How Startups Win the War for Talent


Written by David Grosvenor

The History of War

Throughout history, nations have waged war to control scarce resources such as land, trade routes, or natural resources such as gold, silver, and oil.

In the war for talent the fight is for human resources, namely the best and brightest people. The stakes are high. To victor belongs the spoils, and to the vanquished … defeat and failure.

In an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting top-level technical talent the fight is particularly fierce, so if you are going to win the talent war and avoid being vanquished by a better prepared and more aggressive competitor, you must get your entire company on a proper war footing. Because make no mistake, the success of your company depends on winning this war.

The Fog of War

It’s not uncommon for even the most seasoned entrepreneurs and technology executives, when ‘heads-down’ building a business and creating a product, to loose sight of the one immutable law of building a great company: you need great people.

The military refers to a loss of focus while in the chaos of battle as, ‘the fog of war’. This happens when the participants lack situational awareness as it relates to their capabilities and that of their adversaries. This ambiguity causes a failure to recognize material deficiencies in their forces leading to an overly optimistic view of what they can accomplish. Inaccurate and contradictory intelligence leads to compromised decision making, which hampers the execution of both short and long term planning, culminating in unexpected developments with undesirable and sometimes disastrous outcomes.

There are many parallels between building a emerging  technology company and fighting a war, and on the business battlefield the hallmark characteristic of the most successful leaders is their ability to keep their troops focused on the most important priorities while in the midst of battle.

Peacetime Leaders vs. Wartime Leaders

During peacetime top-level talent is readily available and easy to win. During wartime top-level talent is difficult to find and hard to win. Times like these require a wartime leader.

Peacetime leaders are blissfully unaware that they are under attack or even at war, therefore recruiting top level talent is not a priority to them. In stark contrast, wartime leaders are paranoid. They are painfully well aware of the imminent existential threat posed by their competitors, therefore they make attracting and winning top talent one of their highest priorities.

Peacetime leaders and their most senior people take a rear position on the talent battlefield. They don’t see the recruiting function as critical to the long term success of their business so they don’t make it a priority. They delegate away the task of finding and landing talent under the premise that they are too busy running their business or writing code to review resumes or hunt for talent.

Wartime leaders join their most senior people on the frontline in the war for talent. They strive to have their most elite forces at the farthest-most forward edge of the battle area, where they have visibility on every prospect so they can strike at a moments notice. They position their most aspirational and highly skilled people on the frontline so they can attack off the march and capture the best talent when the opportunity presents itself. They are on a constant lookout for the next transformative hire and are always ready to move when great people are surfaced.

Wartime leaders understand that everyone on the team should always be recruiting, not simply to fill job openings but to proactively keep the talent pipeline full of suspects and prospects that have capable of moving the needle for the company.

Make Winning the War a Burning Priority

Recruiting the best and brightest should be one of your company’s highest priorities, after all, without first rate talent your company cannot compete effectively, remain relevant, or stay on top.

Superior talent is the X-factor at all of the most admired companies. Superior leaders recognize this fact so they make winning the war for talent a burning corporate priority.

With a severe shortage of experienced people to fill key roles and manage critical functions at almost all growing technology companies today, leaders must be highly sensitized to their sourcing strategy, knowing the talent they hire today will be the prime source of their competitive advantage tomorrow. Any company seeking to exploit this advantage must instill an aggressive talent acquisition mindset throughout their organization.

All high performance companies are fierce competitors. They aggressively attack the talent acquisition process as if they are in a increasingly more complex war for talent, because they are. These leaders make winning top talent an organization-wide priority and they keen to make sure every person at all levels is fully engaged and 100% committed to wining the talent war.

Creating an energized and mobilized recruiting machine begins as a company-wide initiative driven and evangelized from the C-suite –  not just from the HR department. If the “winning the war” message doesn’t come part and parcel with the company mission, and isn’t reinforced repeatedly by the company founders and leaders, it won’t resonate with the rank and file –and if the troops aren’t wholeheartedly behind the mission they won’t make the sacrifices necessary to win this battle.

As the leader you must set the pace, roll up your sleeves, and charge straight to the frontline. Soaring rhetoric from behind a desk and grand speeches emanating from the corner office won’t cut it. You need to get in the fight. You need to show up at schools, hackathons, and meetups. You need to be on the phone connecting with your network and creating buzz around your company. You need to be out in the community generating inbound contacts and at networking events where the top talent hang out. You also need to be engaged in the interview process, pitching the brand story and persuading new recruits to join your company.

If you’re a leader of an emerging technology company, you need to be just rigorous and passionate about bringing great talent to your company as you are about bringing a great products to market.

Make Everyone a Paid Combatant

You need to foster a recruiting mindset throughout your entire organization –imbueing every member of your team with a burning passion for finding great people. Recruiting is not just a HR function –everyone within your organization needs to be a recruiter.

It goes without saying, sourcing talent is the primary responsibility of the recruiter, but within the best companies finding top talent doesn’t just fall to recruiting or HR –it is part of every employees job description regardless of title. Software developers, product managers, sales reps, finance people, and senior management … everyone is a recruiter.

Software engineers write code and recruit. Sales reps sell product and recruit.  Accountants keep the books and recruit. Senior management runs the business and recruits. Everyone at the company does their part to bring top talent into the organization.

If your company has twenty employees then you have twenty recruiters on the payroll, and everyone is incentivized, rewarded, and recognized for new employee referrals.

If you get the recruiting flywheel spinning, great people will beget more great people, which dramatically increases your chances of winning the war for talent.

You Need an Outstanding Process to Win the War

Having a company-wide recruiting mindset is crucial but if your processes are broken, then putting people into your candidate pipeline will be as fruitless as pouring water into a leaky bucket.

All high-performing companies have well thought-out, scaleable, and nimble talent acquisition processes.  All unremarkable companies either have no process at all, or if they do it is a dysfunctional haphazard effort born as an afterthought, not a strategic priority.

Just as an outstanding recruiting process is a reflection of a well-run company, a disorganized process is a reflection of a poorly run company.

A recruiting process that is fast, organized, and responsive leaves candidates with a positive impression of the company –  even those candidates not selected should have a good experience. You want every candidate walking away from your company with a favorable impression and be positively affected by the professionalism exhibited throughout the entire interview process.

On the other hand, a slow and chaotic process with inadequate feedback and poor communication leaves candidates with a negative impression of your company –  which not only hurts your your chances of landing the candidates you want today, but once word gets out about the candidates experience (and it always does) it also damages your brand reputation in the marketplace, which hinders your ability to attract good people in the future.

One of the distinguishing attributes of all winning talent acquisition processes is the speed and efficiency at which the company moves a candidate from initial contact, through the interview cycle, all the way to offer. A trademark feature common to all high-performance recruiting functions is once they capture a target candidate with the requisite experience for a job, they act with high urgency to get the candidate into their interview pipeline, screened, vetted and closed.

The typical best practice recruiting process consists of an initial 1-hour phone/screening interview, a single onsite half-day interview loop with the team, followed soon after with a decision to either extend an offer or pass. More senior positions may require followup conversations or an additional meeting or two.

More important than the exact sequence of steps is the speed of execution, the crispness of the communication, and the professionalism exhibited throughout the process.

Here is an example of how the best small companies do it:

Logistics and Tactics 

It takes the top-level talent to attract and win top-level talent. When it comes to landing your prized recruit you may only have a single bullet in the chamber, so you must hit your target. You cannot afford a misfire because you handed over this critically important responsibility to someone who lacks technical depth or the first impression firepower to win-over the candidate you want. When you have your target squarely in the crosshairs you need your best marksman pulling the trigger.  You don’t want to squander your one-and-only shot at a good first impression, so don’t delegate the first shot … because in fast moving job market you may not get a second.

The first interview should be conducted by your top talent winner, typically this is a trusted senior member of the team or hiring manager. Many companies delegate this role to HR staff or internal recruiting resources. This is a mistake. The HR function and in-house recruiting plays a vital role. They design the process and deliver the candidate, but the hiring manager and team execute the process and deliver the hire. Therefore once the candidate is delivered your top talent winner should be on point for the first call. 

The first interview should be a balance between selling the opportunity and interviewing. The objective here is to both wet the candidates appetite for the job, enticing them to want to learn more, and screening them against a pre-established job specification. Top talent needs to be wooed, courted and won over.

Once it has been determined that the candidate is a match and there’s a mutual interest established, you should move quickly to get the onsite interview is scheduled. To prevent a “who’s on first?” Abbott and Costello comedy of errors, assign one person to project manage the process and own the scheduling. This person will be accountable for coordinating interview loop, communicating with the candidate, getting all the team members synced, and confirming the details of the interview. 

Once the candidate arrives onsite, the hiring manager should take over and quarterback the interview process from start to finish.  

Onsite interviews typically run 4-6 hours and consists of 4-6 people. This loop includes the hiring manager and key people with the skills to dig deep under the veneer and past all the bullshit on the resume.

Each member of the loop should be assigned general topics they are responsible for addressing or probing in the interview. This not only ensures important questions are asked and key points are covered, but also prevents the same interview questions from being asked multiple times.

Each interviewer takes 45 -60 minutes each. Once finished, the interviewer peels away from the interview to provide immediate detailed feedback to the hiring manager.

The hiring manager leads a live real-time input discussion with the feedback loop running in parallel with the interview loop, this way the interview can be cut it short if the candidate isn’t meeting the bar, saving everyone a lot of time, or you can move to the candidate to next phase if the feedback is positive.

Finally, the hiring manager should close out the process as the last interview on the loop.  Because the hiring manager received everyones input in real time, a hire/no hire decision can be made at the end of the interview, and offer (either written or verbal) can be extended before the candidate leaves the building.

It’s also important to remember that although the interview is your chance to evaluate the candidate, the interview process should not come off as a modern day Spanish Inquisition. While you are trying to determine if the candidate meets your bar technically and culturally, they are evaluating your company and your people to determine if they want to join your team, therefore every member of the interview loop should be advised in advance to balance their interest in querying and screening the candidate with that of winning them over.

The most prized recruits have many job prospects and are usually being aggressively courted by several other companies simultaneously, so while you may be conducting an interview you are also being interviewed. Don’t forget there are two buyers in this transaction.

In a soft talent market you can royally screw up the entire interview process and still survive. You can be slow, disorganized, and drop the ball repeatedly and still land the talent you want. In a hot market you don’t have that luxury. In order to ensure you don’t loose out to your more nimble competitors, you need a best-in-class process that illustrates your brand message, allows you to gather information efficiently, make decisions quickly, and close candidates effectively.

Fight With the Weapons You Have 

Notorious talent-winners like Google and Facebook have prestigious brands, an inspiring culture, and aspirational leadership; they also offer large signing bonuses and above market salaries along with some truly outrageous perks like complimentary organic chef-prepared meals, free haircuts, subsidized daycare, massages, nap pods, and on-site physicians.

As a startup it’s hard to compete with lavish perks and extravagant salaries, so don’t. You cannot afford an arms race with a tech giant with unlimited financial resources. The good news is you don’t have to, so long as you play to your strengths.

Sure, money matters to candidates and perks are nice, but these are not the only things they care about. Top tech talent also look for companies where they can work on interesting technical problems, collaborate with talented people, thrive in a friendly creative environment, and build something that ends up getting used by lots of people.

You need to take inventory of the armament at your disposal and fight with the weapons you have. Ask yourself, what is your competitive advantage? What are the things you can offer that the big guys can’t? What is unique about your opportunity and what differentiates you from the rest?

Here are some of things you can bring to the table: 1). A chance to join a small company with a big vision. 2).  Be part of a whip-smart team and collaborative culture. 3). Get the chance to create a disruptive new product that will be used by millions. 4). You have a meritocratic culture where people get to take on more responsibility and can earn the chance to move up quickly. 5). You can offer more autonomy, greater flexibility, and more varied and interesting work.  6). Everyone is closer to the end product where they can see the fruits of their labor. 7). You can grant a meaningful slug of equity providing a compelling risk/reward trade off. 8). Joining your company means they can be more than just a small cog in a giant wheel –   they can play a critically important role in the success of the company. 9). An opportunity to come in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

Another advantage you have is you can bring in the big guns to win the best talent. Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin are not in the trenches fighting the talent war, nor are they on the interview loops, but the top brass at your company can and should be. In fact, the best emerging technology company CEO’s and founders are the companies best recruiters. They woo candidates, court them over coffee or dinner, and spend time persuading them to join the company. In short, they go out of their way to connect with the candidates and help close them on the job. A personal phone call from the company founder or a senior member of the leadership team can have a powerful and persuasive influence on a candidates decision. An opportunity to work closely with the CEO or senior management is an attractive lure to joining a small company.

David fought Goliath and slayed the giant not because he was bigger or better armed, but because he was smarter and knew how to use the weapons he had. Your company has a compelling brand story and huge upside potential. You are creating something important and disruptive. There are many unique benefits to joining your small company that the Googles and Facebooks of the word can’t match no matter how many freebees they throw at new employees. So don’t attempt to compete head-to-head when you are outmatched by superior force because you can’t win that fight. Instead fight smart. Focus on your strengths and spotlight what distinguishes you from them.

Hire a Mercenary to Help You Win the War

Search firms are paid mercenaries. Give them an opportunity to earn a fee and they will be your ally fighting right along side of you. The good recruiters are experts in guerrilla warfare, and in a war for scarce resources you want a capable ally fighting for you, not against you.

In a hot market recruiters really earn their keep. The top people are nowhere to be found. They do not post their resumes to job boards and they don’t respond to advertisements, so recruiters must be proficient at headhunting them where they work. This is a hard and time-consuming slog requiring a dedicated expert with a knack for finding, engaging, and attracting top talent.

Enlisting the services of an experienced recruiting firm with a proven history of success that specializes in your industry and markets can be a great investment in the future of your company, because they can surface a caliber and quality of talent you might otherwise not see.

But caveat emptor when hiring a recruiter.  An inexperienced recruiter will waste your time by sending you unqualified resumes that you don’t want to see, or worse, will tarnish your reputation in the marketplace with candidates.

The market for top talent is red hot in the big city technology hubs, which has attracted the interest of those who want a piece of the action. All too often those who six months earlier were pitching mortgage refinancing or selling flat screen TV’s, are now billing themselves as technology recruiters. Today, the recruiting industry is flooded with inexperienced people looking to make a quick buck off the tech-gold rush. Unfortunately, many of these folks give the entire recruiting  industry a black eye, and it’s no wonder so many companies have a sour taste in their mouths for recruiters.

Hiring a search firm is no different than hiring a building contractor, auto mechanic, or any other service provider – you need to hire the best if you want the best results.

In the recruiting business, bigger is not always better, so instead of seeking out a big brand name national search firm, look for a firm that is headquartered in your backyard; one that brings a solid reputation and big network of top talent located in the area that you operate. Interview them to ensure they do original targeted recruiting and don’t rely on scraping the job boards or posting ads for talent. Lastly, make sure they have  stellar references and a successful track record recruiting the kind of talent you want.

Talent winning companies are always on the look out for proven recruiters with experience delivering elite-level candidates, and they make recruiting the best recruiters as important as finding the best employees for their company. These companies don’t rely exclusively on just one recruiting partner  –the retain several of the very best search firms in order to cast the widest net possible. Top talent winning companies leverage external recruiting resources to help them deliver the best talent and consider them an important partner in augmenting their overall talent acquisition efforts.

The best talent is worth fighting for. If you want them, you need to get your entire organization on a proper war footing. That means bringing in reinforcements when you need them and making sure everyone on your team is battle-ready and prepared for trench warfare.

To victor belongs the spoils, and to the vanquished … defeat and failure.

The Civil War General William Sherman made famous the phrase, “War is hell”, but the war for talent doesn’t have to be a hellish experience for you and your company, so long as your team is prepared to fight and they know how to win.