How to Recruit Top Talent in the Communications Field

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs, Apple

As leaders in the communications field – regardless if we’re agency, nonprofit, or Fortune 500 – we need exceptional talent to meet our business goals. We need staff who can not only write, project manage, code, design, and talk on the phone but who can lead, who can self direct, who can learn, who can THINK.

But to attract that kind of talent, who do we, as employers, need to be? What kind of leaders attract the right kind of talent? Because as anyone in this space can tell you, it is getting harder and harder to attract top talent and then organize that talent in an ecosystem that creates results that surprise and delight clients.

 What I Learned About Attracting & Retaining Talent

 Who are we looking for again?  Smart people.

I really love Harvard Business Review’s podcast, Ideacast, because the presenters really are the best at their game and provide great advice for recruiting in today’s world. I also get advice from meeting with really smart people on a regular basis, like my colleague Eleanor Goldhar, who led the communications office at the Guggenheim Museum for almost a decade and saw the museum through many transitions. She once told me “I never hire anyone I wouldn’t personally work for”, and I couldn’t agree more.

From my years of leadership meetings, reading HBR, and now running Proof Strategies USA for more than two years, there are three key factors to attract really smart people.

1.  Hire, Reward, and Tolerate Only Fully Formed Professionals

I wish I did, but I don’t have time to teach you everything you need to know about working in my office. You are welcome to ask me questions, but also be aware that I am busy. As a result, I need you to be a high-performing professional and figure out a lot on your own. I need you to come to me with problems, with a solution in tow. I need you to ask me a question about a client, because you want to further your relationship with that client. I want you to ask me about our internal processes, but really I want you to use common sense. I want you to ask my opinion on a blog piece you have written, but I really want it to be superb before I see it. In other words, I need you crush it. And be a professional.

And because I have surrounded myself with these super strong, smart professionals, it attracts other smart people who want to do great work. Because at the end of the day, super smart people coming up with great ideas is what makes work really fun.

2.   Accept the Truth About Performance

You’ve heard it before. Hire slow, fire fast. And it’s not easy. But it is critical.

In the communications industry, the technology, strategy and tactics are ever changing and change quickly. Staying on top of client deliverables to achieve results requires a speedy, self-directed learner, someone with a real sense of urgency to learn, change, adapt and deliver. This is no small feat and not everyone wants to or is made for the job.

That’s okay. We should be willing to say to staff, “You know what? This is not a good fit for either of us. I want you to be successful, and I don’t think it’s going to be here. Let me help you find something different, that will be more in line with your interests and skills base.”

Be willing to give a good severance. And then move on.

3.   Managers Own the Job of Creating Great Teams

Giving your leadership the opportunity to create teams with whom they work best is critical. For too long, I would say to an Account Director, “I really need you to work with her. She needs to be more detailed oriented and pay better attention.” Instead of doing that, the manager would simply go to the teammates who could do the work quicker, more efficiently and without complaint instead of supporting the development of an underperforming employee. Could I blame them?

I don’t do that anymore. I now say to them: “Work with the people you think are going to do the best job for this client project -earned, paid, or owned. You tell me who you need, and I will make it work for them.” Then my job is how to help manage that staff’s workload so they can be put on the team. So instead of trying to put a round peg in square hole, I put a round peg into a round hole and make sure that I have enough smart pegs to get the work done!

But I also put the onus of creating the team for the project on the manager. Sometimes they pick well, sometimes they don’t. But at the end of the day, they own the responsibility of creating the team and cannot put the blame on anyone else if it doesn’t work. This is critical, because being able to learn from failure, and to do so “without loss of enthusiasm” as Churchill would say, is the definition of success.

Join us.  

We will be talking about all of this at our next DC Communicators event with my friends from some of DC’s leading nonprofits this next week, June 6 at the National Building Museum. Join me and others as we dive deeper at Talent Show 2018 – The Five Characteristics Communications Leaders Must Have in New Staff.


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