Annie Lin is the incoming Chief People Officer at Swiftly after a successful stint as VP of People at Lever. Prior to working at Lever, Annie spent time at Apple, Uber, General Assembly, HotelTonight, and the Wikimedia foundation. In this Q&A, Annie shares her top tips for attracting, hiring, onboarding, and retaining talented employees. This guide is an abridged summary from her interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies.
How can organizations attract top talent?
Annie: There’s a couple ways this could take shape. Some companies might make the decision that they’re going to pay at the top of the market. Their differentiating factor is going to be compensation; they’re going to give you extremely large amounts of money. But that’s definitely not an option that every company has.
Another thing might be community. This is a company where, if you talk to people who work here, you’re going to hear about how much people love their colleagues. Team members think that they work with phenomenal people that they love and they have so much fun. That’s a very different angle. And hopefully, if you take that angle, you are being true to that as a company.
Another angle might be unique benefits based on a particular philosophy. For example, during COVID especially, we know that mental health was top-of-mind, and so a company might have benefits and perks that are all meant to support employee mental health, because that’s the area they’ve chosen to emphasize. Or maybe it’s professional development. It fundamentally comes down to the philosophy of the company and what makes sense for the business.
How can organizations differentiate themselves during the recruiting process?
Annie: Especially for younger, series A companies, one of the most important things is to figure out your employer brand. What is it that sets you apart from the many, many other companies that will claim to be better than you as an employer? We are living in a time right now where candidates have a lot of power and a lot of options. And so getting crisp on your employer brand is one of the first things to figure out.
One mistake I see companies make is trying to compete with other companies on everything. They think: “We lost a candidate because this other company gave them X, so we should also start doing X.”
My recommendation is to focus on the things that really set you apart and lean into them. Now, there are some basics like making sure people feel like they’re being paid fairly, but beyond that baseline, every company has to figure out what it is that makes them unique. Hopefully that list is short and you can hone in on it.
What are some best practices for an effective employee onboarding process?
Annie: I think of onboarding as having three different layers: company knowledge, cross-functional knowledge, and team-specific knowledge. In the first layer, the new employee learns about the business at a high-level: the company, its mission, its products, etcetera. That layer should be heavily driven by central teams.
The second layer is cross-functional knowledge: what key information about other teams should every single new hire learn? It might make sense for central teams to own this layer, but it’s a great opportunity to invite subject matter experts from each team to share as well. It allows new employees to meet key leaders and members of different departments.
Then there’s the third layer, which is often the heaviest part of onboarding: team-specific knowledge. This is onboarding specific to your team and role which, by definition, will be different from person to person. Here, the central team’s role is to provide a framework and support for each department to design this onboarding for themselves.
Why should companies invest in professional development?
Annie: When people think of professional growth, they think of being sent to training, having money to spend on classes, and things like that. But if you’re going this route for professional development, you also have to realize that you’re going to have the challenge of doing a lot of PR.
This is one of the areas where I feel like what actually works, and what people think works, doesn’t align. If you decide to go the route above, you just have to make sure you’re communicating and educating about it. I do think there is a time and a place where sending someone to a class or giving them a stipend could be really impactful. At Lever, for example, besides building professional development into day-to-day processes, we offer a personal and professional development stipend that people can use on a variety of things of their own choosing. In addition, we give each executive a budget that they can use to develop the folks on their team.
That being said, most professional growth fundamentally happens on the job through experience and feedback. Figuring out how to build this growth directly into your processes and structures is the most impactful and sustainable way to help people grow.
What do I do if an important employee wants to leave?
Annie: For things like this, it’s much more impactful to get ahead of the situation. When somebody tells you they want to leave, you’re probably late. I’m a big fan of putting in place structures like development conversations between managers and their team, feedback and performance cycles, and other lightweight frameworks to make sure those types of conversations are happening regularly.
You don’t want to be reactive in trying to save people. If you’re there, you may end up doing things you regret later in relation to your employees who aren’t threatening to leave, like scrambling to give them a huge raise or a promotion. The data shows that this rarely works: people who accept their company’s counter offers often leave anyway within six months. There’s usually other things going on besides money or title, and the employee may not feel good that they had to take this step to be recognized in the way they felt they should be recognized all along.
Besides, this might create problems with your other employees who learn the lesson that the way to get a raise or promotion is to threaten to leave. This is not a healthy situation to be in. So I’m a fan of being proactive, although that’s not always possible.
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