One of the many ironies of my adventure working at LinkedIn from 2009-2012 was that our biggest challenge and our main product were one and the same: Recruiting. During this time we added over 3,000 employees to the organization off of a base of around 400 and we also built hiring solutions that massively changed the recruiting industry. Looking back, this was an amazing achievement to have realized in such a short time and while ultimately we met our goal of building a world class team and a world class company, when I first joined the organization, this outcome was far from certain.

I can vividly recall my first week on the job because the reality of our recruiting challenge emerged in dramatic fashion. First, I had to break up a fight between two Engineering Directors who were fighting over a candidate they both wanted to hire. My recruiting team called me to come immediately because these two leaders were pushing, shoving and yelling at each other. A few days later my office was stormed by four Engineering hiring managers and a few of my recruiters who had just returned from a job fair at Stanford University. They were furious because the whole time they were at the fair, the Facebook, Twitter and Google booths were crowded with students while nobody was going to our LinkedIn booth. "Nobody even knows who we are!" they exclaimed to me in frustration.

In addition to these events, I could see our offer acceptance rates were low and my hiring managers were becoming more frustrated. We were not only losing candidates to more recognizable brands like Facebook and Google,--we were also getting crushed by much larger offers from these companies. Not only was the belief in our ability to recruit at the necessary pace eroding among our managers, but development schedules and product releases were slipping. The pressure was also significant because delay in product releases we feared would give potential competitors like Facebook and Google time to respond and build a competitive platform. We had no choice but to go all in as a company to try to solve this massive problem.

Over the next days and weeks, we obsessed over finding ways to be more effective with recruiting. The next big moves we made included making recruiting the #1 operating priority of the company, and doubling the size of our recruiting team. We then held sessions with hiring managers on how to close candidates more effectively, which were led by Jeff Weiner, our CEO. In these, we developed responses to every tough question or concern candidates expressed to us in their interviews. Despite all these actions, we were still not seeing a measureable increase in offer acceptances.

After several months of struggling even after we were tuning so many parts of our recruiting process and adding more resources to the battle, frustration reached its peak. We had hit the wall. Everyone was upset, frustrated and tired of losing. It was an absolute low point. Our engineers were starting to get tired and burnt out because they were working on deadlines that were meant for larger teams, and we had some new hires quit only a few weeks after joining the company. It was awful.

In early December of 2009, during our weekly Exec Staff meeting, I remember saying to the team "Guys, I am concerned that we simply have no ammunition to fight in this war. Nobody knows who we are, we are still getting outbid by all the big name companies in the area and we have no perk or benefit here that makes us stand out. I need something. WE need something to differentiate." What happened next changed the company in a massive way and was a defining moment for LinkedIn.

Steve Sordello, our CFO, suggested that we consider giving employees every other Friday off so they could rest and refresh. We quickly rejected that idea because, in reality, we needed every minute of every day if we were going to build the company. Then, Patrick Crane, our Head of Marketing, built on Steve's idea and suggested that instead of every other Friday off, how about if we called every other Friday "InVestment Day" and allowed employees to invest in doing whatever inspired them: teach a class, take a class, volunteer in the community, work on a project that they had put aside for a rainy day--anything that would energize them. Over the next month or so this idea really took shape and ultimately landed into what is known today at LinkedIn as "InDay". This is a day one Friday a month for employees to essentially do what they want with a theme of refreshing, helping, hacking, connecting, and ultimately doing something that inspires.

This idea just exploded across the company and really started to shape our culture. In addition to finding inspiration, what was also special about this day is that it was a symbol that the company wanted you, the employee, to contribute to building this company into what YOU wanted it to become--that YOU had a hand in building LinkedIn into something special. Over the next few months, we saw amazing things happen: blood drives, hackathons that led to new products, habitat for humanity projects, and even events to help returning veterans find jobs.

While the idea of giving free time to employees to create was not new, what was unique about InDays @ LinkedIn is that it was in invitation for everyone to join in building a special company not just once a month but all the time. The momentum and excitement from these days carried over into how employees talked, tweeted, updated and posted about how amazing it was to work at LinkedIn, and this helped our brand develop and amplify, which in turn, served to significantly help our recruiting efforts.

I give massive credit to Steve Sordello and Patrick Crane for being the godfathers of this idea and for shaping a concept that led us to realize OUR Advantage in the war for talent. Our advantage was us. It was our culture, our people, our way of being as a company. It turned out that the best weapon we had was the one thing that cost us nothing-- it was the experience of being at LinkedIn.

To be fair, there were many other decisions and many other amazing people that contributed to us building an amazing team and an amazing company, but that one moment in Executive Staff was a defining one that changed the trajectory of the company, in my humble opinion. At the time, we thought we were solving for burnout in the company and we thought we were adding a benefit/perk that would help us stand out as a potential employer. We had no idea that what we were really doing was defining our culture and turning it into a competitive advantage in our most important priority--building a world-class team. In the end what came out of InDays was much bigger than any of us could even fathom at the time.

Around the end of 2010, as our hiring and our hiring solutions business was on the upswing, I recall during an InDay walking around our campus with Jeff observing the amazing things people were doing and having so many employees tell us how proud they were of the company. Jeff stopped at one point and looked me square in the eye and in a tone that was half confessional and half amazement said "You know Steve, I never would have guessed that culture would turn out to be our competitive advantage. But look at this, its amazing!"

Every organization faces many challenges and low points as they learn how to grow and thrive. Often, leadership feels it is responsible for leading the organization out of trouble. While we were trying to solve our huge recruiting problem, we wound up igniting the creation of a culture that became and remains today a massive competitive advantage. This was our defining moment.

 

Published on: Oct 24, 2014