Hire Like Elon Musk… And 14 Other Ways to Attract Future Leaders

Thursday 17 May 2018
Treat rejects with respect, don’t be a snob, and 13 other ways to attract brilliant talent
Recruitment process

What’s the best company in the world to work for? Elon Musk founded two prime candidates. His Tesla Motors self-driving electric car is sending the automotive centres of Munich and Detroit into giddy panic. And his aerospace company, SpaceX, is on course to beat NASA to put a man on Mars.

Musk is the man millennials would kill to work for. There are 50 applications for every job opening at Tesla. But why? The conditions are famously harsh, with low pay and long hours. The reasons are, first, the thrill of working at the cutting edge, and, second, the brilliant culture Musk creates.

At SpaceX, Musk interviews all hires himself. Degrees don’t matter. After all, Musk says, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t have degrees. What he wants is an outstanding mindset. Interviews involve throwing problems at candidates to see what they can handle.

Musk builds incredible organisations staffed with people with hunger and the ability to improvise. Here’s an example. When SpaceX built a yoghurt stand in the office, Musk ordered his talent director to go to Pinkberry, which makes frozen yoghurt, and hire its employee of the month. For Musk, it was attitude that mattered – and that’s clearly a culture that millennials want to be a part of.

The question for mainstream organisations is: how can they generate similar appeal to the new generation of talent? It’s not easy. The war for talent is relentless: the most talented people will be super-choosy about where they work, and millennials’ values differ to those of previous generations. Survey after survey reveals that millennials’ top demands include luxurious working conditions, a sense of purpose and flexibility.

Clearly, it’s hard to announce a mission to Mars. But there are other ways to boost your appeal to the best modern talent: here are 14 to get the brightest stars rushing to your door.

1. Make Your Workplace Adorable

Millennials want to work in attractive offices. Does this make them snowflakes? No. Everybody prefers comfy, fun, spacious offices.

Take virtual secretary service Moneypenny: its Wrexham office resembles a Silicon Valley HQ, with a tree house, village pub, sun terrace and restaurant that offers free breakfast and fruit. Outside are seven acres of landscaped grounds. Each element of the office is based on employee feedback. Socialising is a big part of company life, too, with annual trips to the races, and private cinema screenings.

Does it work? Joanna Swash, MD of Moneypenny, says: “The company is so popular that turnover of the 580 staff is less than 2 per cent. We receive more than 3,000 job applications a year.”

2. Log Your Qualities

Candidates will search on Google for clues about your culture. So ensure there’s an answer out there.

Cloud app company Proxyclick asked a coder to write a blog post on his experiences: ‘5 reasons to choose a startup over a corporate job – a developer’s perspective’. Thomas Mouchart talks about how the entire organisation moves to a different city, such as Barcelona, for a few days a year.

He raves about the scope for personal growth. “I accomplished more in two months than in two years at my previous company,” he writes. “You’ll never get bored.” Take note.

3. Make Room for Geniuses

Once in a blue moon a real superstar will walk through your door. The recruitment process needs to spring into action. Vinod Khosla, founder of legendary venture-capital house Khosla Ventures, says: “I encourage entrepreneurs and CEOs to create positions for strong candidates – even if that position doesn’t exist. One seldom goes wrong by ‘collecting talent’, even if one does not have a role or can’t afford it.”

Grooming superstars for leadership is a must. Khosla says: “Remember, by the time it has 50-100 employees, a good startup should have two or three senior leaders who can step up and be the CEO if a change is needed. Keep that in mind during all executive recruiting activity.”

4. Check Review Sites

Candidates will know what your interview process is like because of employee review sites such as Glassdoor. Increasingly, employers with high ratings get the pick of the best candidates.

Insurer Hiscox is rated as the eighth best place to work on Glassdoor, based on 187 testimonials. Here’s an example of what one candidate says of the company: “Arrived at 8.45 for a 9.00 start and was made to feel welcome and at ease right from the off! Amazing experience, felt very comfortable and was made to feel relaxed!”

Hiscox also engages directly with Glassdoor, offering instructional videos on its values and recruitment process. Candidates love this approach.

5. Set Out to Change the World

Employees want a sense of purpose. Innocent Drinks became a £100m enterprise by vowing to displace fizzy drinks with its healthy, vitamin-packed juices. Ryanair became Europe’s largest airline with a vow to make air travel affordable. AI company DeepMind is the world leader in self-learning machines.

The impact on recruitment? DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis says: “We are able to get the best scientists from each country each year. The only limitation is how many people we can absorb without damaging the culture.”

6. Quit Being a Snob

Old-school rules prioritise graduates from Russell Group universities and the US Ivy League.

But now even Goldman Sachs has widened its search to include less fashionable places of higher education. CEO Lloyd Blankfein explains: “It wasn’t an act of kindness on my part... It was pure... self-interest. We wanted to really extend our net because everybody’s involved in a war for talent.”

It’s a return to form for the bank: former CEO Sidney Weinberg started out as a janitor’s assistant.

7. Burn the Rule Book

Any discussion around company culture sooner or later arrives at Zappos. The shoe retailer’s culture of customer service is so strong that founder Tony Hsieh once anonymously called support to see if they would order him a pizza if he left his details. They did. Zappos has a radically different talent strategy.

Candidates undergo a ‘cultural fit’ interview that’s given 50 per cent of the weight in hiring decisions, and attend social events with staff to see if there is a match. New hires are offered $3,000 to leave after their first month, to weed out anyone with low commitment. To get a raise, staff must pass skill tests to show progress.

While these particular ideas may not work at every company, there’s no reason businesses can’t apply the Zappos mindset to their terms of employment to suit their unique needs.

8. Let Them Be Themselves

“I heard a fabulous story last week. Someone recently joined us who identifies as gender-neutral. They said they felt able to be themselves at work,” says Teresa Payne, head of people at accountancy firm BDO. “When people go to work they want to be themselves,” she explains. “If they are gay and worry about mentioning their partner, that is a problem. We want everyone to feel comfortable.”

Building this culture takes effort. BDO collects feedback on partner behaviour each year. And there’s someone responsible for an inclusive culture in each office. The result is a workplace in which everyone can be who they are.

9. Give Them Input

Neo PR has never had a millennial turn down a job. Director Gemma Spinks explains how: “I think it is important to encourage staff to feel like they’re making a real, active improvement to the business. We encourage regular feedback, suggestions and brainstorming sessions, and we’re very open about how the business is doing and any changes and improvements we’re looking to make.”

Why does this work? “Millennials crave a more engaged working environment that helps them feel more invested in the business and less like a traditional employee,” says Spinks. “We’ve seen these tactics work first-hand, with many employees working their way up to management in a few years.”

10. Pay for Talent

As any football fan will tell you, talent costs big bucks. It also repays the outlay. A key reason Google is in demand among millennials is its pay structure, which rewards talent. It does this with Google Stock Units, stock options that turn into cash over time and are related to performance.

New hires are incentivised with high pay. Laszlo Bock, Google’s former SVP of people operations, wrote a guide to Google’s policies, Work Rules!, in which he says talent isn’t evenly distributed, so pay shouldn’t be either. One hire may get $10,000 in stock, and another $1m. Boss Sundar Pichai is paid $200m a year, and is worth $1.2bn.

11. Treat Rejects With Respect

Think of it as the ‘TripAdvisor effect’. A bad experience is many times more likely to be reported than a good one. The same is true for recruitment. A survey by employer branding agency Ph.Attraction found that one in four British jobseekers either stopped buying or purchased less from a brand because of a bad candidate experience.

In 2014, a poor experience resulted in 7,500 candidates cancelling their Virgin Media subscriptions, costing £4.4m. Rejects should be contacted swiftly, treated politely and, if possible, given constructive feedback. Disgruntled rejects have disproportionate power to shape the candidate market.

12. The Facebook Method

The social network ranks among the top five places to work in America. Its swish new offices in London’s King’s Cross, designed by Frank Gehry, mean Facebook is now a top destination for Brits too. (Its UK operation featured in our own ‘Leadership and culture at work: the CMI/Glassdoor top 20’).

Of course, Facebook’s appeal is about more than fancy offices and high pay. Its global head of recruiting, Miranda Kalinowski, told Business Insider that hiring elite talent isn’t easy: “We need to make sure we’re hiring people who are deeply invested in us, first and foremost.”

This means several rounds of interviews. First, a recruiter finds candidates. Second comes a technical interview with a potential peer, to probe skills. Third is an interview at the office, complete with a site tour. Then comes a departmental interview and logic test.

“It’s very much a two-way street,” says Kalinowski. “They can find out more about us, and we can find out more about them.”

13. Give to Charity

Two-thirds of millennials would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company. Multinationals such as Danone and Schneider Electric use a scorecard to report non-financial metrics such as carbon emissions and employee diversity. That impresses investors, customers and employees. The bar is rising all the time.

The name of digital consultancy Ninety is derived from the 90 per cent of profits it gives to the developing world. Founded by Dan White five years ago, it has donated 39,688 textbooks, lent capital to 1,366 micro-entrepreneurs, and given 21,736 people in Kenya a year’s clean water. White’s last two hires were millennials from top universities who chose a responsible firm over higher pay elsewhere.

14. Show Them a Path to Progress

Most of all, new recruits expect to be developed. According to CMI’s recent 21st Century Leaders report, many students enter higher education with a work-focused mindset; they look for courses with professional accreditation; and, while they’re studying, they want access to work.

Once they’re in the workforce, 79 per cent of students believe that employers should train them in professional skills for management and leadership roles; 88 per cent of business and management students say they’d be interested in leading a team, and many want to run their own business.

Contrary to the ‘snowflake’ clichés, this is an ambitious generation, and smart employers will present new recruits with a clear path to progress.