How to jump-start recruiting in hard-to-staff contexts

I’ve just hit my five-year mark at Facebook, and it’s made me nostalgic for the early days in some ways, but not in others. Something I don’t miss is how hard it used to be to attract great design talent to the business side of Facebook. With all of the amazing consumer-oriented work going on at Facebook, it was hard to build awareness and attract talent to work on critical behind-the-scenes products for businesses, developers, and publishers.

Thankfully, we’re in a much better place today, with a large, vibrant, talented team building great products for businesses all around the world.

I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve learned about hiring talent into hard-to-staff areas, and thought some of it might be useful for those who have staffing/hiring challenges in their own teams.

As with all organizational strategies, this is a work in progress, and I’m excited to hear about additional tactics that have worked for others. I also suspect that even though I approach it from a design perspective, many of these challenges and lessons apply to other disciplines as well.

Please note that most of my recommendations reflect the fact that I work at a company that provides great resources and excellent recruiting partners. So some of these tips might not apply to your particular situation, but I hope you’ll find some useful bits.

Digging yourself out of a staffing hole

Competition for talent is fierce. So many companies are tackling meaningful problems that it can be really hard to grow. Here are the tactics that I’ve found the most useful.

Craft a kick-ass narrative about your work and then share it share it share it.
The most fundamental tool for fixing a staffing problem is effective storytelling. Build a strong, inspiring narrative about the work your team is doing and how it fits into the overall company mission. Not only will this attract new hires and transfers, but it will also help you retain your current team, who also want and need to be inspired by what they do.

Keep in mind that the storytelling bar is higher for hard-to-staff areas.

A popular consumer mobile app is relatively easy to sell, but how can you make an advertising tool, or a developer solution, or a publisher dashboard project intriguing? Share your work in ways that leave people saying, “Wow, I didn’t even know that work was going on, and it’s really pretty interesting.”

For instance, in the Facebook Ads world, we could state a goal of making a lot of revenue for Facebook, and that’s certainly a side benefit of the work we do. But ultimately, the kind of mission-oriented people who come to work at Facebook are not primarily motivated by that kind of goal. Instead, we talk about how our products can create jobs and economic prosperity all around the world, and how that directly helps make the world more open and connected, which is our overall mission. It’s a true narrative, and one that inspires bold and passionate commitment.

Once you have your narrative, rehearse your pitch and get feedback from respected colleagues. Make sure that you believe the pitch yourself, or no one else will.

Then find opportunities to socialize your team’s work internally and externally through writing, presentations, interpretive dance, whatever it takes! Connect the work to making meaningful, positive change in the world, which is what most people ultimately care about.

Be clear about whom you need to hire.
If your company’s standard hiring profile doesn’t match what you need (special skills, deep domain expertise, etc.), take the time to clarify that distinction and communicate it widely to your recruiting partners, the larger recruiting team, the larger management team, and the most active interviewers. Deliverables may include specialized job descriptions, lists of internal talent who exemplify your needs, and a list of dream hires from outside the company.

Keep in mind that the distinction in what you are looking for may have more to do with attitude than aptitude.

For instance, we found there weren’t major differences in the skills we needed for the Facebook Ads design team, but we needed to find impact-oriented people who were excited by large, complex problems with significant external constraints. Clarifying this helped us tell stories and build profiles that found the right people — who’d been out there all along but didn’t know these kinds of opportunities existed at Facebook.

Don’t assume everyone needs existing domain expertise to excel in the long run.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we need to find people who already have a deep understanding of the industry/domain. Don’t get me wrong, having some team members with deep industrial knowledge is a huge boon. But if you start with that assumption, you’ll dramatically reduce your applicant pool.

Instead, find people who have the right hard skills and are motivated by the challenges and opportunities you’ve expressed in your narrative, and then create training and learning opportunities to help them succeed.

I’d estimate that 90% of the Facebook Ads design team had no experience with digital advertising. But we knew they had the skills and motivation to learn it, and helped them ramp up with significant investment in training and education. Indeed, a “beginner’s mind” is often a positive asset when trying to approach long-standing, complex problems in new ways. See my post Six Steps to Building Domain Expertise in a Complex Industry for specific ideas on how to remove existing domain expertise as a hard constraint on your recruiting.

Make recruiting your #1 goal.
For managers, especially those leading resource-starved areas, it’s hard to properly prioritize recruiting because of all the in-flight work that’s demanding your attention.

But you won’t ever dig yourself out of a hole until you prioritize recruiting over product work, at least temporarily.

If you don’t grow towards the team you need, your product quality wins won’t last. Be sure to communicate the priority shift to your manager and cross-function peers, who will likely support the trade-off and appreciate the heads-up.

Make your recruiter your work spouse.
If you’re lucky enough to have in-house, dedicated recruiting like we do at Facebook, your recruiter should be one of the people at work you interact with the most. Invite them to your management and team meetings. Have them participate in team-building and offsites.

Treat your recruiter like a true member of your team.

This will not only build a powerful sense of shared success/failure, but it will also give your recruiter invaluable context about your needs. Meet with them 1:1 every week and be responsive on whatever channel works best for the two of you.

Be your own best sourcer.
Especially when you’re first digging yourself out of your hole, you need to be the biggest sourcer of talent. That doesn’t just mean creating a list of names, although you should be doing that, too. You personally need to be reaching out to those people yourself to ensure a higher response rate. Once you get a nibble, you can offer to talk informally or, depending on level of interest, hand the candidate off to your recruiting partner. This personal contact from you is especially important with senior candidates. In order to invest in this sufficiently, book a couple of hours each week dedicated to finding candidates and contacting them via LinkedIn, etc.

Get more of your team actively sourcing and hiring.
This is hard, because dammit, they are already spread too thin. But no one will be more motivated to find great people and advocate for them than the team most in need.

While not everyone’s cut out for interviewing, everyone can play a part in hiring, through sourcing, helping craft your narrative, etc.

Increased engagement from your whole team throughout the process will foster relationships with new hires before day one. Help your team make the right calls on how and when to prioritize recruiting and interviewing activities, and explain to your cross-functional partners how this might impact output in the short term.

Have a long-term plan for growing your organization and leadership bench.
Escaping a staffing hole can be hard in fast-moving organizations with shifting needs. It’s a lot easier when you have a longer-term vision of the size and structure of your team.

Think past your immediate crisis to where you really need to be, say, a year from now.

Specify the number and kinds of managers and contributors you’ll need to build out a sustainable team. Make sure your vision is compatible with product management and engineering plans. Once you have a specific staffing plan in place, do your best to stick with it. Both your recruiting and your manager colleagues will have a hard time supporting a plan that changes every week.

Get ready to take some hiring risks, but only if you’re willing to follow through.
If a team consistently has trouble hiring, it may be because the pool of candidates your company has historically attracted may not be a good fit for your team’s current needs. That might mean you need to broaden the top of the hiring funnel and source and interview different kinds of candidates than your company has in the past. You might also need to take some calculated risks and hire people your company normally wouldn’t. This is OK to do, but only if you’re sure they’re strong candidates, you’re ready and willing to rigorously assess their performance, and you’re committed to managing them out in a timely fashion if it’s not tracking well.

Always balance risky hires with solid hires so you’re not managing too much risk at any given time.

Working with your current team while you build for the future

If you’re not careful, a relentless focus on hiring can deepen your staffing problems. Here are some of the best ways to keep your goals and your present needs in balance.

Care for your current team.
In the race to build the team up, don’t neglect the team you already have. Losing key players will only set you back further. This means prioritizing the work the current team can effectively tackle, making sure you’re not giving people work of greater scope or complexity than they can handle, and paying special attention to the well-being of your top performers.

Don’t hold on to weak performers just because you’re understaffed.
You might think a warm body is better than none, but if the work is poor, you’ll likely drive away your stronger performers who want to be on a winning team.

You’re almost always better off with a smaller, high-performing team.

Weak performers also tend to take up a disproportionate amount of your time and attention, leading you to underserve your strongest people.

Brutally prioritize the work of your team to get through the lean times without burning people out.
Work with your cross-function peers to ruthlessly prioritize the work so that you don’t burn out the few resources you have.

Don’t spread your under-staffed team across the project space like peanut butter or you’ll risk losing them.

This can be a hard conversation to have, but you’ll trade short-term pain for long-term gain.

Fill the resource gap creatively.
If you are currently blocking engineering and product management, and you have the resources, explore contracting out work through high-quality agencies and freelancers. This can alleviate the stress of falling even further behind as you invest time in recruiting, as well as the temptation to hire “warm bodies” out of panic. This is only a short-term solution, however, so don’t take your eye off the recruiting ball!

Be willing to dig deep and root out other problems.
Sometimes a team is hard to staff just because we haven’t addressed its unique recruiting needs. But there might also be other things going on. For instance, the product vision in a given area might not be well conceived, resulting in a lack of trust that people will be able to launch good, impactful work. Or a team may have a reputation for having weak cross-functional partners, which makes it very hard for designers to work to their full potential and ship great work. You yourself may have reputational challenges that are impacting your ability to attract talent. Have conversations outside of your immediate org.

Be open and willing to hear about the reputations of you, your team, and your cross-function partners.

Consider whether any of these factors may be keeping people from wanting to join your team.

Transforming a vicious cycle into a virtuous one

Hiring is the most important thing leaders do.

If we don’t hire great talent, we can’t build great products.

Unfortunately, this simple truth is easiest to forget just when it’s most important: when a staffing shortage is already creating problems that seem more urgent. Looking away from those problems long enough to break the cycle can feel counter-intuitive. It might even take some guts. Just remember that your team is out there somewhere, waiting to hear your story and be inspired to join your cause. I hope the lessons I’ve learned help you find them.



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Margaret Gould Stewart

Margaret Gould Stewart

Vice-President of Product Design & Responsible at Facebook. Previously at YouTube & Google. Ted speaker. Passionate about design, ethics, & tech. Find me @mags.