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Identify And Retain Talent with Deirdre Runnette at FLEXE & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

FLEXE Human Resources Hiring Strategies

When people think of value, they often think in terms of compensation or benefits. In startup cultures, where cash is typically even tighter, clear value is created by giving employees autonomy to do the things they care about.

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 Deirdre Runnette.

Deirdre Runnette is the Chief People Officer and General Counsel at FLEXE. In this role, she oversees FLEXE’s legal operations and leads talent acquisition and professional development initiatives to help the company hire and retain the best technology and logistics talent. Prior to joining the on-demand warehousing and fulfillment company, she spent more than 20 years building sophisticated compliance, human resource, and legal programs at law firms and in corporate settings such as Zulily, T-Mobile, and Stoel Rives LLP.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path has been quite unexpected. Originally, I wanted to be a writer. But soon after teaching English in China, I realized how much I wanted to understand and have a voice in the legal system that underpins our democracy. When I returned to the U.S., I applied to and then attended law school at the University of Montana.

After 20 years of practicing law in law firms, such as Stoel Rives LLP, and corporate settings, such as T-Mobile, I decided to adjust my career direction and join online retail startup Zulily as the company’s first lawyer. Because I joined the company in its early stages, I had the opportunity to play a leading role in building a team culture that encouraged and empowered employees to do their best and most innovative work. Eventually, my role expanded to being General Counsel and Head of HR. With a winding and diverse career trajectory, I couldn’t be more grateful for the incredible companies and people I’ve worked with along the way.

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

When I graduated from law school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree, but I was certain I did not want to be a litigator. My first job was a clerkship with the Honorable Deborah A. Batts, a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York.

As a result of that clerkship, law firms sought to have me join their litigation teams. So, despite my best intentions to the contrary, I ended up becoming a litigator. While I thought I would dislike the conflict that comes with the role, I found that I loved the storytelling and the weaving together of fact and law. This experience taught me to keep an open mind, particularly when biases are strong.

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

I joined FLEXE, in part, because our mission is so exciting. We are focused on creating the open logistics network for the global movement of goods. Creating this new, on-demand warehousing and fulfillment category is revolutionizing the $1.6 trillion global logistics industry including Fortune 500 brands, eCommerce startups, warehouse providers, and the average consumer.

Our business is incredibly dynamic in the way it was built and the clients we serve, but it’s all made possible by our people. That’s why I joined FLEXE. I am excited to help our team maintain and refine the amazing culture it has created and support our continued growth in how we function as a company, and also in how we serve our market. I am thrilled to work with our talented team in service of our mission.

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?

Hiring is the toughest and most important thing a company can do. Five successful techniques I recommend include:

  1. Aligning the candidate with the job goals: Ask managers to create 30/60/90-day objectives for the prospective role so the candidate has a clear understanding of what they’ll be expected to do when they join the company. This is also helpful for interviewers to know so they can properly assess candidates based on the specific job goal.
  2. Skills assessments: Pre-screen candidates to evaluate whether they have the necessary skills to meet the job requirements and succeed. I’ve seen this executed well in technology, marketing, and sales teams. One always needs to ensure testing methodology is not biased, but if done effectively, it can help to speed time to hire ensure candidates have the basic skills they need to succeed
  3. Values/behavior assessment: For some roles, it can be useful to get to know candidates’ values through behavioral or personality assessments, such as Harrison or DiSC, to evaluate what is important to those individuals and how those traits complement the values and behaviors of other teammates and leaders.
  4. Gap filling: Identify the different talents, skills, and behaviors your existing team may need to succeed and use these as part of the candidate assessment. Too often we hire people who are similar to us despite knowing that bringing different perspectives and ideas together will yield better results. Startups are a great way to learn this because we see incumbents stretch into new roles, and in so doing, we change our way of thinking about the traditional qualifications and requirements for roles. I have seen attorneys take on and excel in completely new disciplines, members of operation or finance teams transition to training, recruiting, human resources, project management and chief of staff functions. Talent abounds if one thinks in terms of aptitude rather than solely experience.
  5. Broadening and elevating the candidate pool: Similar to gap filling, make sure to challenge hiring managers and recruiting teams to consider a diverse pool of candidates who bring different perspectives, skills, and viewpoints to the table.

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?

  1. Clearly communicate a compelling company mission that resonates with candidates. People are drawn to meaningful work that makes a difference in the world. Coach and, ideally, inspire current employees to champion the company mission so that candidates can understand and connect to the larger company vision.
  2. A good way to showcase your company mission is to capitalize on your success. Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Make sure candidates know how the company is excelling — whether it’s a best place to work award, a new product launch, or a big customer win.
  3. Create a feedback loop so to better understand your workplace reputation. When companies take the time to listen to their team members, as well as candidates, it can help leadership make changes to address concerns, and also create opportunities. Creating an environment that fosters employee engagement cultivates better reputations and a culture that’s sought after.

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

  1. Communicate the company mission, vision, and strategy consistently. Make sure that teams understand what the larger purpose is and how each team member plays a part. Communicate when goals change and explain why.
  2. Invest in leadership and manager training. Employees usually quit managers, not companies. Bad management kills innovation. Set clear expectations that leaders should be earning their team’s trust, managing for alignment around an understood goal, removing roadblocks, and empowering teams to do their best work. Developing leaders and managers who can do this helps succession planning, drives results, and increases retention.
  3. Encourage empathy and build trust. Everyone wants to feel valued, heard, and cared about. We expect this from our friends, family, and even from our retail and service providers. We should expect the same from our employers. This doesn’t mean that everyone always gets along or agrees, but it does mean that we listen, we keep an open mind, talk through differences, and always treat each other with respect. Organizations that do this will build healthy environments that naturally retain top talent.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends?

There is so much great research and insight about how to improve HR functions in organizations. I save articles daily for weekend and nighttime reading so I can consider new ways to better serve our team members and our larger company goals. I think of this as continual improvement, personally and professionally. As an attorney, I have to obtain continuing legal education credits so that I can stay abreast of changes in the law. Our team at FLEXE does the same. We attend seminars, meet with other HR leaders to share insights, and focus on continuous learning — and then, we get to geek out about it!

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

When people think of value, they often think in terms of compensation or benefits. In startup cultures, where cash is typically even tighter, clear value is created by giving employees autonomy to do the things they care about. For example, making time for people to volunteer at local charities or bringing in educational speakers for lunch meetings. People are endlessly creative. Empower people to create new programs and groups that can create value for the organization as well as the broader community.

At FLEXE, one example is PhilanthroFLEXE, a program the team started last year that’s dedicated to supporting Seattle community-based nonprofits. A few team members came up with the idea for the program, the leadership team supported it, and PhilanthroFLEXE was born. Like PhilanthroFLEXE, the key is to build a culture and an environment where employees have the confidence to voice new ideas and be creative.

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?

There are so many areas in our world which are in dire straights. It’s hard to know where to start. If I could start one movement, it would be to mitigate the rhetoric that fuels us to view people who are different as less deserving of the same rights and respect that we may take for granted every day. I would want to work toward recognizing our collective humanity.

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

The judge I worked for years ago once told me, “Don’t be so focused on your destination that you fail to notice the flowers along the side of the road.” I think of that almost every day. Her sound guidance has led me off the beaten path and upended all of my intended destinations in the best possible ways.

What a wonderful reminder for all of us. 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 would love to have lunch with Frances Frei. Ms. Frei is a professor at the Harvard Business School and her work focuses on how to lead with trust and how to cultivate the best environment for people and organizations to thrive. When Uber sought to change their culture, they called in Frances Frei. I’d love the chance to learn from her.

Thank you for sharing so many valuable insights with us today!

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