I moderated a human resources panel last week with Shawn Riegsecker, the CEO and founder of Centro (https://www.inc.com/profile/centro) in Chicago, and two of his senior tech talent recruiters. Centro is an ad-tech firm that already has more than 700 employees in some 37 offices across the country. Centro has been ranked as the city's Best Place to Work for four or five years running in the Crain's Chicago survey. The company has almost doubled its headcount in the past 18 months and doesn't see any end in sight. Like everyone else, the team at Centro is trying to hire all of the top tech talent they can get their hands on to support the company's continuing growth and the expanding demand for its services. And, of course, Centro is competing for that A-level talent with 100-plus other Chicago-based technology companies that are growing just as fast or even faster. Great news for the city's tech scene--not so much for the recruiters on the hot seats to get the job done.

But even considering how much pressure it's constantly under to grow, and as crazy as the talent competition all around it is, Centro's strategies and the ideas that came through in our discussion were extremely thoughtful and long-term. The four main concepts--which I think are relevant to any fast-moving and fast-growing business today--are: (a) its HR energies are primarily focused inside its business--the company believes that building and maintaining its culture is the key to recruiting and retaining the best people--not worrying about the competition; (b) the company is in a hurry, but not hurried. It has a lengthy, multiperson, and quite diverse interview process, and is sticking to it, especially because this sends the right messages to current employees and prospective hires as well; (c) the company understands that the things that worked for it in the past and got it this far (such as a hugely impactful internal cash bonus program for new employee referrals) aren't sufficient to keep the company moving forward and ahead of the pack. So it is constantly looking for new tools and better ways to get the job done; and (d) the company is struggling--right along with every other tech firm--with how it can make the work force more diverse even though, in terms of gender at least, it's already as diverse as any firm in the city. 

(1) You Didn't Find Me, I Found You

The only thing better and more rewarding than finding and recruiting a super talented new employee is learning that the prospect in question actually sought out your company and found you. Never mind that this is highly efficient and cost-effective--it tells you that your culture is spreading beyond your four walls and that you've succeeded in developing an authentic, word-of-mouth (not manufactured) reputation as the one of the places to be. You can't make this stuff up--you've got to live it every day and model the behaviors that matter. But as you do, and as the critical attitudes and actions spread from the CEO throughout the entire company, you'll quickly learn that nothing is more contagious than a shared vision and a set of sincere and compelling corporate values. In the best companies, people don't come for the job, they come to be part of the vision and to spend their time in a place that values and appreciates them doing work that makes a difference.

(2) If I'm Not Growing, I'm Going

A definite key to successful retention is the idea that all of the employees need to feel cared about and listened to by the company's senior management and especially by the CEO. An important part of all great companies' cultures are the (sometimes apocryphal) stories passed down over the years; of special efforts, extraordinary gestures, and honored commitments by the founders and senior management as well as instances when they put the welfare and concerns of the employees ahead of their own. Centro has plenty of those tales, especially during the 2008 recession, when the first people to take pay cuts were the senior executives. But even more important has been the ongoing need for each employee to feel and believe that the company is committed to his or her own continued education and growth. Centro pays 100 percent of employees' tuition for educational courses each year. Bottom line: If your key employees don't see a commitment, a path, and a future full of promise, they're unlikely to be sticking around. 

(3) Doing Things the Same Way Doesn't Make for Better Results

Centro has a reputation for promoting from within, and it's another important element of the overall company culture. But if you're looking only at your existing employees for new management, you're not likely to be introducing the change agents and alternative thinkers that you'll need to drive real innovation. Companies and systems get stale without new blood and people with different perspectives being added regularly to the mix. Similarly, Centro has an amazingly successful employee referral system that pays its team members a cash bonus for each new hire they refer. This in-house program has historically accounted for more than 50 percent of new employees, and it's working like a charm. But it's not sourcing a diverse enough population of leads, because the vast majority of the folks the employees know tend to be like them and look like them. That hasn't helped the company identify the kind and number of qualified minority candidates that it needs to broaden the overall work force. So Centro is looking into other channels, including outside recruiters. But the most important thing it's doing is focusing on rapidly advancing qualified minority employees into higher levels of management so that there's increased visibility and concrete demonstrations of the company's commitment to this goal.

(4) I Can Make You Better, But I Can't Make You Care

Centro prioritizes skills and character in its hiring. You've got to have the right skills to make the cut, but you're not really welcome if you don't have the character and the values that the company was built on from the beginning. I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care. You can fix a bad fit by changing someone's position or responsibilities, or upskill a motivated and committed worker so he or she can do a better job. That's the kind of commitment that a great business makes to its people. There's no cure, though, for a crappy character except the door, as soon as possible. Keeping someone around who's destructive or corrosive (however productive or talented he or she may be) is a cancer for the company, and it's never too soon to tell these folks to take a hike. Hire slow, fire fast.

Published on: Sep 15, 2015