Niftily Solving Talent in Scaling Startups
Predominantly millennial workforce, proactively handling satisfaction and growth… on a startup budget.
My cocktail of work experience has opened a lot of doors for me recently. Seems there aren’t a bunch of developer relations people who’ve gotten to work on talent and recruitment and I’m starting to appreciate the two polarities of having both a candidate perspective and a recruiter perspective.
Shortlist one of the leading talent service providers recently released their employer branding report and the #employergoals list as voted by 1200 Kenyan professionals on their database and I got the opportunity to sit on a panel with the talent leads from Coca Cola, Andela and Safaricom, all of who featured in the list of most preferred employers as voted by candidates.
This mix of employers was particularly interesting since it posed an equal opportunity to aspire and to inspire. In a setting with an audience from both large employer brands, and companies setting up for scale in the start up scene, there was a lot to learn from the discussion, but first, let me share the parts of the report that stood out to me the most.
The highlights of the report
As mentioned, the report was conducted with 1200 candidates across diverse career stages, industries, ages and sexes asking them what matters the most to them when considering employer fit.
A core 13 factors considered when joining a new company was compiled as a result of the candidates responses:
Enter the interesting profiling done on how the different age groups and minority groups like women were willing to compromise in the workplace in turn for other factors.
These candidate preferences tie into employer branding and how employer branding plays a large role in attracting specific kinds of talent. I think it goes a little deeper into how candidates needs can directly influence company cultures and talent retention planning.
Bringing us into what key aspects companies have tailored their employer brands to appeal to specific talent groups. The entire basis of the report of course gains even more context with the realisation that there is a lack of deliberateness when it comes to employer branding and talent as a core priority when companies are being founded and created.
The issues are similar
Whether its a multi-million dollar multinational company or a small Pan-African startup, the world of talent is reeling from trying to solve for their talent, from retaining, growing and skill the talent. The difference in the success of their efforts almost boils down to budgets and how willing smaller companies are willing to invest in talent.
Zooming into the Kenyan tech scene, the flow of talent in and out of companies has always been perceived to depend solely on which companies can offer more (in terms of salary) to candidates, thus the very aggressive poaching culture of technical talent in the space. Looking a bit deeper, the poaching culture can tell us more about the ecosystem:
- Companies are depending highly on other companies hiring pipelines to curate what “good talent” is: perhaps it’s from the lack of technical resources to invest in the recruitment process or the lack of proactive anticipation of the talent needs of talent teams due to the abstraction of recruiters from the technical teams in the company, or maybe it’s both.
- The developer culture is too vague to dictate beyond compensation, what companies need to do to retain and grow technical talent. The developer ecosystem is disjointed in terms of defining career paths, growth requirements and verticals for transition within companies. (we could even attribute the aspirational appeal that bigger companies like Microsoft and Google have to their understanding of developer culture).
We have to acknowledge that the employers themselves have a very large role to play in shaping the very factors that the respondents of the survey consider when picking a workplace by inherently shaping the scope of expectations that a candidate can even expect from an employer. With the realisation that a large part of the incoming workforce is millennial, we can derive a lot of value from the report if we start from redefining the employer brand from defining the primary and secondary expectations of candidates from an employer perspective.
The primary expectations
The basic expectations that employees require in an employment opportunity revolve around:
- Compensation:payment for the work that they do
- Growth:progression as a result of their betterment from the role that they fulfil on a day to day
- Fulfilment: personal satisfaction brought about by a comfortable and enriching environment that allow them to thrive.2
The report highlights that a 36% of respondents are willing to accept lower pay if the company they are interested in has very positive online reviews. A larger group gave a hard pass on the prospect of taking a pay cut. A big part of this data comes from how companies brand around how they compensate their workforce.
Compensation is always a tender subject, this we know. On the employers side, it’s the value injected into the workforce that corresponds to the output expected to run the company. On the employees side, it’s the direct return for the work done and time spent for the company. Looking a bit deeper, the compensation offer for candidates communicates how much the company is willing to invest in the role and the value that the company expects to gain from the role.
With this consideration Glassdoor reviews become a crucial part of the employer research process, a kind of re-con tool for candidates to reconcile what these expectations, the compensation and culture look like as an entire employee experience in the company. Compensation seems to be an open subject on anonymous platforms, making it really difficult for employers to read employee satisfaction while they’re in the company.
The point of action here for talent managers lies in creating safe spaces and enforcing a culture that encourages talent to speak openly when it comes to disgruntlment in compensation. The very existence of deliberate and proactive action being put in place to handle compensation goes a long way in mitigating compensation issues before they even occur: effective anticipation. Tools like Glassdoor give us a great way to detect out code blue when it comes to issues like compensation. A couple of tools you could use internally to engage talent on compensation are:
- Menti: for annonymized handling of compensation questions. It’s a great to try themed QandA sessions for example: This week’s session could be on negotiating compensation and the channels the company has to safely have these discussions. You can collect a compilation of questions from the company and address them on an email or a brownbag session.
- tlk.io: an annonymous chatroom application. The talent manager can set up a chat session and invite people to have safe space conversations on pertinent issues like compensation discrimination and appraisal criteria. It’s a great way to smoke detect issues before they become massive.
The growth metric goes across various variables for candidates; how they can progress in rank in the company, how they can progress in their compensation, how they can grow their skills to prepare them for other opportunities within and outside the company, how they can grow relationships and their networks to enhance their careers and how they can enhance their personal fulfilment in their role.
It is then an expectation that employers will be able to create work spaces that facilitate this growth. Skill progression has been traditionally seen as an expensive venture involving oversees trips for offsite training, certifications from massive institutions and quarters spanning in training. It’s great and effective, if you have the budget. Being a crucial aspect of the considerations that candidates have, here are some nifty ways to tackle growth:
- Internally encouraging growth: let the culture of sharing networking opportunities, conferences and research opportunities flourish! Make it unapologetically acceptable to encourage talent to make a name for themselves in the ecosystem with the confidence that even as they are approached by competitors, your internal culture is strong enough to have them stay.
- Local partnerships for training: on top of offering free credits for online technical resources, partnering with local talent for workshops on supplementary skills like communication, writing, analytical thinking and public speaking goes a long way in showing the candidates the company’s commitment in enriching them to becoming all rounded individuals. Partnering with local bookshops to offer subsidised costs for your team members can go a long way into enhancing the learning and research culture too.
- After hours sessions: so much growth can happen in the workplace beyond work hours (and they don’t need to involve cocktails and game nights). Starting an internal program that encourages the team to share their skills beyond the workplace is a great way to allow the team to feel valued beyond their day to day roles. Have knitting circles, photography workshops, improv classes, all led by the internal team held regularly. Encouraging everyone to grow beyond in other ways beyond the work place.
The illusion of choice: grim as it may sound, not everyone can be leader in the workplace. On his paper on “Rationality and the illusion of choice” Jonathan B.T Evans points out that “rationality is not simply to do with instrumentality; it is to do with choice.” In this context, providing avenues, even small ones, where the team can collectively contribute to decision making can satisfy their intrinsic interests. For example, putting out polls on what flavour the cake for dessert should be, even though the decision has already been made considering things like allergies, gives the collective the illusion of choice. It’s now data you have in hand and in itself goes a long way into implementing the preferable flat structure approach.
Well tied into growth is career progression. Career path mapping isn’t something a lot of startups consider, we’re usually just ecstatic that we were able to get talent in the door. However, a crucial part of acquiring and retaining is the career progression path that the company is able to provide. From the report, this is a huge deal for millennial workforces.
This mapping is especially difficult for startups that are challenging the top-down approach of leadership and flattening their structures since they cannot offer traditional progression like promotions. We must first acknowledge the three steps of career mapping: self assessment, individual mapping and exploring other opportunities (yes, it’s inevitable that talent will look outside). The Society of Human Resource Management has gone deep on this on their article on Developing Employee Career Paths and Ladders and here are a couple of nifty ways that stand out to help startups map out career progression:
- Encouraging job rotation: allowing employees to find verticals in a curiosity based manner is great. It’s even more impactful to map out career rotation paths that could enhance their experience. I’ve personally benefited greatly from companies that have enforced this, by finding an intersection between talent and developer relations. It’s cost effective since the only cost is associated with the learning curve of the new role, which can somewhat be mitigated through proper onboarding.
- Encore career paths: encore paths allow employees to work on social impact causes that are passion fuelled. Providing a dialled down work schedule and engaging with local non-profit organizations that are running social impact projects can provide a great level of fulfilment in the workplace. Having freebie times of the week where people can choose to work on these social projects goes a long way in creating personal fulfilment.
There’s a bunch of really great non-traditional methods of creating career maps and ladders on this SHRM article that fit all kinds of management structures in startups.
Empowering the ecosystem
The need for talent leads is only now starting to manifest as mandatory for startups in Kenya and the surrounding region. Traditional HR managment isn’t working effectively now that workforces are quickly becoming predominantly millennial.
My main hope for this article is to act as an eyeglass for startup founders and talent leads in Kenyan startups, offering perspective on how to meet talent halfway in terms of creating deliberate talent pipelines and retention methods, that talent in companies can be viewed as more than just human resource but as transits between life stages for real people building real impact.
It has been recurrent that the major hinderance for deliberate talent management is budget, so I hope that these nifty, low-budget ways methods can aid a couple of startups enrich the talent experience in their companies consequently empowering the ecosystem to democratize power to the candidates and not just the employer.