Get uncomfortable

Get uncomfortable

Being unable to find or attract high-quality talent is a familiar problem for companies, and one that shows no sign of letting up. At a time when fresh-thinking, intelligent people are in high demand and spoilt for choice, how do companies get ahead of the competition and tempt the brightest to join their firms? Is it all about salaries and benefits? Or can companies with slimmer budgets find creative ways to land top talent?

To help answer these questions, The Marketing Society hosted a Talent and Culture: Uncomfortable Breakfast, which invited members to listen to and share their views on this age-old challenge.

Get innovative
It’s time to rethink the way we foster company culture, create nurturing workspaces and recruit talent, said the day's speakers, a group which included Ms. Flora Chan, head of digital from Cigna Worldwide, Dr Edmund Lee Tak-yue, executive director of Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC) and Mr. NiQ Lai, chief talent and financial officer of the Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN).

Start-ups have become a popular destination for skilled workers (and not just young ones). What makes these types of companies appealing are the ‘enterprising’ environments they provide, enabling employees to take ownership of and carry out new ideas without fearing punishment if they fail. In start-ups, the best people stand out because they are challenged to excel, according to HKDC’s Edmund Lee.

Skin in the game
Companies must also give staff ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ to make them feel like they are a part of the firm's journey, its successes and its failures, according to HKBN's NiQ Lai. As an example, the Hong Kong-based internet services provider has adopted an innovative co-ownership model where managers have the option to become part-owners in the company, giving those that exercise this option a vested interest in its future.

For this scheme to work, the company’s purpose has been communicated to staff clearly which, if they agree with, makes them commit to helping it achieve its goals. HKBN has set out to make a positive impact on its community by improving Hong Kong. While the ambition may be a lofty one, this common, shared purpose encourages employees to be catalysts for change.

Hire fans
Perhaps easier to do for sports teams than profit-oriented companies, hiring fans is one approach that can help build a positive, purpose-driven company culture. Biased though this commentary may be, The Economist has a strong track-record of hiring readers and fans of the newspaper who believe in what the company stands for. Often, these employees quickly become loyal advocates for the brand, making it an easier proposition for HR to tap networks for pools of new, like-minded talent.

To make sure they attract fans, companies must be visible and vocal about their identity in public domains. People must be aware of the brand, what it stands for, and how great working for the company could be in order to want to apply. Google and Facebook are two examples that do this well by readily volunteering information about the way they work.

But being vocal may be challenging for non-B2C companies, who by their nature are much less in the public eye. Part of this problem can be solved by sharing stories in forums, as the day’s speakers did on behalf of their companies. Content marketing and thought-leadership campaigns, campus recruitment programmes and persistent presence at industry events and networking functions may also help.

Perhaps most importantly, current employees must be kept happy. HR experts claim that under 20% of new hires come through recruiters or job advertisements. The main source is personal networks. Ensuring staff speak positively about the company to friends and acquaintances outside the business is vital to ensuring the pipeline of good talent never runs dry.

What makes good talent? The dearth of suitably skilled talent in Asia is a common problem, but one for which companies are increasingly finding creative solutions. Many hiring managers today feel, as Cigna's Flora Chan does, that ‘experience is overrated’ and look much less for a particular qualification or pre-defined set of skills. Instead, Dr. Lee thinks successful companies are beginning to hire people who ‘see what others can’t see’ by recruiting candidates based on aptitude, attitude, confidence and creativity above direct experience, certificates and qualifications.

Those with different skill-sets will bring new thinking to old problems and spur the cross-pollination of ideas which, according to attendees, far outweighs the value of tried-and-tested solutions that come from experienced heads. Hiring people with different career paths (but ones who possess transferable skills) will create diversity and generate solutions that could lead to previously unrealised or unseen opportunities for the business.

Keep it real
Humility is vital when recruiting. Knowing the limits of a team and company’s capabilities is the only way to clearly see what it lacks. Being humble may also help identify where bosses most need support. To account for their own shortcomings, managers must be unafraid to ‘hire people smarter than [them]’, according to Ms Chan. The reward will be an environment in which all employees are challenged to perform, and one that should lead to better solutions and outcomes.

Hang on now
Assuming companies are able to find and recruit top-performers, how do they retain them, especially when the market for talent is so fiercely competitive? The fear of losing the best employees, described as ‘retention risk’ by Ms Chan, is a good thing. If bosses doubt whether their best people will stay, it may be time for them to change team culture to ensure top performers are happy, fulfilling their potential, and achieving optimal productivity. ‘Retention risk’ should encourage managers to consistently innovate, nurture and ensure employees have what they need to excel. If the time comes when another firm makes an offer, at least they will have a tough decision to make.

Ultimately, there are no quick fixes to finding good talent in Asia (or anywhere). In order to consistently attract the best, companies must strive to be the best - something which takes time, investment and, perhaps most importantly, good leadership to do.

This piece was by Arun Kumar, Head of programmes and content, Asia-Pacific, The Economist Events, The Economist Group.

  The Economist Group is Knowledge partner of The Marketing Society Asia.

Read more from The Economist Group in their Knowledge Corner.