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5 Ways To Identify And Retain Fantastic Talent with Thach Nguyen & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

SWORD Human Resources Hiring and Retention Strategies

The idea I could be paid to meet interesting people, learn about their hopes and dreams, and potentially help change the trajectory of their life for the better, was something that hooked me from the very beginning.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Thach Nguyen.

Thach is Chief Talent Officer at SWORD Health, a digital physical therapy startup based in NYC and Portugal. Prior to SWORD Health, Thach was VP of People at Care/of, a NYC tech wellness startup, and before that held leadership positions within HR and recruiting at Airbnb and Google. He is a southern CA native and moved to NYC in 2018.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As I was wrapping up my undergrad, I attended the traditional university career fairs where I was being sold on jobs in architecture, engineering, accounting, etc. I remember having the very distinct feeling that none of those jobs really “clicked” for me. Then, I mustered up the courage to ask one the folks behind the table, “How do I get your job? You seem to have the best one of all.”

The idea I could be paid to meet interesting people, learn about their hopes and dreams, and potentially help change the trajectory of their life for the better, was something that hooked me from the very beginning. And the rest of history. A decade later, I am still hooked!

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career?

I’m starting to see how treating people kindly early in your career can have a positive impact down the road. There was one candidate in particular who I met during my time at Google. Despite the fact she was clearly not a fit for the role, she was very passionate about Google and just wanted to speak with someone to “get a foot in the door”. We spoke, got to know another, and, after confirming she was not a fit for the role, agreed to stay in touch for the future.

Several years later, she was the perfect fit for a job I was recruiting for at Airbnb, and I was lucky enough to reconnect, hire her and close the job in record time. Although this story doesn’t sound particularly unique, I’ve come to find that many of us in recruiting have a tendency to have tunnel vision and focus on the roles we’re immediately hiring for. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve seen the value of cultivating those relationships even when they’re not immediately beneficial.

Good advice in regards to relationships. Now let’s jump over to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?

  1. Hire for smarts, not experience. The research is definitive: cognitive ability is 3x more predictive of on-the-job success than education, and 2x more predictive than work experience. Yet despite this definitive research, almost every hiring manager in my career has kicked off a search asking for candidates who have done almost that exact job in almost an identical company or environment. At Airbnb, I was working on a senior-level search which we narrowed down to two finalists. One had done this identical job at another very similar tech company, and the other hadn’t done 100% of the job (she did, however, have many of the core skills) but the interview team felt that she was more intelligent and agile. We decided to “take a chance” and go with the latter candidate. Despite needing to learn a lot on the job and having probably a slightly longer ramp up, she ended up being one of the top performers in her function.
  2. Define what you’re looking for: not all interviews are created equal. You are 400% more likely to make the right hire when interviews are structured with pre-determined competencies, focus areas, and interview questions. Working in a fast paced environment, it is very tempting to just sit two people into a room and ask afterwards, “Did you like them?” Do not fault into this trap!
  3. Don’t ignore the signs: it’s been scientifically validated — the interview process is riddled with bias. When we decide we like someone, confirmation bias kicks in and we start to find reasons to confirm our initial opinion and tend to ignore things that contradict it. I remember hiring someone who I had absolutely fallen in love with during the phone interview. The candidate seemed perfect for the role and I was so focused on hiring her (while also being piled under a mountain of work and highly motivated to fill the position), that I ignored key signs like typos in her emails and tardiness to interviews. I kept rationalizing to myself “Oh, she must just be moving fast, etc.” Fast forward, once we hired her, those signals grew into huge performance gaps. She was quite disorganized and consistently late on her deadlines, things that I had seen warm signs of during the interview process but chose to ignore. In retrospect, I wish I had been more aware of my biases and put a value on the signs she was sending.
  4. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: hiring managers, understandably, are always telling me that they want “top talent.” But research shows that when you put a group of the top performers together, they perform no greater than average. This uncovered that the highest performing teams are actually ones that have a diversity of thought and felt psychologically safe enough to share their thoughts freely. How does this apply practically to the hiring process? If you truly want the top performing team, try to think of what skills and experiences are missing from the existing team. Additionally, once you have built that team, ensure you are creating an environment of trust and that doesn’t fear failure. That will inevitably result in the best performing team, rather than thinking of each hire in isolation.
  5. Be Mindful of the “S” curve: although it’s always tempting to hire people who have mastered a role, there is an “S” curve to learning that can create an inverse relationship between mastery and motivation. Put in simpler terms, if someone feels like they don’t have much to learn in a role, they may be great at it, but will they be engaged? The key to building a great team is to make sure you are balancing you have a nice balance of folks who are early on their learning journey as well as those who are further along. I’ve seen this be played out countless times in my career. At Google, I had hired a woman who had only 60% of the skill sets we need for the role. But because she knew that she was a slam dunk for the role and had something to prove, she was the most driven to succeed on her team. This tenacity led her to being one of the top performers on her team.

Thank you for that. With so much noise and competition out there, what are the top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

Through your network: not only are referrals generally the highest performers, they’re also typically easier to access! Additionally, candidates are more likely to respond to a job inquiry if it’s via a warm introduction, whether or not they are actively looking for a new role.

Make your employer value proposition (EVP) clear: I can’t tell you the number of generic “this is an exciting opportunity to work for a fast-growth startup and have massive impact” messages I get. Even if each of those things may be true, it doesn’t make a brand or business stand out in our crowded recruiting landscape. My recommendation is to be thoughtful about what makes your company unique, what you do absolutely better than anyone else, and find a way to articulate that in all the touchpoints of the candidate journey.

ABR, or always be recruiting: Folks so often think about recruiting in terms of inbound applications and LinkedIn sourcing. But there are so many creative avenues to recruit and the key is to always be recruiting. I’ve hired folks anywhere from my local coffee shop barista to a woman who sat next to me on a flight to SFO. When you meet extraordinary talent, don’t hold yourself back from recruiting them just because it’s IRL (in real life). In fact, those are often the best hires!

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

1. Build great managers: it’s true that people leave managers, not companies

2. Provide opportunity for growth: growth is the single most important thing to today’s workforce. We’re the first generation to be willing to take a bigger role for no pay increase. Ensure you are creating opportunities for every person to be growing.

3. Live your values: I’ve been a part of many companies that have core values but unfortunately do not live them. The hard part is letting go of that really strong performer who doesn’t treat his teammates with respect. Or that really strategic leader who doesn’t model collaboration or foster inclusivity. The value those individuals bring will almost always outsize the damage they are creating for the culture of the organization.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

Yes, it is important for any HR team to be aware of the latest trends in order to stay competitive in finding and recruiting talent. It also helps us to augment our strategies and helps prioritize internal, cultural initiatives.

I’m not sure if I’d call this a trend, but the concept of psychological safety is something I think about more than ever. Research shows that people do their best work when they are in an environment to be free to experiment and ideate. But it’s not easy to do that, you need to be in a workplace where you feel totally safe to say things that may seem crazy without fear of judgment. If you look back on the greatest trends in the workplace in the last two decades in tech, some of them seem standard now but were at one time crazy ideas. Open workspace? Google providing free food to all employees? Netflix piloting unlimited PTO? Those “crazy” ideas could only have been incubated in companies that valued ideation without fear of judgment.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Yes! Recognition is the easiest way to make employees feel valued without much money. Research shows the act of giving someone a small monetary reward for a job well done (i.e. a spot bonus) matters more than the amount itself. We all have been there: getting a handwritten card by your CEO makes you feel incredibly grateful and valued. Yet why don’t companies do it more often?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Always assume positive intent. When someone has wronged you, assume it was not on purpose and seek to understand their intent. Rather than bottling up your anger, talk to them and give them a chance to explain themselves. You’d be surprised how this can form stronger relationships!

That perspective could be huge for many reasons, that’s outstanding. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.” I was born in Vietnam and grew up having very little. I often take pause and have a hard time believing I am where I am today. I’m the luckiest person I know and I hope I never forget that.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

I find Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, quite inspiring. He seems to be incredibly balanced and a people-first leader.

Thank you so much for sharing these valuable insights with us today!

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