How To Identify And Retain Fantastic Talent, with Tessa White of She Team

Kage Spatz
Feb 16 · 14 min read
Tessa White

If we aren’t moving forward, creating energy, and earning our keep every single day, we’ve got more GSD (Get Shit Done) to do.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Tessa White.

Tessa White has over 25+ years of HR experience and has led HR in Fortune 50 companies as well as small start-ups to mid-sized organizations. The bulk of her experience is within technology and healthcare companies other than her latest experience with the solar world and direct sales at Vivint Solar. Tessa works with investors and boards on pointing newly formed companies in the right direction for people’s priorities and hiring the right talent. Tessa has also been the President of the local Society for Human Resources and serves on multiple boards including the Huntsman School of Business, Utah Valley University Women's Center, and Dahlia’s Hope, a recovery aftercare center supporting sex-trafficking victims. In 2017, Tessa left her profession as the head of human capital and embarked on a new journey as CEO of SHE Team, a company dedicated to building individuals, leaders, and companies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

I was brought into the HR and talent management field purely through an accident. As a young 28 year old, I found myself suddenly divorced, and with three children, no college degree and only two marketable skills — I was able to talk to adults well, and I had a knack for understanding people. Those skills led me to my first job in Human Resources as an entry-level HR coordinator for Covey Leadership Center, working with Steven R. Covey and his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People training content.

It was a lucky path for me, because not only was I able to hone my people skills, but learn from some of the best and brightest teachers in the business world as my informal mentors including Steven R. Covey himself.

Eventually, I expanded my expertise in Human Resources by playing roles in recruiting, benefits, compensation, and training. I have now had over twenty years heading up Human Resources for all sizes of companies from fast-growing tech startups to direct sales companies to Fortune 50 companies. Each of these companies have had starkly different cultures, but they each allowed me to experiment with some very unique ways to attract and retain talent. My experience has helped me to know not only how to take risks with some crazy ideas, but also the importance of moving any process into a system that can be repeated and scaled.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?

I can laugh now, but at the time, it didn’t seem very funny at all. I was given my first head of HR job at Corel Corporation, and only because the company had made a decision to shut down it’s entire US operations, and our local HR leader had left upon hearing the news. In an unexpected turn of events, I was given the task to take over and shut down our Utah division. The only catch was, the company did not want to spend money on severance or job placement services. And they wanted me to do the impossible job of keeping employees working productively until the shut down date.

I had to get creative and ended up using furniture, office equipment, computers — anything that wasn’t bolted down — as “currency” to keep employees in place. If I needed a software developer to stay, we negotiated. For example, “Joe, if I give you the Nintendo console and all the games, plus your computer and two large monitors, will you stay for 3 more months?”.

It worked, and we were able to keep many people that otherwise would have left, while at the same time, clearing our building of everything that needed to go. On a side note, I ended up with a new couch, the leather office chair of the original WordPerfect CEO, and some appliances from the break room.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

I have been undergoing a shift in my business, from helping companies know how to grow successfully, to helping the individual. This has taken the form of a weekly Career Corner television spot, and more writing, training and guest spots on Quora or other forums that help people with career navigation.

If you fast forward into 2021, I hope to have an entire series of trainings on topics I get questions every day such as pay negotiation, secrets to a successful interview, and how to work through a toxic boss or work environment. Twenty years of seeing what happens behind the scenes have shown me that there are common mistakes and patterns in how people rise or fall in the workplace. I have loved the satisfaction of watching people accelerate their careers. Nothing makes my day more than getting a note from someone who has used the principles I’ve taught and they work!

Wonderful. Now let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?

1. Make Every Employee a Recruiter

Finding people that have hard skills is often an easier task than finding the right mindset that fits into your work culture. A good place to start is by mining the contacts of your current employees and building a robust employee referral program. But one step better is to train your recruiting team to call the best and brightest within your organization and have a real conversation to find potential hires. Smart people want to work with other smart people. Every company I’ve been a part of has had a referral program (with varying degrees of effectiveness by the way). Depending on how it is structured, it can motivate great participation and uptick to successful talent acquisition. But I can count on two fingers how many times I’ve personally been asked who I would recommend working at my companies in a meaningful conversation.

Top recruiting firms understand this and their foundation is built upon talking to smart people who know other smart people. Note they are paid 20–40% of a person’s compensation package to do the work. You can do it for far less. Businesses that understand this principle find they are well-rewarded when they pair a solid referral program with proactive outreach to their employee base.

2. Find People Where They Spend Their Time

Use social media as a free tool to find people. It’s inexpensive. It’s easy. It’s where the people are. If you think you’ll find your best candidates through a job posting, you are sadly mistaken. The best candidates are passive and already happily employed and hidden away. The good news is that finding them isn’t as hard as you think. Social media is this beautiful open space where we all live. Most of us check it throughout the day, and end our evening with one last check online as to what is happening with our friends and family.

If you are looking for professional and higher-level positions, consider joining Facebook or Linked In groups that are relevant to the population you are seeking. For a more entry-level position, consider YouTube videos, Instagram, or Tic Toc postings that drive interest to your job or company.

At Vivint Solar, we launched an Instagram contest, giving employees a fun Instagram background and a hashtag and website that could take people to our job openings and comments from our employees. The contest captured the hearts and imagination of our millennial workforce (and the community at large) and ended up increasing our applicant pool by over 60% with less cost than one placement with an outside recruiter.

3. Tell Me About A Time When…

Interviewing a candidate isn’t just about getting an answer to a question. It is about assessing whether I believe the candidate can do what he or she says. Interviewees can tell you anything in an interview that sounds good. Past behavior predicts future behavior and hearing specific examples gives greater insight that either builds my confidence in the candidate or erodes it. Don’t tell me, show me!

I recommend asking questions that illustrate actual experiences and behavior by prefacing questions with “Tell me about a time when…”. The example an interviewee share helps me understand a whole host of behavioral patterns. It can illustrate how the candidate may react to conflict when barriers are presented, or collaboration and conflict styles. Most importantly, the story they tell gives me insights into how their mind works which helps me determine if they would be successful in the environment for the new job I am trying to fill.

4. Give a 24 Hour Assignment

If you want a deep dive that will give you insights into how a candidate behaves under pressure, give a 24-hour take-home assignment with 1–3 common scenarios he/she would run up against in the job, and ask for how they would solve it with only a few pieces of information. Some of the harder to gauge skill sets such as being able to think outside the box, or operate without a lot of hand-holding, will quickly manifest as you see the results of the assignment. For example, consider asking a potential Sales Leader to come back with a 30–60–90 day sales strategy and only outline 5–6 key problems they are trying to solve that map to your current environment. Or ask for a customer referral commission program that meets certain cost parameters and offer up some of the gaps that exist in your current offering. You won’t get the “hit the nail on the head” solution that someone inside the company might offer, but you will get a glimpse into the philosophy and approach a person would bring to the job.

5. Speed-Recruiting

Most people have heard of speed dating. It’s a way to get to know a lot of people in a short amount of time and narrow the field to the ones you are most interested in pursuing, saving both parties time and energy. The same concept can work for hiring high volume positions, such as call centers. Speed recruiting allows a recruiter (or team of recruiters) to create an event with all the bells and whistles that highlight the best a company has to offer. A short presentation about the company is given, and then recruiters meet with each candidate in timed, short spurts. The first part allows candidates to ask questions of recruiters and rotate through, and the second half allows recruiters to ask some key questions to narrow the field.

The advantages are that you quickly understand who your stand-outs are, and it allows you to put on the best company face by pulling out all the stops in the way you choose to market or present the company. The costs of putting on a good event –consider prizes, food, and a very strong company value proposition you can share- creates one of the lowest cost-to-hire metrics compared to any other approach.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

With unemployment rates low and choosy employees with multiple employer choices, it’s a competitive world out there. Given that millennials are in full force, there are a few principles that have helped me attract and engage this talent pool effectively.

First, you’d better be clear on your employee value proposition. You can find the best candidates in the world, but you’d better be able to articulate why your company is the one they should choose. It’s not different from a real estate buyers market. The house needs to be in order and it has to have the right curb appeal to get a second look.

Consider the benefits package you offer. Do you have just the basics or have you addressed flexible work arrangements or other newer and compelling offerings? How do you create an inclusive environment that appeals to women, minorities, men, or other marginalized groups? Do you know the pain points of your work force-such as education reimbursement or financial management for young employees or deferred income or extended leave of absence for older employees? And what type of opportunities do you have to help the team feel a part of a bigger cause outside of themselves?

On that note, do not underestimate how important social causes are for a company. If your service or product can’t be tied to a social cause such as making the world a greener place, consider having a humanitarian-based cause that allows people to connect in a meaningful way. We are living in an experience economy, where we value doing something unique and special, more than any other thing our money can buy. Use the experience economy to create a company environment that has a cause bigger than going to work each day. In a divisive world, I’ve found that having your employees serve side by side creates human connections which in turn creates meaning and ultimately, retention.

Lastly, once you are clear on what you have to offer, use social media to “go viral”. Create community and national campaigns once you understand the kind of people you are after. Where it used to be enough to hire a recruiter and post on job boards, it is no longer adequate. The field is saturated with job postings that all sound alike, and they are now the old school way to get a job — similar to how newspaper ads faded into obscurity in the early ’80s. If you don’t have someone dedicated to marketing and social media in your recruiting function, you will fall short in your recruiting efforts. You must know who your candidates are, speak to them in the forums online that they frequent, and in the way that pulls them into your recruiting funnel.

What are the 3 most effective strategies you use to retain employees?

People want to work for managers they trust and they rarely leave just for the money. Putting time into building solid managers would be my first strategy. A solid training where managers can learn new skills, but also giving them access to opportunities to apply those new skills (such as inviting them to attend and present at an Executive meeting after learning how to develop a strategic plan for instance).

A second strategy would be to ensure that the company keeps its word to employees. If you promise an employee a bonus or an annual raise, do it. Are you telling employees that survey feedback is confidential? Make sure that it is. Employees are looking for evidence every single day that their company can be trusted or not. And the ones that are trustworthy win the loyalty of their employees.

Lastly, be clear on your employee value proposition. Don’t just fall into a benefits plan that your broker recommends. Did you really plan mindfully who you were trying to attract and why? Because if you didn’t have clear intention behind every offer, you have missed a great opportunity. Consider Weave, a Utah based company who offers coaching for every single employee because of its commitment to personal growth.

You cannot compete by copying everyone else. If your answer is to offer free lunches and equity, you are ten years behind.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? If so, please share an example of what this might look like.

If you don’t move, plan on being in the back seat and never get the thrill of being the driver. If you just take recruiting alone over the last twenty years, companies moved from heavy people-based solutions, into a technology approach with applicant tracking. That is continuing with using BOTS and texting technology to help reach the candidate pool in a more systematic way. I suspect what’s coming next is finding ways to recapture some of the human connection we’ve lost in the past decade, with more personal ways to onboard employees or introduce them to the company in a way that feels more personal and high-touch.

What are some creative ways to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

I believe we are living in a world that is increasingly disconnected and yet we all crave connection. Many people, especially our younger generation, find it difficult to find a place in a world where they feel truly a part of something.

Employers that understand this, have an opportunity to create an environment where connection occurs, and where the positive spill-over of this connection will affect long term retention.

To address this, I recommend finding a common cause or social impact position and offer up opportunities for employees to engage by serving, giving and activism. For example, a solar company may create a mission to lead the revolution to save our planet. Solar is the way they do it. But employees involve themselves in local events or marches with a sustainability cause, and they participate heavily in local legislation for solar. In addition, the employees could be offered the opportunity to participate in a humanitarian trip where top performers went with their spouses to build homes in Mexico, or to install water projects.

By engaging their employees in a cause, people begin to work side by side with others and find themselves as co-creators in a cause bigger than themselves. All of the ideas I mentioned are low-cost, and the humanitarian trip could even be partially funded by the employee.

Where most companies miss the mark, they create different initiatives to address inclusion such as women’s tech groups, LGBTQ forums, etc. While I don’t argue that there can be value in this approach, I also believe it creates more silos, and the goal of inclusive initiatives should be to find ways we all interact together. This is where true change and inclusion can begin to unfold.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would begin working with girls in grade school to help them understand what they are capable of doing and becoming. I would want them to learn early to love themselves, discover their gifts, and practice developing their unique talents. Learning early to get comfortable with acting in spite of their own insecurities could create a world of women who close the parity gap in light-speed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how that was relevant to you in your life?

Get Shit Done (GSD). A dear friend once conveyed this to me, and it’s stuck with me ever since. If we aren’t moving forward, creating energy, and earning our keep every single day, we’ve got more GSD to do.

We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

I’d love to visit with Gwyneth Paltrow about how she found the courage to jump off the diving board into Goop, an area outside of anything she had previously done. She has built a company and a brand that is exceptional.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!


About the Author: went from inner-city Teacher to Forbes-ft 3x Entrepreneur — now giving your business the same Fortune500 marketing team used to scale some of the largest companies in the world (without the same overhead). Apply to leverage today to serve more clients tomorrow. You may also connect with Kage on to strengthen your network anytime.

Authority Magazine

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Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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