Time will pass whether you move or not. So get moving.
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 Rachel Cooke.
Rachel Cooke is the Founder of Lead Above Noise. She is also the host of Macmillan’s Quick and Dirty Tips Modern Mentor podcast — a weekly show designed to inform, equip, and empower listeners to define and create their own versions of professional success. Rachel holds her Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and her Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development from Cornell University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path — Organization Development with a focus on crafting workplace success — was inspired by a recognition that we spend a significant percentage of our lifetimes working, and the belief that we all deserve to connect, succeed and thrive on our own terms.
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?
A few months ago I was kicking off a leadership offsite with a CEO and his team. The group was very serious at the outset, but in order for us to achieve our objectives, I needed the group to loosen up, and be willing to engage and experiment.
So I kicked off the day with the marshmallow challenge. I broke the team into groups of 3, gave each group a pile of marshmallows, a roll of tape, and a bunch of sticks — and challenged each group to build the tallest tower with only those materials. Within 15 minutes the CEO was jumping up and down on a table, the head of marketing yelling “we need more cowbell!” and the CHRO climbing atop the shoulders of the General Counsel. It was amazing and hilarious and here’s what I learned:
- We never get too senior or important to have fun…and want to win!
- Collaborative competition can offer a fast path to true collaborative problem solving
- The winning group was the group that best harnessed the individual strengths of its members
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?
Here are the five pointers I offer every client who asks!
- Always be pipelining. When a critical new job opens, you don’t want to be starting your talent search from scratch. You want a pool of warm talent (i.e., talented people who already know, like, and trust you) from whom you might choose. So even in your busy seasons, make time to get to know people across your company and outside. Give informational interviews to talent who reaches out, be willing to speak at college recruiting or industry events. Maintain a network of talent so when the job opens you’re not racing to find a warm body to fill it; you actually have a bunch of leads at the ready.
- Be socially present. Cultivate a leadership brand for yourself on social media (I focus on Linked In). Share insights and points of view, comment on and share other people’s articles so the talent community at large can get to know you and what you stand for. Be thoughtful and provocative so you stand out. And likewise, follow a diverse body of people so you, in turn, can get to know them. Build a brand that will attract top talent to seek your leadership.
- Ruthlessly strip that job req down. Leaders want the best talent they can get in critical roles. Therefore, the tendency is to write a job description designed to attract someone who can do everything under the sun and do it well. I like to tell leaders that I love Broadway shows. I love the singers and I love dancers. What I don’t always love is the singing dancers (or dancing singers) because while they do both well, they likely aren’t the best at either. When you’re writing up a job, do you really need someone who can sing and dance? Or is this a dancing role at its core? The fewer the skills, capabilities, and requirements you list on a requisition, the broader the talent pool will be. Furthermore, the more detailed a requisition, the more likely you’ll be to see a greater percentage of white men in your application pool. Women and minorities generally need to feel they meet all or nearly all of the requirements before they apply. So, if you’ve listed 16 essential qualifications, really push yourself. How many are truly essential to success, and how many would be nice to have? Cut down the latter as much as possible.
- Reach out to unavailable talent. When you’ve opened up a head-of-marketing job, one of your best resources is heads of marketing at other (ideally non-competing) companies. The recommendation isn’t to poach talent, but rather to tap them for ideas. Heads of marketing often network with other heads of marketing. They may have someone(s) perfect in their network that they are happy to connect you with. Now you have a warm introduction to a qualified prospect, and you’ve gently let the person you called know you’re looking…just in case they decide they’d like to throw their hat in the ring (it’s not poaching if they opt to apply!)
- Know your weaknesses well. Sometimes the “best” talent isn’t defined by a hard skill or qualification or specific industry experience, but rather by the degree to which they’re able to complement what you — the hiring leader — bring to the table. If the hiring leader is known for charisma and vision, then the “best” talent for the role might be someone with a strong capability for project management and execution. Or vice versa.
The more self-awareness a leader has about their own strengths and shortcomings, the more targeted that leader can be in rounding out the capability of the team as a whole.
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?
- Tell compelling stories. Top talent today is looking for more than the job — salary, benefits — those are table stakes. You have to get those right. But what people want most today is to feel a part of something. They want a sense of purpose. And by telling compelling stories — about your company, your brand — the way your teams have brought about change, impacted customer lives, infused joy or ingenuity into an old way of working — those stories make talent want to dive in. Recruiting presentations shouldn’t be heavy on dry strategic principles or lists of employee benefits. They should focus on customer stories. Whatever your industry — be it finance, pharma, consumer products — sharing stories that highlight how your product or service changed a life or will shift society engages talent on an emotional level. Once you have them hooked, then the strategy and benefits become relevant.
- Pose big questions. Talent wants direction from leadership — but more importantly, it wants to know it has a voice. What problems are you striving to solve? Where are you looking for innovation — grand or incremental? What are you looking to learn? By posing questions — live, on social media, etc. — you are signaling your interest in the contributions of many. Top talent doesn’t just want to come in and execute. They want to know your senior leadership is curious and open-minded and willing to listen.
- Make diversity an actual priority. Managing diversity by scorecard is a dead-in-the-water strategy. Top talent today is seeking truly diverse organizations — those not focused on reporting metrics around promotions of women or people of color — but those who are baking diversity into the DNA of how they run business. Top talent wants to see faces and hear voices that represent the breadth of the talent and customer population. Companies truly embracing diversity as a core way of being are more innovative and more successful. So don’t talk about your commitment to diversity. Just show up that way and let it speak for itself.
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 be a movement in which employees define a meaningful EX, and leaders then design the structures, norms, and processes to bring it to life (the opposite of how we work and design today).
The thing about EX is that when it’s well designed, it unlocks the potential our teams are waiting and wanting to deliver. So getting EX right is the fastest and surest path to delivering results, retaining talent, and ensuring that everyone — shareholder, customer, and employee — AND the environment — emerges a winner.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how that was relevant to you in your life?
We can only eat the elephant one bite at a time.
While elephant-eating has never been high on my list of hobbies, I’m a staunch believer in dreaming big and acting small.
Every day I see companies, teams, and people stay right where they are because the aspired-to destination seems too far off. Changing culture, rewiring strategy, reinventing the EX — these are all big old elephants. But I always ask — myself and my clients — what is one step you can take today? There is always something. Time will pass whether you move or not. So get moving.
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?
For me it would be Monica Lewinsky. I always think about what I need to learn, and who is best suited to teach me. I’m a die-hard believer in learning from failure. Our fall-down moments offer tremendous insight. But it can be painful to grasp. And it’s an area I struggle with.
Monica, for me, is the embodiment of not only surviving a global, public humiliation but for taking accountability for the part she played and letting that moment redefine her path forward.
I look to her as a tremendous inspiration. She didn’t just survive her path — she let it teach and fuel her. She doesn’t succeed in spite of it, but in many ways because of it. Today she is a speaker and an activist helping others overcome shame, defy bullies, and own the entirety of who they are. I think we could all learn something from the grace she has shown.
Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!