How Companies Identify Talent with Karen Stafford and Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

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Employers Council Human Resources Hiring Strategies

In making decisions, no matter how unpopular or uncomfortable they may be, we can always be kind, respectful, and mindful of maintaining the dignity of affected individuals.

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 Karen Stafford.

Karen Stafford, MHRM, SPHR, SHRM — SCP, and Arizona President of Employers Council joined the company in 2004. Graduate of the University of Hawaii, Karen holds a master’s degree in human resource management and currently serves on the faculty of the W.P.Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. She also regularly presents at local, statewide, and national conferences. With over 25 years of human resources experience, Karen has served in senior management and HR consulting positions in a variety of business settings. From non-profit agencies and small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations, Karen’s expertise spans the industries of property casualty insurance, family entertainment, health care, and banking.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

I started out in high school working for a little non-standard auto insurance company back in the day, in a unit that literally matched, checked, and assembled computer output with hard copy insurance applications — it is a job that does not even exist today. However, those formative high school years helped me develop attention to detail, analytical skills, and the ability to deliver effective feedback. This led to me landing a job in college with the campus Student Employment Office, where students ran the entire on-campus employment program, including the $1M student employee payroll. By senior year, I was managing the program so getting into Human Resources after college seemed to be a natural fit. Once in the field, I realized that short of being CEO, there is not another function in an organization that offers the opportunity to influence every department, service line, leader, and employee, and I never looked back.

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

(There are two funny stories that come to mind from my early years. Please feel free to pick!) There was the time I was sitting out on our boat dock, reviewing (paper, yes, paper!) resumes and a rogue wind blew the whole pile in the channel! Even I did not know I could move that fast! All resumes were saved, albeit quite soggy. There were several lessons from that situation, from using a more “secure” process going forward, to becoming an early adopter of online applicant tracking programs, to embarking on a lifelong effort not to bring work home on weekends (I’m still a work in progress on that last one!).

The other funny story involved a time I had to meet with our CEO and upon walking into his office, we both realized he was out of compliance with the dress code we had in place at the time. He sheepishly asked if I was going to send him home, although, in hindsight, I do not think he expected an answer. Before I really comprehended that as a 23-year-old, relative new hire I was addressing the CEO of a Fortune 500 organization/billionaire, I respectfully offered that if he stayed in his office for the day, I would allow it. Otherwise, he would need to go home and change like everyone else. He looked a bit taken aback, paused for what felt like 10 years, looked me straight in the eye, and let out a big laugh. He then promised to stay in his office for the day and not do it again. We continued with our meeting as planned and it was not until I was in the elevator afterward with my adrenalin pumping, that it hit me how differently the situation could have ended. From this situation, I learned that speaking up for what is right and doing so respectfully, regardless of who is involved and even when it is not easy, was a strategy I wanted to be known for in my career.

Wonderful. Now let us jump into 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. Be clear about who you are as a company: Be solid on what you are about as a company in terms of your mission, vision, and values to the extent that you can answer the questions, “Why does your organization exist?” or “What problem do you solve?” This helps ensure you communicate and position the company such that applicants are drawn to your organization knowing who you are and what you are about, without over-selling or making promises that cannot be kept. It is equally important to know who you are as it is, and to be honest about who you are not.
  2. Know the position: Know the skills and competencies you need for today (and what that might look like in the future), and in what context. For example, those who are navigating working remotely or hybrid work environments should ensure their interview process also includes exploring the likes/dislikes as well as the level of skill the applicant brings to the position. An applicant can be a great stand up/in-person trainer but shutter at the thought of conducting training online. You need to know this upfront so there are no surprises upon hire.
  3. Determine which skills to buy vs. those you can build: Understand which of the skills listed in #2 a new hire needs coming in the door vs. those you can help them develop once hired. In a recent hiring process, we required years of employment law experience and experience using computer-based client management systems due to the nature of our work. The candidate we ultimately hired was well versed in employment law but was not familiar with our specific client management system. Whereas we can easily train on the client management system, years of employment and business law expertise takes time and experience to develop that we did not have.
  4. Have a plan: Having a well-planned, consistent selection process outlined before starting the recruiting process can make all the difference. Ensuring all relevant parties are queued up once applicants start streaming in will set you up for the greatest success while paving the way for a fair and equitable process. This includes drafting behavioral-based interview questions, ensuring all interviewers involved are versed on the job description and requirements, as well as key competencies and a realistic view of the work environment for the position in question.
  5. Gauge motivation: Be sure to determine which needs of the applicant can be met by what your position offers. Is it a position that offers a nice work environment? One that includes paid training to develop not only in one’s current job but also for personal growth and future positions? Is travel required? Public speaking opportunities required or available? Is it a team-based or individual contributor in focus? Knowing what drives or motivates an applicant helps you identify whether your position is a good fit for them. To determine this, you need to identify what they are seeking in their next position in the interview process. Questions such as, “Contrast for me a time when you flourished in a work environment vs. one where you had a tougher time,” can provide helpful insight to assist in confirming whether the applicant is a good fit for your position, in your environment, and with your organization.

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

  1. Become known as a best place to work in your industry and/or community: This requires a long-term, strategic effort. Understand what your competitive advantage is as an employer — what sets you apart from your competitors or those with whom you compete for talent: Great company culture? Great pay? Development and opportunities? High energy, collaborative environment? Employee stock ownership opportunities? Fun culture? Best in class? To dig into this, understand why people stay at your company. What is in it for them to join your organization?
  2. Cast the net as widely as you can: In today’s marketplace, the only asset a company has that cannot be replicated is its employees! When you are searching for your next greatest hire, you need to find the best person available. To do so, you need to cast your net as widely as possible. Do not stop at the tools you have used in the past, look beyond that. How can you engage a diverse set of outlets, job posting sites, and platforms such that you reach an increasingly diverse pool of candidates? Industry or trade organizations, affinity groups, alumni networks at schools with relevant or sought-after programs, local workforce development centers, and what about social media? The options can be endless!
  3. Engage your network’s network: While casting your net widely, do not forget to put the word out through your own network. Whether online or otherwise, getting the word out that you are looking for your next greatest hire to your band of trusted advisors is a must. Moreover, take it a step further and ask them to keep the ripple effect going — make it easy for them to send to their networks, and so on, and so on! Also, make sure your networks know what your needs are so they can be on the lookout for great talent even if you do not have an immediate need.

What are the three most effective strategies you use to retain employees?

  1. Start from the inside out: On this topic, I tend to agree with a quote attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” By showing care and consideration for everyone on your team as an individual, it makes sense to tune in to what drives and engages them as well. Why do they work in your industry? What got them interested in working at your company in the first place? Why do they stay? (What need is being met by being here?) Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions can help leaders better work with, acknowledge, recognize, and reward employees in ways that are most meaningful and strengthen the connection with that employee. Even in this environment, great talent has options. The connection between leader and employee (and employees with their team members) might be the only retention lever you can influence.
  2. Connect the dots for employees: Building on what you learned in #1, connect the dots between those needs, and what the organization, job, and team have to offer. Highlighting an employee’s impact on the bottom line, the team, the customer, or society as a whole, can also be extremely powerful as a retention strategy. By helping employees realize the effect of their work, valuing their contributions, and showcasing how they make a difference can help them connect with your organization and their team in ways that can foster incredible loyalty.
  3. Say in touch: A recent study indicated the 72% of employees reported feeling like this is one of the most important aspects of support they appreciated throughout this pandemic to date. These don’t have to be long or “heavy, deep, and real” conversations (although those are good too when appropriate!); however, spending dedicated time can help you connect with your employees and confirm you are on the same page with work priorities, while also issue-spotting before something develops from a minor annoyance to major show-stopping frustration or stressor.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would start with creating and maintaining a culture of kindness, dignity, and respect. In making decisions, no matter how unpopular or uncomfortable they may be, we can always be kind, respectful, and mindful of maintaining the dignity of affected individuals. In creating policy or delivering difficult news, we can always choose kindness. Lifting each other up vs. cutting each other down is why we are given this opportunity in life. Imagine all that would be possible if this ripple effect of a movement took place worldwide!

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

“If you do not like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” — Maya Angelou. In the face of adversity, the encouragement to speak up and act to right a wrong or improve something if the opportunity exists to do so really resonates with me. However, additional learning for me has been developing an appreciation that not everyone chooses to or is ready to act or move on. And, in those moments, some of the best support I can offer is to simply be there for them and listen.

We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC, 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 think it would be fun to have lunch with Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. In addition to her work on important issues like closing the gender pay gap, parental leave, and championing women in the tech industry while running a $160B company, and being a mom of five kids, I’d love to learn what’s on her radar for the future, and where she finds the time to innovate.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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