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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Entrepreneurs & Technology

Most technology entrepreneurs are creative by nature - but they don't always know how to hire the other innovators they need. Management guru Dr John Sullivan has strong views on how to get that right

Dr John Sullivan isn't known for holding back on his opinions. A professor at San Francisco State University and a well-known authority on people management issues, he's a frequent fixture at conferences and in the media expounding his views on how poorly most companies handle their employees. And talking to him a couple of weeks ago, one thing that's particularly irking him today is how companies mismanage their innovators.

While some of his views will be largely academic to smaller companies - his complaints about the inadequacies of many HR professionals make for entertaining reading, for example, but don't really matter if your workforce isn't big enough to hire one - much of his agenda drives to the heart of what makes a business succeed. Firstly, like a growing number of experts in the people management arena, Dr Sullivan believes recruitment is a sales and marketing activity rather than an HR discipline (see 'Candidate or Customer?' [TECHNICAL; 220035]). Good quality people are in high demand, and you need to adopt the same techniques to sign them up as you apply to winning a customer. While old school recruitment philosophy says candidates need to convince you to hire them, securing good people today is as much about convincing them that you're the best place for them to work.

So how exactly do you do that? To begin with, argues Dr Sullivan, you need to find out what factors they'll take into account when they decide on a job - what he calls their acceptance criteria. You can ask them direct when they put in an application or during the job interview - or you can be a little more circumspect and simply ask them to describe their dream job. Either way, it's unlikely that their goal is going to correspond exactly with the role you've created, so you need to adjust your sales pitch to hone in on areas where the two do cross over. In fact, if you've found a really good candidate, you might even change the role you'd mapped out - better to have a great person in a slightly different job than a mediocre operator who ticks all the boxes.

Secondly, you need to stand out from the rest of the people fighting for talent - so you've got to have what Dr Sullivan calls the 'wow' factor. In the technology field, companies like Google and Genentech have long attracted applicants by doing things differently. Google in particular has ripped up much of the employee rule book, famously shipping its Bay Area employees into work in limousine shuttles and providing free gourmet food at its campus restaurants. It also encourages engineers to work on their own projects one day a week, a policy that has helped spawn a huge number of its inventions. Likewise, biotech giant Genentech owes much of the success of one of its most successful therapies, Herceptin, to the 'underground' research culture it fostered, where scientists were encouraged to research their own projects. Breaking the rules to foster creativity creates a buzz and gets people talking.

Of course, 'wow recruiting' is easier to pull off when it's backed by the resource of an industry giant like Google, but that's not to say Dr Sullivan's philosophy can't be adopted by entrepreneurs. One advantage smaller businesses have, in fact, is that they can rewrite job roles much more easily than their large counterparts, which have to steer through internal politics and adapt complex hierarchies. Another is that, by their very nature, entrepreneurs tend to be trying something different - so if you're looking for an experienced software engineer, your ground-breaking technology concept could be the thing that woos them. The flipside, of course, is that new ideas don't do it for everybody - a great salesperson won't be excited by new technology, they'll be excited by new technology that looks like it will generate big dollars.

Thirdly, if you're going to 'wow' people, you need to target the right ones, and be clear about how to handle them. Dr Sullivan argues that companies need to distinguish between high performers, who've traditionally been the target for recruiters, and innovators, who are more likely to be the people driving today's companies forward. 'In a world that changes so fast, you have to innovate consistently,' he says. 'You've got top performers and innovators - the innovators are the critical ones. The top performer will make the wired phone better - the innovator will say 'Let's not have the wire'.'

The challenge with innovators, however, is that they're not just unconventional in their thinking - they also tend to be unconventional in their work habits. So you'll probably need to reciprocate by being flexible about your working practices. The reason Google offers employees breakfast, lunch and dinner on campus isn't just to keep them in the office for longer - it also knows that creative people work odd hours. In fact, some innovators won't want to be tied down to an office at all. Innovation has never been a nine-to-five job - so if you want to tap into someone's creativity, you might need to grab it wherever you can get it.

By Keith Rodgers, Webster Buchanan Research