Is Talent Your Top Priority? Probably Not, But You Can Get There

Steve Cadigan

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I recently met with some executives of a mid-sized company that was struggling with recruiting and retention. They invited me to help them address these issues, and as we began to delve into the current state of the company, the topic of company culture came up. I told them something I find myself telling many companies: If you want to hire the best talent, your company must be the place that the best talent wants to work, and that starts with culture.

I asked the team to help me understand their culture and any connections it might have to their recruiting and retention challenges. The team shared that their people were the number one priority, and they told me how great they treat their employees, reviewed a long list of cool benefits and perks that the company offered, and they showed me their beautiful office space that was built with an "employee first" approach. They also touched on the great products they were building and their talented leadership team.

This company had some solid reasons to support the belief that people were first in their organization. While I was impressed by what they were sharing, their list was almost a carbon copy of what I've heard many times over from other companies. I love the aspiration to be a place where people matter most, but the list they offered just fell shy of the mark around what a "talent first" company can be. If a company is putting people first, there are more innovative and thoughtful methods that can be implemented to warrant this declaration. It's an unfortunate reality that so many companies have been falling back on generic practices to achieve something as complicated as "great company culture." There are too few companies that are honestly putting people first by setting the mark high and practicing what they preach. I had a great opportunity to help build a company like this while I was at LinkedIn, and since then, I've been trying to help others surpass traditional expectations around what a "talent first" company looks like.

Here are some suggestions you can consider to ensure that you are part of a "talent first" organization.

Talent is First on the Agenda at Every Meeting

Whether it's a meeting with your staff, a group of executive leaders, or a board of directors, talent is at the top of the agenda, and it's the first and most important topic discussed. Too many times I have worked with companies that claim talent is their primary focus, only to attend meetings where discussions about talent are last on the agenda-or worse, the topic doesn't even get reviewed. If talent is the most important thing to your leadership team, then it's the topic discussed most frequently and in-depth. It's not what gets skipped over or pushed to the back at the end of every meeting. Every CEO knows that where you spend the majority of your time is where your real priorities lie.

Talent is Front and Center in Top Operating Priorities

Talent objectives are included in your annual top operating priorities, along with revenue, growth, and market priorities. Talent operating priorities could include: build a world class leadership team, improve global frontline leadership competencies, implement a rigorous succession plan, or increase employee engagement and implement a compelling alumni program. When you publicly state that talent and people are your main priority, it should be clearly stated as a company objective that all other goals tie back to. While sales, manufacturing, and customer satisfaction goals are also essential, most organizations discuss these kinds of topics instead of talent in their annual operating priorities. Calling talent out as a priority is critical and sends a signal to everyone that business starts with people and that value is created from people. Furthermore, the regular review of the progress on these priorities serves as a constant reminder to the whole organization that talent is indeed as important as anything in the company.

Your Best Systems are the People Systems

If people are the most important resource, then shouldn't the best systems in the company be the systems that help employees realize success and perform optimally? Optinal performance means going beyond payroll systems and into systems that help employees navigate booking vacation, benefit elections and changes,  finding mentors, providing and receiving constructive feedback, tracking goals, or even helping employees collaborate and exchange ideas. Show people that you care about their professional and personal advancement by implementing an amazing array of tools and systems to guide this growth. I have yet to walk into a company where the investment in the HR/people systems equals the investment in finance and/or manufacturing systems.

You Have a Comprehensive Listening Strategy

Putting people first means being close to your talent and creating opportunities to gather their input both formally and informally. One-on-one meetings, town halls, skip-level meetings, brown bag discussions about the company, and pulse surveys every three to six months are examples of how you can listen and communicate. After important company meetings, there should always be ample time for Q&A's and constant check-ins around employee trajectory, assessing what is working, and what can improve. In a world where the pace is accelerating and change is happening faster than ever, you want to regularly ask for input from your team. Talent-first companies go beyond the "open door policy," and create opportunities where your execs can talk about things they are passionate about, and wrap that into a development seminar. At LinkedIn, we created a forum called "Leaders Teaching Leaders," where execs regularly delivered training to managers and directors on a wide range of topics they had a passion for, such as how to inspire people, delivering difficult feedback, and how to communicate effectively. The execs loved delivering these sessions and meeting new employees, and the employees loved engaging with the execs outside of normal business interactions, and interacting with people they might rarely interact with.  These sessions opened great listening channels, which was a benefit to the entire company.

Talent Is Your Daily Priority

Talent being a top priority means, as a leader, you would step out of any meeting to close a candidate or stay as late as needed to help an employee solve a problem that is impeding their ability to do their job. Helping employees solve problems, whether professional or personal in nature, can go a long way because you're showing that you care-that they really are number one. At LinkedIn when we were experiencing tremendous growth, even our sales leaders would block days at the end of each quarter to hire candidates or close last-minute sales deals if necessary. This commitment sent a strong message that talent was a priority at LinkedIn, even compared to closing deals. In the end, we achieved both, but I have never seen a company make that level of commitment such that their sales managers stepped away at the end of a quarter, a critical time in the sales cycle.

Earning the right to be a company where talent is a top priority goes well beyond ping-pong tables and beer parties. Showing that you care enough to commit your time and make compelling talent goals into core company objectives is a promising start in the right direction. In a work world that's heavy on free snacks and bean bag chairs, and light on meaningful and substantive, employee-centered experiences, organizations have an opportunity to stand out from the pack by focusing heavily on fostering meaningful employee relations. Creating an environment that people actively want to grow with and be a part of is a great aspiration for any leader. A company is only as good as the talent it's able to attract and retain, which is why it's critical to take meaningful steps to ensure you're creating a foundation and a business culture that has an employee-first mindset at the core of its practices.

Original post at Forbes.com

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