With Martin G. Moore

Episode #144

The Skills Shortage: Attracting and retaining the best

Since Covid, it has become a lot more difficult to attract and retain the right talent (which is a little counterintuitive, given how many people’s livelihoods were affected during the pandemic). But government stimulus measures in many countries have distorted labour markets.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to secure quality candidates, it’s important to understand how to secure the right capability at the front end. Let’s face it, you just want to hire the best person for the job – someone whose values and objectives are aligned with yours – and then turn that into performance!

What does it take to showcase your organisation in its best light (without overselling), and what can you do to attract and secure the best candidates from the available pool?

I take a trip down memory lane here to Episode #12, updating one of our most popular episodes! I’m sure you’ll find my seven tips for attracting and retaining talent pretty useful.

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Episode #144 The Skills Shortage: Attracting and retaining the best

We’ve had a lot of questions and feedback from our podcast community and our clients over the last few months about how difficult it is at present to attract and retain the right talent.

In an employment market where it’s hard to come by quality candidates, I thought it would be useful to revisit some of the core concepts of how you grow capability at the front end, through bringing on the right people for the job, making sure their values and objectives are aligned with yours, and turning that into performance.

How do you actually get better people? Well, you’ve got to get better at hiring. Now we all face constraints in hiring and because competition is fierce at the moment, it’s like every other market. Many governments around the world have supported workers who’ve been displaced by COVID lockdowns.

These are actually interventions that have distorted the labour markets. We’re now seeing the long-term effects of these policies as they play out. If you want to really thrive in this constraint job market, and you want to stand out from the pack so that you can get the best people on board, the first thing is that you have to be really realistic about what it is you can aspire to in terms of quality of candidate.

Our ability to hire great people will always be governed by a couple of macro factors that are beyond our control as hiring managers.

So of course, you’ve got the type of organisation. Is it a commercial business? Is it publicly listed? Is it a regulated monopoly? A public sector organisation? Is it a not-for-profit?

These things make a difference to prospective candidates looking for work. The industry we operate in makes a difference.

For example, the banking sector attracts a very different type of candidate than the childcare sector. Our parameters on remuneration structures are different between industries and companies, and these do play into it. And then let’s face it, some brands just have a better perception in the marketplace than others.

The trick is to make the most of what you’ve got so that you can punch above your weight in the war for talent. You can’t change who you are, but you can change your access to the pool that you have.

We know that building a high performing team depends on populating it with the best possible individuals you can attract, with the value proposition that you have been gifted, and that’s where we’re going to focus. But your organisation is what it is.

The different types of organisations attract different types of people, as we’ve just said, but there are some really obvious distinctions. For example, you’ve got blue collar and white collar industries, which attract a very different type of person and sometimes geography plays in here as well.

For example, if you’re operating a mine site in the remote Pilbara regions, Northwest of Western Australia, you won’t be able to attract the right people without paying them really top dollar. It’s quite remote. But if you’re operating in the city CBD location, in one of the major cities, you find that you have a much greater access to the pool of potential employees for your business.

Financial compensation rewards are very industry specific. Perhaps that’s why everyone loves to hate bankers. Some industries, let’s face it, are just sexy. For example, everyone loves a tech startup. But perceptions rarely align with reality.

So that just helps us to be realistic about our positioning in the labour market and what we can hope to achieve. I think tempering our expectations is all important. But in the current climate, more than ever, people actually need to be wowed. This is the one thing I’ve really noticed shifting in the last couple of years. Don’t be afraid to sell the opportunity of working for you. Don’t oversell it, of course, because you’ll pay for that later. It’s just going to turn out to be bad attrition, but you need to be really confident and direct about what you can offer, and more importantly, that you can articulate this clearly to prospective candidates.

We had a long-term client recently, who in fact is one of my favourite clients, who was struggling to attract the right calibre of candidates for a particular role. So Em did some work with them to get to the core of the issue, the public face of the business. She looked at their website, job ads, social media presence, and so forth, and a few tweaks that she recommended, made all the difference. I spoke to the client just last week and she told me that the quality of candidates they’ve been able to attract since making those changes in the latest round is just chalk and cheese compared to previous attempts. So don’t be afraid to look at that.

What makes an attractive workplace?

What people look for in employers really depends on the individual and you want to work this out as early as possible. A dream job for some would be a nightmare for others.

Who are the best employers and why? I’m basing most of this on Business Insider Magazine’s 2018 Best Employer Survey, and I’ve drawn some pretty interesting insights from my study of this. Overall, the survey found that employees are attracted to a few things.

#1 A mission driven culture – I think that terminology is probably a little passe. I’d now describe it as a purpose driven organisation. An organisation that has a higher cause and a higher calling than you’d necessarily think from just looking at the brand.

#2 Clear career opportunities for individuals

#3 A place where the people are valued by senior leadership.

#4 Leaders need to be transparent in their communication, so that people are kept in the loop

#5 Family-friendly, which is probably no surprise

And in fact, none of those factors is a surprise. However, when we talk about family-friendly companies, some, quite unabashedly, aren’t in that mould.

I remember an interview with Ivan Glasenberg, the Chief Executive of Glencore, a number of years ago, where he said, “If you want to come and work for Glencore, you don’t come here for the family-friendly work-life balance. You come here to make money. And work is going to be your life, but you will make a hell of a lot of money”.

So very clearly the Glencore brand was around that, and those were the type of people that that company attracted. But you’ve got to love the clarity that that gives.

Now let’s talk about working from home. Interestingly, I think what we’ve learned in the last 12 months is that it’s pretty easy to work from home, but it’s much more difficult to lead from home. Now at the moment, Emma and I are working on developing a new masterclass, and it’s all about leading from home.

Now keep your eye out for this. This is going to be a bonus element that comes with early purchases of our book, which is being published in the US, at the end of August.

Once we start talking about working from home and leading from home, the policies that companies adopt in this is going to be all important. In fact, I’d say probably a differentiator. This is part of what’s going to feed into the employee value proposition. So you’ve got to think about how your organisation is going to approach this. What it means to prospective employees and how you actually package that up and sell it. Really, really critical.

Selling the opportunity of working for you

We’ve mentioned selling the opportunity appropriately, without overselling it. Hiring the best talent really comes down to understanding and being able to articulate your employee value proposition. Be really clear on what you offer and why someone might work for you. This is really important in terms of filtering people out early if they aren’t the right fit. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Not yours, not theirs. Like all competitive markets, the employment market is relative, and not absolute.

How to give ourselves the best chance we can of hiring the best people

The first thing is don’t agonise over your situation. You are what you are, just get creative around it. So for example, if I want to be a professional basketball player and play in the NBA over in the US, well I’m 5 foot 10, it’s simply not going to happen. I’ve just got to get over that and get realistic.

But remember, you’re only competing with others in your same industry, so they all have the same limitations as you. You’re competing against others with similar constraints and operating parameters.

This is where getting an edge matters. It doesn’t matter whether we have an edge over Google, unless we’re competing directly with Google.

When I left CS Energy after five years, I was confident that we’d built the best possible team, given our industry dynamics, our ownership structure, our remuneration policies and the locations we operated in.

But this was not easy, and it took all of the five years to get to where we needed to get to. And there’s still ongoing work there, don’t get me wrong. We spent a lot of time developing what we called our Employee Value Proposition. We basically had to work out, ‘What is it that makes this a really good place to work?’ and, ‘How do we articulate that to prospective employees?’

The first thing we did was to run some focus groups. We surveyed a bunch of people in our organisation already to find out what they thought the best things were about working at CS Energy, and also what the not so good things work about working at CS Energy.

We also took checkpoints with people throughout the employment recruitment cycle.

For example, when anyone went for a job and came for an interview, we’d ask them what their perceptions were of CS Energy. When they’re employed, we’d ask them about a month later, what they thought of their introduction to CS Energy through our induction processes. Then after about three months, we’d ask them again. We’d line up the difference between what their initial perceptions were when they knew very little about the organisation, other than what they’d seen on the website, and then what they found out after working there for a number of months.

We used this to develop our Employee Value Proposition. We came up with a very clear proposition that now drives all of the recruiting. The tagline that I love is – big enough, small enough.

CS Energy is a mid-sized company, which is big enough that you can actually do things that you can have career progression and that you can get opportunities within the organisation, it’s a multi-billion dollar business, but it’s small enough that you can still be seen and heard and have a voice.

You can see how important it is to really understand your Employee Value Proposition, and to be able to use that in a marketing sense. The people who are most attracted to the core benefits of working for you will be able to see through all the noise in the job markets and on social media and find you more easily.

This is ultimately about visibility, just like in any market.

At CS Energy, my job as CEO, I was really clear on the fact that I was responsible for talent. I owned the talent in the organisation. Even though I did very little of the hiring and firing myself, very little, I had to put the processes and infrastructure in place to make this possible for all the other people in the organisation who did make those hiring decisions. It was also a pretty good tool for internal communications about what we were looking for and why.

Revisiting my seven steps for attracting and retaining the best talent: 

#1 Hire for values

It doesn’t matter what the skills are that a person possesses, if they have the wrong values, because you can always teach skills, you can’t teach values and you don’t get a chance to change these in a person. So make sure they fit before you take them on.

#2 Just think about this from your own perspective

What if it was you going for that job? What would you want to know? What would you want to hear? And what could you describe to a prospective employee that would sell them on the story of working for your business?

Now you’re already in that industry, in that company. So what’s good about it and why on earth would people want to join you there?

#3 Be patient in all your hiring decisions

If you’re not entirely happy with the candidate quality of the pool that you’re dealing with, then go around the mulberry bush again and do it as many times as you need to, to get a person that you’re happy with.

We all get lazy and we all get frustrated, and we all think, “I guess the right person just isn’t out there. I’d better hire the best of a bad bunch”.

But hiring the wrong person kills your organisation. It’s incredibly costly. The higher up you get, the more disruptive it is as well.

#4 Think laterally

Now I must confess this didn’t always work for me, even though I’ve used this as a principle for many years. But don’t get locked into prescriptive job descriptions. You don’t want compulsory requirements that disqualify otherwise great people from working for you.

For example, if you’re writing job ads that say, you must have a doctoral qualification in fractal geometry, or you need to have 10 years experience in artificial intelligence, you’re going to knock a lot of people out of the pool before you start. Look behind the position description and think about the base skill set that you require.

#5 Have a clear purpose and a story for the future

People want to know that they’re contributing to something bigger than just the annual shareholder dividends.

#6 Sell the benefits, not the features

In any job advertisement or description, sell the outcomes and not the process. Many job ads are just about requirements and responsibilities.

Tell the people what you expect them to achieve, how you expect them to grow, and how you expect them to contribute to the greater cause.

#7 Be clear about your value proposition for your people

Do the work to understand it, but be genuine and realistic. If you do manage to hire great people and they find out that there’s a big gap between the promise and the reality, the only thing that’s going to increase for you is your turnover rate.

I know that a lot of you reading this might not have the ability to influence the recruitment and retention cycle in your organisation. So, I think this presents a great opportunity for you to show some leadership from below. Take this up the line and say, “Hey, I’ve got some ideas for how we can get better people into our organisation and into our business”.

I’d actually challenge you to try that this week and do something that’s going to set you apart as a leader in the future.

As I go re-look at those seven tips, a few years later, I think all of them are still really valid and really relevant to the current market.

But there’s one that stands out to me a little more than most now. And that’s tip number 6, the importance of benefits rather than features, in how you describe the job.

So many jobs are articulated simply by a set of responsibilities or a set of duties. They talk about the meat and potatoes. They don’t talk about what a person is actually going to achieve in the role.

When I talk about benefits and features, I often use the old analogy of the teaspoon. This is a sales analogy, right? When I’m trying to sell you a teaspoon, I can say, “The features of the teaspoon are; it is about six inches long, it’s made of stainless steel. It has a concave bowl at the end of it, which is about an inch long and half an inch wide”.

That tells you exactly what the instrument is. It gives you no clue as to why you might want to use it. If I want to sell you a teaspoon, I’ve got to tell you about the benefits.

“This teaspoon is the perfect delivery system for five grammes of sugar, into a cup of coffee. And once you put the sugar in, you can use the teaspoon to stir it. It’s also the easiest and most effective way to eat a boiled egg from its shell”.

This is why we have to think about describing what the employee is going to get out of working for you, not just the duties that they will have to perform.

Attracting talent is getting harder in this constrained market. This is why you need to think about how you might put some of these tips into play.

You live or die on the quality of your team. You probably already know this, but if you make compromises at the front end, when you’re hiring, you will pay for them 10 times over on the back end, when you have an employee who doesn’t fit or who can’t do the job.


  • Episode 2: Building High Performing Teams – Listen

  • Episode 12: The War For Talent – Listen

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