Often, words such as “friendly,” “hard-nosed,” “fast-paced,” “modest,” “aggressive,” and “sophisticated” are used when describing how an organization appears to the outside world. Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s airline, is considered avant-garde and a bit offbeat, while United Airlines is thought of as traditional, mainstream, and reflective of the business-oriented folks to whom it caters.
Customers form opinions about an organization from its brand image, presentation, and packaging of products and services, but most of all from its contact with employees. Starbucks enjoys the reputation of having fun, hip, retail employees, and it even calls them “baristas,” a unique term underlining that Starbucks is not your traditional coffeehouse.
Apple has a distinctive personality; adjectives that come to mind are “cool,” “fashionable,” “high tech,” “clean,” and “modern.” These traits are articulated in its products and in the people who work in its stores and design its products. Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, dresses and acts in a manner very consistent with these traits. Google, Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, IBM, GE, and almost all other well-recognized organizations have distinct personalities that are formed and maintained by the kinds of employees they hire, develop, and promote. We often call the collective personality of an organization its organizational culture.
You Are What You Hire
Many recruiters recognize the value of understanding the organizational culture and finding people who are good fits for it. However, until the specific traits that make up this culture are articulated clearly, it’s very hard to find the right people.
A talent philosophy really breaks the organizational culture into a general view of what major employee characteristics and traits accelerate or maintain the success of the organization. These traits describe how employees generally think and act in the organization. While each person has different personality traits, similarities are evident after the organization has been around for awhile.
Hiring managers tend to hire people who act or think in ways that are compatible with their own style and with that of the team they will work with. We all know how disruptive it can be to hire someone whose personal style is at odds with that of the rest of the team.
Your Philosophy is Reflected in How You Treat Employees
One of the surest ways to begin defining your talent philosophy is to ask how employees are treated. Many organizations have evolved philosophies that are easy to understand. IBM had a philosophy of hiring young people, usually right after college, and promoting them internally after a rigorous internal development process. It hired for certain traits: people who wanted to have a career, were eager to learn and continue studying, were open to new opportunities, were willing to wait for promotions, and were going to play by the “rules” of IBM. Whether or not IBM hired deliberately for these traits I do not know, but they were certainly reflected in the kinds of people who stayed and who thrived there.
Other organizations have philosophies that are much more difficult to decipher, either because they haven’t really defined a common philosophy or because they have many subcultures within the organization. This is particularly true of newer firms who have not yet had the time to evolve a distinct personality. But, even in these firms, it is possible to see some basic traits that are emerging.
Alignment Between Traits and Practice
Frequently, I work with organizations that have developed a talent philosophy that is attractive to candidates but not reflective of what they really do. It is often more of a statement of what they want the philosophy to be rather than what it really is.
It may state how the organization is committed to employee development and internal promotion, yet they almost always hire new people from the outside. Or, it may contain statements about work/life balance, when in reality everyone works 60 hours a week.
A talent philosophy is very hard to create. It is generally an outcome of who has been hired over time and what those folks, collectively, believe and how they act. It is very hard to change without the highest level of internal support.
Talent philosophies are complicated things. They are a mix of individual traits and a set of overarching beliefs and practices that have evolved usually over time. They are based on assumptions about how people behave or about what they want from the workplace. For example, it is typical to assume that everyone wants a long-term career when, increasingly, today’s young people want opportunities for advancement and learning and don’t care too much about a career in a single firm. Knowing what your assumptions are is essential for successfully defining your talent philosophy, yet it is very hard for individuals in an organization to determine those assumptions.
Very often, it is necessary to bring in an outside consultant to help, but here are a few questions that you can use to help in the unraveling process. By setting up groups of people, maybe incorporating customers or others from outside the organization to help, and by trying to answer these questions in an unbiased way; you can get a good start at clearly defining what assumptions you are making and what critical traits new employees should have.
10 Tough Questions to Answer
- What single characteristic is considered most important by hiring managers in a potential candidate?
- If there are two equally well-qualified candidates for a job, what determines the final choice?
- What are the personality styles, traits, and habits of those who get promoted or seem to be the most highly regarded in your organization?
- If an employee was asked what adjective most accurately described the best employees’ personalities, what word would he or she choose?
- If a customer was asked to describe the culture of your organization, what would he or she say?
- How do you deal with poorly performing employees?
- Who is considered the most valuable employee in your organization? What distinctive traits or characteristics does he or she have?
- How do major decisions get made? Are they made by consensus, a majority viewpoint, or by a single person?
- What do you expect a good employee to have as general career aspirations?
- What does an employee have to do/demonstrate in order to be considered for a promotion?
- Having a truly honest understanding of your assumptions about people and their careers, and a solid analysis of what common traits employees should have will help you go miles in improving the quality of the candidates you bring to the table.