How can startups attract and retain talent?

This is a common question I get from several start-ups. Start-ups feel that they are competing with large companies for talent and that this is a un-winnable battle.

Not true — in my opinion. But it does require a lot of hard work of  entrepreneurs to attract and retain good talent.

Here are some thoughts, suggestions and ideas:

  • In my opinion, monetary compensation is not the only or most important driver for people deciding about which job to take up. Start by not playing-up the role of money beyond reasonable limits. Yes, there is a base level but beyond that most team members will seek something more! It is for you to seek out what those are.
  • Look for people who do not measure their self-worth by the salary they earn or the vehicle they drive or the phone they own. Look for people who value their creative talents and wish to feed and nurture them. Look for people who are not carrying too much “baggage” — “baggage” which forces them to focus only on short term monetary gains. “Baggage” could be heavy loans, a high-cost and aspirational lifestyle, a social network that encourages comparisons with others etc.
  • Start-ups need to communicate a vision and purpose for the organisation as well as future for their team members that is convincing and something with impact that is worth pursuing. Fortunately, there are many people who aspire to contribute to changing the world — the question is if you can help them do that.
  • Start ups must leverage their strengths. One strength is flexibility and ability to act fast. So can you structure an employment arrangement that is customised to suit the employees other life choices? Can you offer flexibility in the job? Are you willing to listen to the employee’s needs and explore ways to tailor the job for them? Can you act fast to close the deal? (Big companies will not be able to do this beyond a point.)
  • Many people leave their jobs because they have a difficult boss. Can you be the best boss in the world?
  • Many people leave jobs because they do not like the work environment and culture. Many will stay on because they like their team and work environment. What kind of a work culture and environment are you building? Is your team getting along together — do they constitute a great peer group?
  • Can you spot talent in young people without track record (and before they are spotted by others) and offer them responsibilities that a big company would never offer?
  • Can you identify certain talents in people to take up a responsibility when they do not have the necessary formal background or experience to do the job?  Big companies will use software, HR consultants and HR managers to screen through applications — and they will typically use key words to screen applications. They will not dig deeper. Can you beat them at it?
  • Especially in India, family members influence the career choices of employees in a big way.  Have you made the effort to communicate to family members what your company does and the great future that awaits you and your team?
  • Are you fair and transparent on matters relating to compensation, recognitions etc? You should not only be so but also appear to be so.
  • Do you take interest in the career growth of your employee? Do you offer them opportunities to grow intellectually or professionally? Are you a good mentor?
  • Many young people will look for safe, clean and happy work places that they can feel good about coming to everyday and also showing off to their friends and family. They should not feel ashamed to show their workplace. They should also feel proud to show off their colleagues. Does your workplace and their team make them proud?
  • Have you taken the trouble to plan their work profile an responsibilities so that it is an appropriate balance of routine work, learning and stretch goals, and opportunity to excel?
  • Can you offer unique learning and networking opportunities? Can you offer an opportunity to enter a new industry segment?
  • Can offer opportunities to people who have had career breaks and are getting back to work?
  • Big companies will often offer narrow jobs with very well defined roles which basically offer them the benefit of  efficiencies that comes from repetitiveness. So, many people people will feel that they are mere “cogs in the wheel”. Can you offer them a bigger role and purpose?
  • Can you leverage your school and college network or alumni network or personal friends circle? These networks typically show greater trust and faith in you.
  • Request people in your personal networks to suggest or refer potential employees. They may suggest or refer people with the right orientation given their deeper knowledge of you and perhaps respect/ support for what you are doing.  The candidate may show deeper interest because of a referral from somebody they know or respect.
  • Can you create a work environment where employees feel that they are growing continuously and not stagnant. Growth can be in terms of intellectual growth, growth in responsibilities, growth in monetary compensation etc.
  • What are you doing to to make the team members own up to the company’s goals? Do they get a chance to represent the company on various internal and external forums? Do they feel they know everything about the company and that the  company is transparent and does not keep them out of certain things?
  • Do they trust that the leadership team will ensure that everybody will get their share of visibility and rewards when the organisation succeeds?
  • What are the things you can do to reduce uncertainty? Are you visibly taking steps to reduce the risk to your team member’s jobs?  Are you working to develop buffers? Are you prioritising that ahead of other risks?