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Monkeys, geese, cans and talent strategy

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw  

Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem’s canned wine (yes wine in cans) has been praised in Wine Spectator, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Maybe their cans are produced in Boulder by Wild Goose Canning, whose revolutionary sealing process has put the company at the vanguard of canning beer, wine and spirits across the U.S., and now going global. And perhaps the innovation of these two young Colorado companies was sparked by the wood-jacketed tin cans Ball Brothers made in 1880—long before they began designing aerospace solutions in Broomfield.

These three companies were highlighted in mid-August at the fourth annual Colorado Innovation Network (COIN) summit in Denver. I was delighted to be invited to the summit as a delegate and subject matter expert on talent. Organized by Governor Hickenlooper in 2011, COIN draws on representatives from government, academia and the private sector to examine the four pillars that support business success: talent, ideas, capital and entrepreneurship. This year the focus was almost entirely on the pillar of talent, including discussion of the critical factors that support it, like education, big data and technology. Each year, COIN produces a report; here's the 2015 Innovation Report on “Talent in Colorado.”

What Infinite Monkey, Wild Goose and Ball have in common is their curiosity—the theme of this year’s COIN summit. Of course we know that it’s not really companies that are curious, and it’s not companies that innovate—it’s their people. People who ask, “why not?” instead of “why?” are the innovators. These are the people we are all competing for and, for me, the most exciting and challenging part of running a business.

Setting the stage for talent

Who wouldn’t want to live in Colorado? The beauty of our state and the Colorado lifestyle set a great stage for attracting talent. When you locate your company in a place where people want to live, in Colorado or elsewhere, you’re already one step ahead of the competition. But only one step. Your workplace environment is the main event.

Too many companies haven’t yet realized that times have changed, people have changed, and workplaces have to change with them. These companies are locked in the past, where job security was traded for loyalty; hierarchy reigned; and “engagement” meant that you were getting married. “Steady and predictable” have been replaced by “change and constant improvement.” Today’s talent is looking for an entirely different environment and my advice is, you better provide it.

Now, people want flexibility and possibility, shared vision and values, and work-life balance from their employer. They want customized career paths and training, challenge and empowerment, respect and fair treatment. This is the kind of workplace that attracts people who can handle the complexity and ambiguity that challenge you every day—the curious people who will innovate you to greater success. Steady, predictable environments won’t get you far in our constantly changing global world. You no longer need loyal people who work for you over decades. You need to take advantage of the talent you have for as long as you have them, and constantly look for the next generation.

What talent strategy looks like

Given that the profile of the ideal employee has changed from workers who can do the job to self-starters who can think independently and solve problems, how do you attract these people? First, you need to change your mindset from filling positions to making strategic business decisions about talent.

“Strategic” is the key word here. I recently worked with the senior director of HR in a company having trouble attracting sales talent. When I told her that on average it takes 58 days to fill sales positions she panicked because she was being pressured by the chief sales officer who wanted people in place immediately. Just hearing this I knew that the company was being driven by inexperienced people with no hint of strategy, never mind effective tools or process. This will cost them dearly.

So, what does a talent strategy look like? In my mind, developing a talent strategy is much like developing any other business strategy but, because you’re dealing with people, it’s more complex. It begins with asking the hard questions you might not ordinarily consider:

  • What is our culture really like in the experience of employees, service providers and customers? What are we doing to measure it? What are we doing to constantly improve it?
  • How are we ensuring cultural fit in our hiring practices?
  • What are the costs of investing in a more humane culture that helps create and retain happy employees? What are the risks of turnover and negative online publicity posted by unhappy employees and customers they have poorly served?
  • What is the right combination of technology and human interaction to provide our customers with extraordinary service? How can we ensure we provide it, and what are we willing to compromise, if anything, in developing it?
  • In addition to technical skills, what “soft skills” training do our employees need in order work effectively in teams and build strong customer relationships?
  • What are the financial tradeoffs of investing in training for employees who may not be with us for more than a couple of years? How can we mitigate the costs while profiting from the skills of current talent?
  • What opportunities for personal and professional growth do we offer employees, and do we support them equally in making lateral moves and climbing the corporate ladder?
  • How do we recognize and compensate employees for their personal sacrifices in working outside normal hours to communicate with and serve customers globally?

The point is, you have to dig deep and wide to answer strategic questions that involve your people. Work and personal lives can no longer be considered separately, if they ever should have been. People are no longer grateful for the job you have to offer; they want a mutually beneficial relationship. You may be a stepping stone for a college grad, provide longer term security for a single parent, or serve as part-time support for a retiree. Today, it doesn’t matter. If they have the required skills and are a fit with your goals and culture, their curiosity may provide the breakthrough for your next innovation. Why not make them part of your talent strategy?

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