What Attracts Top Talent to Companies? This Might Surprise You …

October 2, 2015 – Jason Hanold is CEO and managing partner of Chicago-based Hanold Associates, a boutique executive search firm specializing in HR officer assignments. Jason leverages his in-depth knowledge of distinctive leadership traits and competencies to advise clients in assembling high-performing leadership teams.

One of Hanold Associates’ specialty practice areas is identifying CHRO talent. Among the blue chip companies the firm has recently recruited top chief HR officers: outdoor apparel company PatagoniaCPI Card GroupVideo Equipment RentalsFriedman Operating GroupOutward Bound and NYC Outward Bound Schools, Nike, eBay, Ferrara Candy Company, Heinz, Carnival Corporation, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and Vail Resorts.

Prior to founding his firm, Jason was managing director with Russell Reynolds Associates where he led the firm’s human resources officer practice and was a member of the firm’s board of directors and CEO practices. Before Russell Reynolds, he led the global talent acquisition function for Whirlpool Corporation. Prior to that, Jason was with McKinsey & Company where he was director of recruiting, charged with direct-elect partner hiring for the company. Previously, he was the Americas director of leadership recruiting at Deloitte.

In the following interview, Jason discusses a range of issues around the growing difficulties of recruiting transformational leaders – including what types of opportunities attract them most. He describes the qualities he looks for in high potential leaders, including what scenarios are most interesting to the burgeoning class of millennial leaders. He then sums up his advice for hiring managers struggling to attract high potentials into their organizations.

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Jason, leaders in charge of hiring have struggled for years to bring talented individuals to their organizations and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. What specifically attracts top talent and high potential future leaders to organizations? 

Distinctive talent is attracted to organizations for reasons beyond the basic elements of compensation, location, their boss, and organizational culture. While these are still important, outstanding talent is more interested in the opportunity to make a significant impact, problem-solve within a complex system and to shape an organization and its’ culture. Top talent is attracted to organizations enduring a sort of transformation. Fewer people admit to desiring to drive the status quo or maintenance roles. They desire to be a driver of change. High-performers are the most critical component of a successful transformation, yet this remains the largest single regret that company executives in failed transformations hold: they didn’t move faster to bring in high-performers and move out those under-performing or resistant to change. This is supported by an April 2015 McKinsey study How to Beat The Transformation Odds.

Exactly which qualities found in top talent also ensure the success of organizational transformations?

The majority of transformations fail (only 26 percent of transformations are considered ‘very successful’).  And they largely fail due to inactive support from senior leaders, insufficient coalition building at all levels in an organization, and inconsistent messaging. Successful transformations focus more on the people than the change project and initiatives. Distinctive talent is attracted to the opportunity because these people possess a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and understand the need to bring others along while building coalitions. They can frame and communicate simplicity in complex scenarios. Therefore, organizations undergoing transformation create the ideal scenario for the very high-performing talent they hope to attract. Transformations need two things for success—buy-in from team members at all levels of the organization and leaders who are comfortable moving away from the status quo and embrace new ideas. The entrepreneurial leader is also the most willing to reject the status quo. They don’t believe ‘the way things are done’ is a good excuse. Millennial top talent and high potentials are increasingly attracted by organizations that encourage their employees to embrace an ownership mentality and business scenarios that are compelling and entrepreneurial in nature.


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What sort of business scenarios and responsibilities are interesting to these millennial leaders?

Millennial leaders are driven by empathy and a need for purpose and collaboration. The question of ‘why’ has replaced ‘what’ as a qualifier for a compelling opportunity. Millennial leaders have a preference for the ‘startup culture’ and attraction toward small, high-growth companies over established brands. However, large established companies going through a transformation may indeed have a ‘start-up’ culture in terms of characteristics for navigation and opportunities for impact. What’s compelling about these high-growth opportunities is that they allow millennials to contribute early and often and forge an ownership mentality. Interestingly, if the idea of a transformation is framed well, then it attracts exactly the sort of leaders and executives that are required for the success of the initiative. These types of leaders most enjoy problem-solving and critical thinking. The more complex an issue, transformation, or ‘fix’ is, the more they lean in toward these business scenarios.

As you’ve noted, Jason, companies can’t staff everyone in departments where build outs are happening. How can companies without a transformation on the horizon attract talent?

They must articulate a compelling purpose, have a culture of flexibility and autonomy that fosters an ownership mentality at all levels. It must embrace innovation and creative, participatory solutions to complex business problems and articulate the vision to employees. Increasingly, millennial top talent cares about impact as much, if not more, than they care about the bottom line. So, attract around the vision of the leadership team and mission and purpose of the company. As an example, Stanford graduates accepting lower salaries are often pursuing opportunities to contribute to social causes or organizational visions that are meaningful to them.

Any advice for mangers struggling to attract high potentials within the organization? 

Hiring managers at all levels need to spend time thinking about why they joined their company, and most importantly, why they stay with their company. Be prepared to authentically and transparently communicate how you derive meaning and purpose from your profession and company. Understand the motivators and drivers of the top-talent you seek to attract (and they will vary by the person). One CEO interviewing a CHRO candidate recently shared, ‘The candidate was excellent and well prepared for the interview, but he wasn’t prepared to build a relationship, and that’s what I was hoping to do.’ In other words, as the hiring manager, take time to build a relationship with a candidate. People can not trust those whom they do not know, so be sure candidates get to know you while you get to know them. This foundation for trust will open the gates of communication, enabling an understanding of their needs, which a manager can translate into, and align toward, the opportunities within their company and the role.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

Check Out These Related CHRO Articles:

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