Disruptive HR

How to attract and retain great digital talent

By Lucy Adams on May 25, 2017 3:22:14 PM
Lucy Adams

Whatever your sector, we’re all tech companies now. The need to attract and build a digital capability is one of the key challenges for all leaders and HR professionals. I certainly faced it whilst at the BBC when the rapid changes to the way audiences consume media created some very real internal tensions between the traditional talent in TV and the new breed of digital talent who worked on i-Player for example.

How do you make yourself attractive to digital talent when they have so many other choices? How do you retain them? How do you integrate them into traditional businesses? The latest podcast from Disruptive HR explores these questions, with the help of two HR professionals who have faced these challenges and have succeeded; Steve Cadigan, the ex-VP Talent for LinkedIn and Karen Bowes, the HR Director for Capital One, the well-known credit card company. Their challenges differed. Steve was trying to attract digital talent into a fast-moving tech company, but one that operated in the shadows of the tech giants such as Facebook and Google, whereas Karen was attempting to transform a traditional financial services business.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast, you can do so here:   iTunes  Podbean

How to make your business attractive to digital talent

Digital talent have so many choices that companies who want to compete for them must up their game. Neither Capital One nor LinkedIn were able to compete with the mega-salaries and perks that were on offer from the tech giants and so they found different ways to present themselves as a genuine option.

Firstly, they recognised that digital talent are interested in solving complex problems, particularly when the solutions can make a genuine difference to peoples’ lives. LinkedIn put a lot of emphasis on the role that their platform would play in changing the course of people’s careers, whereas Capital One positioned their digital roles in terms of how they would change the customer experience.

Secondly, both organisations recognised that if they couldn’t compete on salary, they would have to compete on culture. LinkedIn took a conscious decision to commit that everyone who joined them, regardless of length of tenure, would have the best experience of their career. Capital One, who already had a great culture and had been the #1 “Great Place to Work” for two years in a row, made sure they emphasised this heavily throughout their attraction strategy.

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Underpinning both of these was a really clear and shared understanding of what was special and unique about them – a differentiated offering that made them stand out from the very dense crowd.

On a tactical level, Karen’s team at Capital One used a mix of new and traditional recruitment methods. In addition to updating their careers website to make it mobile responsive and making sure their job vacancies reflected the points raised above, they also experimented with new approaches that were really effective. For example, they participated in the well-known tech recruitment fairs such as Silicon Milkroundabout in London and they trained key members of existing staff in how to use their social media platforms to promote opportunities. The key learning for Karen is around the need to try out new approaches and see what works. At the BBC we found that digital talent want to work with the best names in their field and so used our existing digital leaders to great effect in the attraction processes.

Is a foosball table essential?

We tend to buy into the cliché that this digital talent will want a frat-house style environment if they’re going to join you, but neither Karen nor Steve saw this as essential. Of course, a great physical environment will be attractive but both Capital One and LinkedIn found that what really mattered to digital talent was authenticity, doing work that matters, a place where they feel valued and the opportunities to grow and develop.

LinkedIn had to put a huge amount of effort into providing a great place to work to ensure they could compete in Silicon Valley. They created “In” days where staff had the freedom to invest time in what mattered to them. They exploded the traditional approach to career development and invested in what they called “career bursts” where staff could spend time in another country or on a particular project. They encouraged authors, social entrepreneurs and business leaders to visit and speak to their people – anything to inspire them to think differently. As Steve puts it, “if you’re not engaging your people with WOW, they will leave you”.

Integrate or incubate?

There are conflicting schools of thought around the best way to assimilate digital talent into your company. One method is to keep them quite separate, to let the new and potentially fragile flowers grow, protected from the traditional business pressures. Karen at Capital One feels differently. Her view is that whilst it may be important to provide a degree of protection, it’s even more important to integrate as soon as you can to prevent conflicts arising. She recognises the challenges of this and quotes the CEO of Capital One when he embarked on this digital journey. She says it’s really important to engender respect from the digital newbies for where the business has come from, their deep expertise and their success to date. Equally, it’s important to encourage the more traditional talent to have a real curiosity for the new capabilities and mindsets that the digital talent bring. This blend of “respect for the past and curiosity about the future” is essential to building the new organisation and cannot be emphasised enough throughout the journey.

Are digital talent so different?

Both Steve and Karen are quick to acknowledge that whilst there may be some generational differences, digital talent are really not so different to the rest of us. Sure, they may have different approaches and attitudes towards access to senior people and information, they may learn and see their career with you in different ways. But the keys to recruiting digital talent are to provide meaningful work, access to the tools, technology and people who can help them grow and develop and to ensure they understand how what they are doing creates some kind of positive impact in peoples’ lives – and that, surely, is what we all want?

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