poachers-small
poachers-small
Photo credit: Tom

This post was originally written by Amy Spurling, and featured on LinkedIn.

I once hired a candidate for my team and unbeknownst to me, my CEO was friends with the candidate’s CEO. My CEO had no idea I was hiring this candidate (he wouldn’t have been involved in hiring someone junior to my team) and the other CEO and I were not friends. Despite this, a shit storm ensued where the CEOs had several heated conversations about what was and was not appropriate w/r/t hiring from their companies.

This begs the question – what are the (unwritten) rules about hiring from a friend’s company? Conventional wisdom is that it is a dbag thing to do. In “The Hard Thing About Hard Things“, Horowitz basically counseled that to do so is going to cost you your friends so just don’t do it. I see this very differently.

This feels like another form of noncompete – but this one is even more insidious because it not only bars employees from going to another company in their industry, but could bar them across an entire sector. Candidates have a hard enough time navigating moving around an industry without having to figure out who is friends with the hiring manager to know if they are allowed to interview. As a huge proponent for blowing up noncompetes – I think we need to look at our management sensitivities around hiring and get the heck over it!

Hiring is a challenge no matter what industry or space you are in, but when you are in a small community (say, the Boston start-up scene), this becomes exacerbated. If you are to put an unofficial ban on candidates employed by your friends then as your network grows, your candidate pool decreases. That sucks and means you’re stuck with whoever is left and unable to find a job. This is likely not top tier talent.

I find it nearly inevitable that I will hire someone from a team where either I or my management team will be friends with the candidate’s manager. I assume that my team members may also leave to go to a friend’s company as well. Instead of taking this personally and whining about the rules for hiring and putting invisible barriers around candidates, I find it to be more productive to focus on my own team and worry less about others.

Here’s a thought: Make your team unpoachable!

The best offense on this one is to have a great defense. People leave companies for several reasons: they think the company is headed the wrong direction, they feel their skills are undervalued, their comp is below their market rate, and/or they don’t feel that their career can progress further if they stay. Let’s unpack this.

  • Company headed the wrong direction. As a manager it is your responsibility to ensure the company is headed the right way. This needs to be effectively communicated to the greater team. Unicorn Rocketship Teams that are Crushing It do not lose employees. Make sure that you effectively communicate the opportunity at your company. If the employee is correct then there isn’t much you can (or should) do to keep them. In fact you should probably be out looking yourself.
  • Their skills are undervalued/underutilized. When team members feel that their skills are not being utilized – that their expertise is not being valued, they lose motivation. If you have hired a data scientist and are using them as an analyst – you are going to lose them. Make sure that you continue to utilize the skills for which someone was hired. If the company no longer needs that skill set, then work on a transition plan wherein you help the employee land somewhere that needs those skills. Pretending that nothing has changed even when employees skills are going unused will backfire.
  • Comp below their market rate. If you do not have a clear compensation philosophy that guides how you approach raises, promotions and hiring, you are vulnerable to poaching. If your goal is to pay market rate, say so. If you can’t afford market rates but aim to be 75% of market – make that clear. If you are clear with your team how you approach compensation (and actually follow through), you will gain their trust. Make sure that you are clear about where you intend to land in the overall market – and define that market. There will always be another company that is similar size and stage that will pay more when they are struggling to hire/retain people. They will offer much higher salaries as hazard pay. If you are transparent with your team what your compensation philosophy is, how you arrived at it, and then ensure that you stick with it, your team will focus on the job at hand rather than their bottom line.
  • Lack of potential career progression. Create opportunities for your team members to stretch – working on a project with a different team, taking the lead on an initiative, etc. If you are pigeonholing your team members into specific tasks and not allowing them to grow, they will leave. Rockstar talent will not do the same exact job for 10 years. If you want the best of the best, you need to invest in them as much as they are investing in you. They have a choice to go to any number of companies – be the one that is giving them the opportunities to really grow and you will be the hottest place in town. That doesn’t mean you should over title or reward for no reason, but provide growth opportunities and be transparent about what a career path could look like.

I do not worry about people, friends included, poaching members of my team. If I have done my job as a manager and leader, then my team will not leave for any of the previously noted reasons. There may come a point where they need to move on to another company – their skills put them in line for a promotion that I do not have available, their skill set is a mismatch for our stage of company, etc. If that is the case, my team knows I will help them find their next role. My goal is to ensure that every person who works with me ends up in a better place after having worked with me.

I play the long game and you never know when you’ll be working with (or for!) someone again. If you do right by your team, you don’t need to worry about poaching. Only unhappy people allow themselves to be poached.

How do you make your team “unpoachable”?

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