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5 Ways To Identify And Retain Talent with Ellen Grealish & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

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FlexProfessionals, LLC Human Resources Hiring Strategies

People want to feel good about going to work every day and also want to know that their work and opinions matter. Reinforce to prospective candidates that employee satisfaction and development are of utmost importance and highlight what makes your culture unique.

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 Ellen Grealish.

Ellen Grealish is a co-founder and co-owner of FlexProfessionals, a flexible staffing company specializing in part-time and project-based placements. Since its inception in 2010, it has grown considerably, making the Inc5000 2016, 2017, and 2018 Fastest Growing Company lists and has been highlighted by the Today Show and covered in The Washington Post, New York Times, and Forbes. Ellen is responsible for marketing and business development. Prior to founding FlexProfessionals, Ellen worked in strategic sales, marketing, and consulting. She spent over 8 years at Hewlett-Packard where she led the Sales Development Group for HP’s Networked Printing and Digital Imaging Division. Ellen was also a senior consultant for Accenture, working for both the Washington D.C. and London-based consulting practices. Ellen studied Economics and History at Oxford University and has a BA, Economics from Boston College. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three children.


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

I never planned to go into HR or recruiting prior to launching our staffing company, FlexProfessionals, LLC and neither did my two business partners, Sheila Murphy and Gwenn Rosener. Eleven years ago, Sheila, a close college friend, and I were sitting on the beach during our annual family vacation in Outer Banks. I had been out of the workforce almost 7 years raising kids and volunteering in school and community organizations. At that time, my youngest child was about to enter full-day kindergarten, and I started thinking about re-entering the workforce. Sheila was in a similar situation so we discussed how ideal it would be to find a part-time job that would allow us to contribute at a professional level but still have the flexibility to be home when our kids got off the bus. Given my prior work experience at Accenture and Hewlett Packard, coupled with the fact that I did not need benefits and was willing to lower my pay rate in exchange for the opportunity to work part-time, I mistakenly assumed that companies would jump at the chance to hire me part-time. Well, I was wrong! I sent resumes, wrote great cover letters, applied to jobs on-line and waited and waited but heard nothing back. It so happened that my other business partner, Gwenn Rosener (who Sheila knew from years past) was going through the same thing. With an engineering degree from VA Tech and a Harvard MBA, she set out to find a part-time, flexible role after taking time off to raise her children. What was she told? If she wasn’t willing to work hard, then to stop looking! Sheila, Gwenn and I realized that there was a real lack of opportunity for and misconceptions about a growing talent pool of smart and skilled labor who had either left the workforce and wanted to re-enter in a flexible way or who wanted to scale back from the traditional 9-to-5 role. At the same time, we spoke to small-mid sized businesses who said they were struggling to attract and afford highly skilled and educated talent that could help their business grow. This is what led us to launching FlexProfessionals, whose mission is to be a catalyst for the adoption of flexible work options for women, moms, baby boomers, caregivers, etc. basically anyone who needs flexibility in order to remain in or re-enter the workforce.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My business partners and I pounded the pavement initially talking to any business owner that would listen about how our company was changing the way people thought about hiring. I remember at one particular event, after being in business for about a year, a CEO of a small company listened to my sales pitch and then said, “Oh, you are a recruiter.” I immediately responded “No I’m not!” and tried again, explaining that we were not a staffing firm but a company that matched people looking for part-time with companies in need of high-value, cost-effective resources. The gentleman said again, “Yup, you are a recruiter. That’s what you are.“ I started laughing because it literally took me over a year to come to the realization that we were a recruiting and staffing firm! I think because my partners and I came from business consulting, project management and sales development backgrounds, we approached the idea of starting FlexProfessionals as solving a real business problem. How do you get really good people to work for your company when you just don’t have the budget to attract or the work to justify dedicated and experienced resources? We never, in our months and months of researching and planning, every used the words ‘staffing’ or ‘recruiting’. We truly didn’t realize that was the kind of company we were launching, and ironically, I now think that is one of the reasons for our success. We don’t focus so much on placing people into jobs as much as how do we help businesses find and secure top talent when they might not have the resources to do it on their own? At the same time, how can we help an often-ignored group of talented people either remain in or re-enter the workforce in a way that allows them to meet the demands of both work and family? I finally have realized that at the end of the day, technically we are a recruiting and staffing firm. It just took me a while to internalize it. 😊

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

We are developing an innovative “reverse” internship program targeted at helping women return to the workforce. Instead of selectively targeting recent college graduates from top universities, our program is only open to professionals lacking confidence in their ability to succeed due to large career gaps and outdated technology skills. We train/assign our interns on administrative tasks that expose them to our internal technology platforms, databases and systems. We also assign them 1–2 substantive projects aligned with their career goals. Once they have completed this program, we can then confidently ‘push’ them to our business clients. We believe it is a great way to help women with a large career gap get their foot in the door and be in a position where they can add value and grow in seniority within a company if they choose.

That’s wonderful. Now let’s jump over to the main focus of our series. 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) Create a thorough job description

Hiring managers often don’t spend enough time upfront thinking about the details of a role and about the hard and soft skills needed to be successful in a position. The more time spent upfront on this, the less time you will spend searching through resumes and interviewing. Job descriptions are the first line of defense in weeding out those candidates who are not going to be a long-term fit. The more detail about a role and the more specific the qualifications, the better. What kind of technical skills do they need, how much training is offered, can someone who is smart and has the aptitude to pick up/learn the skill be considered or does this person have to hit the ground running? What software applications, social media apps, etc. does the person need to be familiar with?

Additionally, if the position is one that is hard to fill, then more time needs to be spent on selling your company and its benefits. What makes your company unique? Is there any flexibility, fun offsites or unique benefits that accompany the role? Have you won any “best places to work” or special awards? Do you have quotes from employees you can share? Anything that will set you apart you will want to highlight, especially in a tight labor market.

2) Request a paragraph response as to why the candidate feels he/she is best suited for the role?

Certain jobs will attract a lot of resume submissions. You don’t always have the time to interview everyone that looks good on paper. You would be surprised at how much you can find out by asking a candidate to write a simple paragraph on why, including specific examples, he/she feels qualified for the position. I’m always surprised at the number of people that don’t even respond to the request, which quickly eliminates candidates who are not very interested or qualified. Second, for those who respond, you might be surprised at the number of spelling or grammar mistakes in the email or paragraph, which will usually disqualify them. For those responses that are free from errors, you will not only get a feel for the person’s communication skills, but you may also learn something new about the person that is not always highlighted on the resume. This again will cut down the amount of time you spend interviewing unqualified candidates and help you identify those that could be a perfect fit.

3) Interview: use situational questions based on features that are most important to the role

Similar to the job description. Prepare for your interview with questions that will get you answers around the areas that are of upmost importance. While ‘tell me about yourself or your work experiences’ may be a fine lead-in question, it doesn’t always get you the information you really need to make a hiring decision. Think about the most important qualifications and personality traits that this person needs to be successful and then ask targeted and situational questions that will give you insight around those traits. As an example, if sales aptitude and the ability to find and close leads is important, then ask questions like ”Tell us about a time when you had to sell (an idea, a program, etc.). How did you go about influencing people? What if they said ‘no’ to you right away?” If customer responsiveness and the ability to meet customer demands in a short-timeframe is critical, then ask, “Describe a time where you had a difficult or unhappy customer. How did you handle it? What, if anything, would you do differently?” Finally, if independence and the ability to work alone with minimal guidance is a requirement for the role, you can ask a question like, “What support have looked to your supervisors for in previous roles? Or “Have you worked for a manager that did not give you enough support or was a micro-manager? Which did you prefer and how did you handle it?” These are all situational based questions that can be targeted based on the most important aspects of the job.

4) Test Drive!

A great way to identify the best talent for your role is to get a feel for their performance in action. If you are looking for a writer or web/graphic designer, it is completely acceptable to ask for a writing sample or to see a portfolio of previous designs. When we hire Account Executives for our team, they need to be able to sell to customers and perform key-word searches via our applicant tracking system. If a candidate passes an initial interview screen, we have them come back and ‘sell’ our company to the owners as if they were at a networking event. Their pitch does not need to be perfect and their messaging can be off, but we can tell from this 5–10 minute exercise 1) how much research they have done on our company and the value we provide to our customers and 2) if they have the energy and passion, as well as the communication skills, to be effective in selling our messages. We then show our candidate the applicant tracking system we use and ask them to do a ‘mock’ search of candidates based on an old job description. Again, they don’t know the software we are using but we can get a feel for their technical aptitude and their ability to search effectively for candidates just by the questions they ask and the thought-process they use. Of course, you need to keep test driving to a minimum or else candidates will expect payment for their time. However, we do work with businesses that feel it is worth the cost of paying the candidate as a consultant for a day or two, to get a feel for their on-the-job work performance.

5) Be creative with your questions on reference checks

Reference checks can be more valuable than people think. Odds are, the candidate is going to give you references who will say glowing things about them. However, if you ask more probing questions, other than the traditional, “tell me about their strengths or weaknesses”, you might discover valuable information that, while still being positive, will give insight on the candidate and how they can contribute in your company. Asking questions like, “If you were going to manage this person, what would you want to know ahead of time that would make you more effective” OR “From a manager’s perspective, what does this candidate need to be successful?” OR ”What makes this person frustrated or demotivated?” These are questions that lead to more of an insightful discussion versus a yes or no responses. I can tell you from my own experiences, when an employee does not work out, I always go back to their reference write-up, and more often than not, I can detect a subtle comment that foreshadows why he/she did not end up being ideal.

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

Promote Flexible Work Options — There is a large amount of research (I can provide if required) that shows that flexibility, whether it be part-time hours, flex hours, some/all virtual hours, etc. is of higher priority than compensation or job title by a large part of the workforce. My biggest piece of advice for attracting top employees is to look at what is most important to them in a particular position, and then try to figure out a way to offer it. Whether it be moms or dads raising children, baby boomers who want to scale back for more work-life balance, or people who are responsible for an aging or sick loved-one, there is a growing number of people who can only re-enter or remain in the workforce if they can find a flexible role. Therefore, those businesses that offer true flexibility are able to accessthis huge and growing group of educated and skilled job seekers. Every day I see businesses, particularly small businesses, find creative ways to tap into this flexible workforce, and in doing so gain an advantage over many of their competitors who are ignoring this valuable talent pool.

Thought Leader– Position your company as a thought-leader and a place where the employee will be intellectually stimulated and challenged. Use social media, blogs, LinkedIn posts, etc. to position your company as innovative, creative and a trend-setter in your industry.

Culture Where People Are Valued– People want to feel good about going to work every day and also want to know that their work and opinions matter. Reinforce to prospective candidates that employee satisfaction and development are of utmost importance and highlight what makes your culture unique. Make sure that your website communicates a focus on employee engagement and a supportive work culture. Use employee testimonials, photos, videos, etc. to make it clear to prospective candidates that your company is a place whose employees are happy and grateful to be working there.

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

Workplace Flexibility (see above)

Culture (see above)

Professional Development

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?

In order to find and retain the very best talent, you need to stay on top of the latest HR trends, especially in a tight labor market. Flexible work opportunities is a hot topic and is not going away any time soon. When we launched our company 10 years ago, most of the people looking for flexibility were women/moms. However, over the last 10 years the talent pool needing flexibility has not only grown but diversified. We now see more baby boomers (both men and women) wanting to scale back but remain engaged in the workforce. As the average lifespan increases, we see more people in the ‘sandwich generation’ who need flexibility to take care of both children and parents. We even see more millennials who require flexibility so that they can pursue interests outside of work such as volunteering and travel. Most companies would not dream of using the exact same technology they did 10 years previously, but often are hiring and structuring their workforce in the same way they did 20 years ago. I believe that those companies that are not educating themselves about HR trends like workplace flexibility, will be at a large disadvantage in their ability to recruit and retain the very best employees.

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

While Part-time job seekers value the benefit of being able to leave at a certain time or work less than 5 days per week, they are not the only ones that benefit from the flexibility a company may offer. By embracing part-time hires, a company has access to a whole new talent pool of people that they might not otherwise be able to attract in the old, 9–5 model. Given that these voluntary part-time workers value flexibility, many see it as part of their compensation and are willing to work at competitive rates and no benefits in exchange for the opportunity to work in a part-time role. Those companies positioned for growth but don’t have the money or work to justify a 40-hour hire now have an effective way to bring in talent and stay on a growth path without having to break the bank. It is truly a win-win for companies looking for cost-effective talent and people who value work-life balance.

Big fan of win-wins! 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?

My movement would be to limit social media and encourage people, especially young people, to make real phone calls and have real live conversations face-to-face. People thought that the invention of the television would bring more knowledge and information to society. While it did that, it also brought with it a lot of garbage and mindless entertainment to people’s homes. So too, social media can be a great way for people to connect and promote ideas and knowledge but it can also make people more divisive, lonelier and less able to connect emotionally on a human level. There needs to be a better balance between technology and real human interaction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Personal Focus

Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Abraham Lincoln

I try to live my life on the premise that happiness is a choice, not something that is given to you. I remind my children often that if you wait for everything in your life to be perfect before you find happiness, that you will be waiting for a very, very long time. Those people that can find happiness even during difficult times are ones that are able to live a happy life.

Professional Focus

Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” Henry David Thoreau

I love this quote because if you focus on your passion and always try to do the right thing, you will have greater success than focusing on ‘success’ itself. Success should be the byproduct of accomplishing your goals rather than the goal itself.

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?

Michelle Obama. Regardless of one’s politics, I think Michelle is a strong, smart, and caring woman with a sense of humor and a dedication to both work and family. Please have lunch with me! I’ll buy 😊

Thank you so much for sharing all of these fantastic insights!

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