People Spotlight: Elliot Epstein, Head of People Ops, Knotel

Improving Hiring Practices & Developing Talent

No matter the size of your organization, hiring and retaining top talent is key to driving your business forward. This matters most when a company is rapidly scaling, as the caliber of hires during a growth period will make or break the business.  In a competitive landscape full of many interesting jobs in exciting new industries, how do you recruit and retain the people who will help your organization grow?

Elliot began his career in People, as many before him, by chance. Majoring in Psychology at Brown University, Elliot was fascinated by human behavior and how people make decisions and interact with one another. Following his years leading elementary school classrooms with Teach For America, Elliot scrapped plans for law school and realized he could have an even broader impact on kids’ lives. This “aha moment” led him to Teach For America’s national recruitment team, where he brought hundreds of graduating college seniors into the national movement to end educational inequity.

From Teach for America, Elliot moved to the HR team at Two Sigma Investments, which solidified his interest in building teams that support a company’s strategy and goals. He saw how wide-ranging teams—including Engineering, Business Development, Investor Relations, Legal, and, of course, HR—could all work together in service of the same strategy.

After Two Sigma, Elliot joined Success Academy Charter School as its Director of Talent, where he led recruitment for all instructional faculty as the network grew from 22 to 41 schools while maintaining exceptional academic results.

“Culture is about who you hire and retain. You need to find great people and train them in order for them to grow with your organization. Culture is what makes a company.“

With over a decade of experience, Elliot has seen many distinct approaches to talent acquisition, learning and development, and other people-driven functions that nurture an organization’s talent. In today’s competitive landscape, it’s critical to approach hiring holistically and recognize its importance to the business.

4 Strategies to Position Your Company in a Competitive Hiring Landscape

When considering candidates, weigh their long-term potential above all else. Hiring someone only for the specific job at hand is short-sighted, as people will need to grow professionally as businesses expand and evolve. Search for applicants with hunger, drive, aptitude, and a self-starting attitude. If the basic skills are there and the person is intrinsically motivated to grow as a company does, they will thrive.

Additionally, Elliot emphasized that screening for “culture fit” doesn’t always lead to great outcomes. The true test isn’t whether you want to hang out with someone at happy hour, but rather if their values align with those of your organization and if they will do great work that pushes those values forward. Expanding teams with similar, but more junior, profiles of its current leaders will limit what it can do. The best hiring managers recruit people who bring expertise in new areas and different perspectives that will make their teams more powerful.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”Steve Jobs

Elliot also provided us with four tips to improve your recruitment and hiring strategies:

1. Prepare. Kick off hiring with a well-defined interview process and lineup, considering what skills, values, and attributes you need to assess and who will be responsible for assessing them.

2. Be candid. Remember that interviews are a chance to sell your organization authentically—including what you love about it and the challenges of working there. People appreciate authenticity more than a stump speech. Being upfront about challenges helps set expectations and invests people in the importance of the job they’re being hired to do by knowing the problem they’re solving.

3. Involve your people. When you’re interviewing a prospective leader for a team that already exists, make sure those team members understand why this change is happening and are included in the interview process.

4. Test candidates. Interviews should show you the kind of work a candidate will produce once they’re in a role. Make sure you have a rigorous, well-calibrated trial activity for candidates to complete, and see how they respond to feedback on it.

Hiring well is critical to the success of any organization. But it isn’t sufficient on its own. To get to the next level, your onboarding game needs to be strong, too.

Onboarding isn’t just about completing paperwork and enrolling in benefits. It also involves educating employees about the business. What is its core product offering? How is it changing its industry/the world? Who are its customers? What does success look like? And how do the teams work in support of this company strategy?

You also need to consider what members of specific teams need to know in order to be successful in their roles and design a plan to support their education. The first few months have a significant impact on how well people do and how long they’ll stick around, so invest in them heavily.

“Is there enough of a well-defined career path where individuals can take on more responsibility and learn about other areas outside their expertise?  Do you have infrastructure in place to make sure those who are hungry for more don’t stagnate? “

Lastly, once a candidate is hired, make sure they understand what they’re expected to deliver, what great work looks like, and how they can add immediate value to the company while they’re learning the ropes.

“Employees are more likely to succeed if they understand all cornerstones of the business. Learning and Development programs focused exclusively on honing and improving skills won’t make as lasting or memorable of an impact.”

L&D programs don’t need to be pricey. In fact,  you can easily create on-demand learning programs. Build a company intranet (or Trello board, or Google Drive folder) filled with recommended podcasts, articles, TED Talks, and other relevant information that employees can access on demand. Find employees with unique and interesting skill sets that are relevant to your business and figure out how they can share them with their colleagues. This builds culture within and across teams and is completely free!

With L&D, your north star—an overarching set of priorities that every employee understands and knows how they’re supporting—must be focused on ensuring every team member understands your business and can speak intelligently about it. Once you have that under your belt, consider each department and their core competencies to better understand what each team’s specific learning needs are. Your L&D initiative needs to be concise and targeted. Establish a procedure for creating and building a library of on-demand resources so that employees can easily find the learning materials they need at the most convenient times.

“Learning and Development often has one shot to make an impact for employees. Your initiative needs to be engaging and provide an engaging user experience. If you don’t succeed right off the bat, employees won’t give it a second or third chance.”

As your L&D initiatives shapren employee skills and lay the foundation for them to grow within the company, retention rates will increase.

For even better results, develop an objectives and key results (OKR) framework to help individuals and department teams stay on track for the larger business goals. Elliot suggests creating  three to five main buckets of organizational/business goals. Then define what success looks like within each of these goals and measure progress at regular intervals.

Some companies focus too much on making goals perfectly cascade into one another. A better approach starts with making sure that team leaders are in sync with their people on what each quarter’s objectives are and what success looks like within each of them. Once everyone is on the same page, track progress transparently throughout the quarter. This will engage and motivate employees.

If you want to build the best company possible, there’s a lot to do: Revamp your recruiting process, improve retention, implement a learning program, and use OKRs to align on business goals and make sure everyone understands how to achieve them.

What’s the most important thing Elliot believes you need before you start transforming your organization? Leadership and stakeholder buy-in at every level. If the top of your organization is on board and they are enthusiastic, their excitement will trickle down to employees, making the task at hand a little bit easier to roll out.

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