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What A-players want most for Christmas

A rewarding experience and career path

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Is your culture more like the Virginia-based software company Meddius’, where employees can choose when, where and how they work with no questions asked as long they get their work done? Or do safety and precision require a more structured work environment? It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you are on. But it does matter that you attract A-players to your business by offering the things they want most.

HR guru John Sullivan says that talent managers need to be more strategic, proactive and business-like in dealing with the game-changing events and trends businesses face today. One of those game-changers is the continuing competition for A-players. You’ll win them only if you offer a rewarding work experience and exceptional career path. How do you stack up in those areas?

One good way to find out is to conduct what I call a “culture SWOT assessment.” SWOT assessments (your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) are typically used in setting business strategy or evaluating competitiveness for products, marketing or sales. Given that your culture may be the most critical factor in attracting and retaining the A-players that give you a competitive edge, it deserves an equally serious appraisal.

First, take a look at what Inc. magazine lists as the ten things A-players want most:

Purpose. Great talent wants something more than a paycheck. They want to understand how what they do contributes to the whole and know that it has a purpose behind it. And when someone listens to your suggestion and implements it? There’s nothing more confirming.

  1. Goals. Create clearly-defined, regularly-updated goals that are measurable and obtainable; then let people figure out for themselves how to achieve them.
  2. Responsibilities. When managers delegate, people know they are trusted and respected. The decisions may not always be the ones you, personally, might make, but they may open a path to more innovation.
  3. Autonomy. Giving people more freedom about how they get their work done can actually increase productivity and problem solving.
  4. Flexibility. Production lines, customer service and other factors often mean that workers have little or no flexibility about when and where they work. But there are other ways to build in mutually beneficial flexibility, like: job sharing, phased retirement and annualized hours. Get creative.
  5. Attention. None of the above eliminates the need for guidance and feedback. Don’t wait for the annual performance review to give it. Walk around regularly to ask how things are going and give advice.
  6. Opportunities for Innovation. Change up the workgroups and give people a chance to work with different people to generate fresh ideas; hold brainstorming sessions; allow people personal time on the company clock to work on innovative ideas like Google does. Innovation doesn’t usually happen during the daily grind.
  7. Open-mindedness. Be sensitive to people’s ideas and suggestions, and honest about their potential usefulness. As an authority figure, never shoot people down. Take time to explain why something may not work and encourage people to keep thinking and suggesting.
  8. Transparency. Tell people as much as you can about what’s happening in your business, and tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing. Talk about the ordinary things and the major things—and keep the lines of communication open.
  9. Compensation. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, says it perfectly: “Don’t pay people a measly base salary and very high commissions and bonuses in hopes that the fear of not having enough food on their tables will inspire them to do extraordinary things.” Compensate a little more than average so people can concentrate on their work. 

Then, conduct your culture SWOT assessment by asking questions like these:

Strengths: Which of the most wanted are we already doing as well as, or better than the competition? How can we leverage that? What additonal things does our culture offer that would attract top talent, like time off for community volunteering, professional development or career advancement?

Weakness: Which of the ten are we not doing and why or why not? Are they a strategic and realistic fit for our culture? If so, what is stopping us from doing them? What other negative factors, internal or external affect our culture?

Opportunities: Are our competitors vulnerable in any of these ten areas? How can we explain our culture to candidates? Are there new trends in workplace expectations or lifestyle trends wher we can be leading edge?Are we properly informed and organized to take advantage of them?

Threats: What are the risks of not offering the ten most wanted and have we properly assessed those risks? How many of them do our competitors offer and how do we compare overall?

As Walt Disney said, “You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” From a business perspective that would read: “it takes A-players to make that dream a reality.” My advice: Start the New Year right with a culture SWOT assessment and make sure that you’re the one who gets and keeps the top talent. That’s the best way to ensure that your 2013 is a wonderful year.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a unique recruitment firm that helps companies find exceptional talent to accelerate their growth. TalenTrust LLC is located in Golden, CO. Kathleen  recently completed a two-year term as president of the   Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.



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