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How Companies Identify Talent with Keren Kozar & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

January Digital Human Resources Hiring Strategies

Before you jump to conclusions or force someone to see something from your perspective, take a second to understand why they did what they did and why they believe what they do.

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 Keren Kozar.

Keren Kozar leads hiring and people operations at January Digital, a digital leadership company. Prior to joining January Digital, Keren was an integral part of the HR team at Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Sony Music Entertainment. A graduate of Rutgers University, Keren holds a certificate in HR Management from Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School and is SHRM-CP certified.

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

I owe it all to Ilana Levitt, my wonderful career counselor who identified my passions — a love of people & problem-solving — and married that with a career: HR.

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?

In an attempt to be incredibly proactive and “tidy up” on my last day at my first job, I deleted every single email in my account. Inbox. Sent Items. Folders. Deleted Items. You name it, I erased it.

It’s incredibly embarrassing to think about now with hindsight, but I was so early in my career that I thought I was being helpful by leaving my email account empty. Clearly, I simply didn’t know better. Needless to say, I received a furious message from my boss the next day when he realized what I’d done and discovered there were no records of my communications with clients.

So here’s what I learned from that experience (aside from to never, ever do that again!): The way you exit is the legacy you leave behind. It is just as, if not more, important than any other impression you make. Keeping that in mind, everything you do after you give notice should be about making the lives of those around you easier both in your final days and following your departure. You never know when you’ll see your former colleagues again. In my case, it was at a wedding a few years later. And as you could’ve guessed, it was still awkward!

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

We’re in the midst of reworking our parental leave policy at this very moment.

Creating competitive parental leave opportunities for both genders really resonates with me, because I grew up in a family with reversed gender roles — my mom brought in most of the income and my dad was a stay at home dad for many years.

Our culture has always focused on celebrating diverse family make-ups and dynamics. Our goal at January Digital, as reflected in our new parental leave policy, is to be a place that understands the unique challenges inherent with being a working parent and creates an environment where all employees have access to the resources needed to excel in both their roles: parent & employee. We had three employees become parents in 2019, and we heard their feedback regarding what support and flexibility were most important to them. Based on that feedback, we added an additional month to our leave, gave all employees four weeks of reduced hours to transition back to work, and introduced Milk Stork to our benefit offerings.

Wonderful. Now let’s 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. Truly understand your company’s DNA. What are your company’s values and core competencies? What are your company’s point of differentiation and what types of people excel in its environment? Conversely, what types of people struggle?

2. Hold a Kick-Off Meeting Prior to Looking for A Candidate. Time is money. Especially in the agency world, roles don’t open six months before they’re needed — they pop up and need to be filled tomorrow. Given this, you must know what’s required for the open position right away. This means sitting down with the hiring manager for 30–45 minutes before creating the job post to learn what the role entails, what skills are needed, what is the manager’s leadership style, and what questions need to be asked in the first-round interview. This way, when I begin the process, I have the information I need to make assessments quickly and accurately.

3. Require A Skills Assessment As The First Step. Since varying degrees of technical proficiency are required, all applicants must complete a skills assessment prior to beginning the interview process. If s/he has the technical skills required, they make it round two. If not, my team and I have not wasted our valuable time speaking with someone who will be unable to do the work, and we haven’t wasted the candidate’s time either.

4. Create Standard Situational Questions. Now comes the fun part: getting to know a candidate. At January Digital, we want to hire people with strong values who will positively add to our culture, help us grow both as people and as a company, and bring curiosity and a strong work ethic to the office. To identify this, I have 3–4 standard questions I ask to learn how a candidate will respond in various situations. Based on the response, I follow up with additional questions for an interview that becomes unscripted and conversational. I find that I typically learn the most about a candidate from the honest conversations that arise from these simple questions.

5. Spread The News. Don’t keep open positions a secret. Post the job opening everywhere you can. Ask your employees to share hard-to-fill roles on their LinkedIn pages. Every place you can get an eyeball is an opportunity to recruit someone fabulous. Remember to always leverage your existing talent to help find great new hires. We have a referral program on January Digital that has helped bring in some of our best employees.

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. Apply for industry awards. When you win, shout it from the rooftop!

2. Show that your company is relevant and forward-thinking within its industry. Our employees demonstrate that they are thought leaders by routinely writing blog posts, speaking with media, and attending industry events. As a result, our company will stand out when people are researching industry trends, opinion pieces, and best practices — whether people are looking for a job or not.

3. Offer a unique proposition. If you join our team, you’re not going to do the same routine tasks that you’ve been doing. People who are turned off by challenges and innovative thinking aren’t the people we want. We speak with candidates about being part of building something new, breaking tradition, and working collaboratively in our efforts to do so.

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

Our Good Works program is a pillar of our company. The purpose of Good Works is to routinely participate in community service efforts that help fulfill our mission of supporting our community and building a company of people dedicated to serving others. As part of Good Works, we have what we call the “Holiday Challenge.” The goal is to add unexpected cheer to people at a time when they might need it most. To complete the Holiday Challenge, we ask our employees and our clients to find a diner, coffee shop — any no-frills restaurant that’s open after 6 pm on Christmas Eve or before noon on Christmas morning — order the cheapest item on the menu, leave a $100 tip, and walk out. January Digital reimburses everyone who participates. The idea came about because our CEO’s mother waited tables during his childhood and typically had to work nights, including Christmas Eve since it was a shift no one else wanted and she needed the extra money for her family. This year, we spread $3,000+ in holiday cheer across the country! It’s an activity the whole company looks forward to participating in each holiday season.

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

“Seek to understand, not to be understood.”

Everyone has their own perspective. We will all get along better if we assume that everyone acts with the best of intentions. Before you jump to conclusions or force someone to see something from your perspective, take a second to understand why they did what they did and why they believe what they do. You may learn something new. You may find you agree. You may disagree, but at least you have more information to help support your position.

We are 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?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsberg is someone who worked to defy gender stereotypes at a time when that was a seemingly impossible task. She is someone who never settles for status quo, works constantly to better the world, and — what I admire more than anything — believes in the power of understanding (even befriending) the opposition even if you don’t agree with their beliefs. Truly the epitome of seeking to understand and not to be understood.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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