importantly, make sure you live and breath those values. If you are trying to build a reputation as a great employer that ‘in demand’ candidates will want to join and stay at, you will need to build a framework around which the employer brand is built. Are you an ‘output based’ business that offers flexible work practices? Do you promote autonomy? How invested are you in personal development – both hard and soft skills and what steps are you taking with this for instance?
Social media – build a narrative
To build and promote your new offering and employer brand to the candidate market, you will need to go beyond simply advertising your roles on the mainstream forums and portals. You will need to go to the next level and build a brand. You will need to take everything that is exciting about your vision, values and opportunity this presents and build a narrative on-line to catch the audience’s attention and become front of mind. Many companies are investing in a more ‘grooming’ based approach and those that do it best and optimise their content so it pops up when the passive candidate taps their smart phone will win the competition.
Appealing to Gen Y / Millennial audience
Identifying with this demographic is critical in the modern war on talent and just like any consumer brand, you have to work out what will appeal to this audience in terms of content and channel. For instance, your modern job hunting is highly social media engaged and predominantly via a smart phone, so to what extent is your EVP optimised and how likely are you going to be visible to passive candidates. This particular grouping also prioritises flexibility and personal empowerment and will want the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to building your product very quickly and, quite rightly, have visibility on what the reward may be either in terms of more responsibility, promotion or more flexibility. In short, you are dealing in a faster paced, more transient, or ‘shopper’ mentality when dealing with the latest generation of recruit, so whilst highly capable, you will need to equip yourself for the challenges associated with this.
It goes without saying that building a diverse brand is healthy for your business and employer brand and also promotes a wider range of perspectives available that enables you to identify with your customer base. That said, it’s important therefore not to slip into have too much of a one-sided demographic, based on lazy hiring methodology. To promote diversity, make sure you build objectivity into your hiring approach. A good example may be to identify key competencies you need for each role and screen rigorously against these to ensure you are hiring on competency alone. You may also like to try interviewing candidates ‘blind’, ie remove names from the CV in advance of conducting the interview. Either way, to make your business culture as productive and healthy as possible and to appeal to as wide a candidate as possible, make sure you invest in diversity and make it happen.
The onboarding process
This is the part that sadly, I see so many employers get wrong and overlook, yet it’s the easiest to fix. Think about the hiring process as a service you are providing to your employee and consider seriously what impression that employee will have, which will galvanise, either positively or negatively, employee perception for the foreseeable. Based on this, what should day 1 look like in the office? Do they get a warm welcome and do you set up meetings for new joiners to meet and engage with their new team and stakeholders. Do you have a proper induction plan to support this? Furthermore, it’s so important to lay out a review program during the new employees first 3-6 months, during which time the new members of staff will be forming a view of their new home. Are their expectations aligned with what was laid out during the interview process and are they getting the exposure you promised? Many of the positive and negative employer brands in the market are formed off the back of this area and is critical in combating attrition also.
Get your first hires right
Linked to the above therefore, it’s so important to ‘put your flag in the sand’ with your first hires and make them last to establish your employer reputation. You should be aiming to make the biggest and most impactful impression with these hires to get your employer brand noticed, so it’s very important you take the time to hire people that will form your foundations. Conversely, if you are new on the block and your first hires fail or leave within a short period, you can be rest assured the negative press will travel, will make it much harder to backfill and you will end up treading water.
Hire top down
Linked to the above, it’s important to hire your management layer first, as much as possible, before hiring your subject matter experts. The reason for this is because it’s the management team that will agree upon and establish all the key foundations around with the EVP is built. Put another way, new entrants need to ensure the investors or C level are aligned entirely with the management team before they engage in bringing more staff into the party. Quite often, friction based on misalignment on this point will lead to cultural turbulence down the line and will manifest as attrition. Clearly, there may be subject matter experts you need to hire in the very early stages to get the ball rolling with product development, but it is possible to hire future senior leaders that can 'double-hat'. Furthermore, hiring, for example, software engineers first, then hiring the heads of those people in the wrong order can lead to inefficiency and misalignment, eg the new CTO could bring a new team with them or may disagree with the hires you made in advance.
Get your compensation & benefits right
Many new entrants lose sight of this key consideration when entering the market and it’s important to do your benchmarking in advance to create a structure that enables your business to scale consistently and doesn’t lead to dispute and disparity don the line. Granted, for your initial first few ‘super-hires’ you may need to go above standard market rate to get this right and you may seek to offer equity to those individuals based on level of contribution over a certain timeline. That said, there has to be a limit to too much ‘start up’ mentality when negotiating or agreeing salaries for new hires. If you go above market rate you end up harming the market equilibrium and you will also set expectations for your staff purely around financial incentive and this never works long term. Conversely, you need to recognise that the digital market is well paid and evolves quickly and you need to stay across evolutions in price point. For instance Malaysia is no longer a ‘low-cost’ hub to all those businesses new to Malaysia looking to achieve cost savings by setting up a development hub here! Furthermore, the discerning employee will always look at overall benefits as a key part of the weigh up, including health plan (both in-patient and out-patient) and especially holidays (offering statutory minimum standards is not a good idea – look at what the competition is offering).
Benchmark for skills and availability
Quite often, especially for new market entrants coming from other parts of the world, the actual specific availability of talent that the business is needing to meet strategic objectives in the new location is placed well down the pecking order. In short, too many assumptions are made. Using Malaysia as an example, it’s safe to assume that there is an abundance of talent here and it’s also fairly visa friendly for niche skills over a certain salary level within regulated proportions. That said, the modern software development market is highly nuanced, so it’s not enough to be too generalised and investigate simply how many Java or .Net software engineers there are for instance. What about specific frameworks and platforms? Often new entrants have a rude awakening when it comes down to hiring exactly what they want at the required level at the required volume at the required salary. It can often be 6 months into the hiring process that the 'penny drops' that this realisation is made, at which point the employer reduces expectations, increases salary or opens up to expats. Making the discovery in this way is disruptive, inefficient and can un-necessarily harm employer branding. For instance you may end up needing to go back to candidates you have rejected previously once you realise where your expectations should have been in the first place!