December 29, 2020
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8 minute read

The startup founder’s five-step approach to developing a scalable talent management program

Growth & Scaling

One of the biggest mistakes early-stage start-up founders make is delaying talent strategy development. 

“For some founders, talent management feels like fluff, but it’s absolutely essential,” says Arlin Dueck, Head of People Operations at Harvest Builders. “Executing on a talent strategy can unlock your start-up’s growth potential.”

If you’re a founder, how exactly do you go about creating a talent management program while managing multiple priorities? We’ve outlined five clear steps to help you flesh out your talent strategy from day one. 

Step 1: Articulate your business goals and product roadmap

What does this mean?

This means understanding what the business’ vision is, what the go-to-market strategy is, what resources are needed to achieve the targeted milestones along the product roadmap, and how the product or service will evolve over time to establish product market fit.

“A talent management strategy brings your business plan to life through people,” says Alexandra Thompson, Talent Partner at Harvest Builders. “A well thought out business plan doesn’t mean anything if there’s no one there to execute on it.” 

Understand what you want to achieve in six months, one year, five years. What are the major milestones you want to achieve related to product and market share? The exact dates and specifications may change, but you’ll have a clear direction of where you’re headed, so your talent strategy doesn’t get lost.

If your talent strategy considers these short- and long-term business goals from day one, it’s easier to orient your talent planning. 

Step 2: Map your talent strategy to your business goals

What does this mean?

This means identifying the key people you need to meet your business goals through workforce planning. 

Workforce planning is the process of anticipating your business’ needs, so your start-up has the right people at the right time to meet its growth objectives. 

“A lot of start-ups don't necessarily put full consideration into basic talent practices. Down the road, that leads to increased risks and expensive mistakes. If you prepare strategically early on, this allows your business to grow at an accelerated rate and become more attractive to potential investors,” explains Thompson. 

“There are all sorts of opportunity costs that come with putting these activities off,” adds Dueck. “All of a sudden, you find yourself having to turn down a project or a customer.”

Now, you can figure who to hire now and who to prepare to hire in the near future. 

Addressing the six-month goal is intuitive. As a founder, you and your co-founder may have 80 percent of the skills needed to make your MVP and conduct a soft launch. You can hire contractors or freelancers to help with the remaining 20 percent. 

This obvious answer is why it’s often tempting for founders to skip talent planning altogether. But if all goes well, within a year you’ll start to feel growing pains. A talent strategy alleviates this. 

Suppose your MVP and soft launch are successful. You’ll quickly need to shift to meeting your one-year goal. If you’ve created a talent strategy, you won’t have to halt your growth to hire. You’ve already committed time during the previous six months to conduct a forward-looking skills gap analysis, a talent demand analysis, and a talent supply analysis. You’ve already started building brand awareness through recruitment marketing, and you can dive right into speaking to candidates. 

“It’s a question of being proactive instead of reactive. Founders are often reactive in their planning,” says Thompson. “They realize, “Oh, we need somebody now!” as opposed to taking the time upfront to map that out.”

Step 3: Develop a recruitment marketing strategy

What does this mean?

Your recruitment marketing strategy is how you spread the word about your company to attract talented candidates. Your talent supply analysis becomes the jumping off point for developing a recruitment marketing strategy, because it answers questions like:

  • What’s the candidate pool for data scientists in Edmonton?
  • Do I need to focus on cities outside of Regina to find iOS Developers?
  • What other companies (large and small) am I competing with for tech talent in Winnipeg?

Your talent supply analysis is also your motivation to think carefully about the culture you want to foster at your start-up. A clear understanding of your desired culture simplifies your recruitment decisions. You design every step of the recruitment process – the copy in the job postings, the questions in the interviews – to help determine whether a candidate’s professional values align with the company’s business values. 

“Culture is king. For that early start-up team, whether there’s five people or twenty, every time you bring in someone, it does impact the culture both positively or negatively. Ask if this is someone you want to go to bat with. Will they care about your business almost as much as you do?” explains Dueck. “It’s very easy to settle and say, ‘Oh, I just need someone to do this job. They’ve got the qualifications. Great.’ But you miss so much if you just look at it through the lens of pure capability as opposed to using the culture lens as well.”

What does this look like?

Your recruitment marketing strategy manifests in the form of:

  • Social media advertising (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter)
  • Postings on job boards (e.g. Indeed, Glassdoor)
  • Participation in physical and virtual job fairs (e.g. university job fairs)
  • Copywriting job ads
  • Developing a compelling Careers page

You incorporate an understanding of your company’s values in these recruitment marketing activities as well. A strong recruitment marketing strategy helps you:

  • Fill your talent pipeline in anticipation of future hiring needs
  • Build employer brand awareness in the talent market
  • Distinguish yourself from other companies competing for specialized talent
  • Position yourself as a fulfilling place to work which is an important way to beat out well-established brands who can offer higher salaries

Step 4: Gauge your talent management technology needs

What does this mean?

This means understanding what technology investments to make based on the current state of your business and your forecasted growth. This protects you from blowing your start-up budget on unnecessary technology. But it also ensures that you aren’t so frugal that you stunt your growth by relying on manual processes and spreadsheets for too long. 

What does this look like?

During the first six months, it doesn’t make sense to invest limited funds into an applicant tracking system. But again, assuming everything goes well, you’ll be scaling up your hiring significantly and building a team across multiple cities by the end of your first or second year. So you can schedule when to start evaluating solutions on the market to acquire something just in time for the next stage of business growth. 

Step 5: Invest in your talent and employee engagement

What does this mean?

Investing in your employees means taking the time to understand:

  • What motivates different employees
  • How each employee’s role ties into the company’s mission 
  • How to align hiring and talent attraction with your purpose

What does this look like?

Your start-up may not have the resources to invest in retreats or employee training, but it does have the advantage of a close-knit community. Invest in building your start-up’s culture and engaging your employees by: 

  • Infusing the company’s values into your work: Stay focused on the “why” behind your work and remind your team of it as often as possible. Are you building a consumer finance app, or are you ensuring more people have access to high-value financial services? Are you building a B2B platform for farmers or are you eliminating inefficiencies in agriculture and securing the food supply chain? Connect to your why and ensure everyone knows how their work advances your start-up’s mission. 
  • Hiring for passion and purpose alignment: Identify what your desired behaviours are, such as customer obsession or creative problem solving, and make recruitment decisions accordingly. This fosters a culture where new hires are clear on what’s expected, they understand where business priorities stand, and are able to focus their efforts with greater clarity on desired outcomes. As the company scales, each new employee is able to make a bigger impact, in a shorter period of time, and realize the company’s mission through a collective team effort. 
  • Remaining flexible and adaptable: One reason people join startups is to have the autonomy to make a difference. This includes building new products and processes from scratch, and seeing them through from start to finish. But business priorities can shift quickly and startups often need to pivot. Ensuring you have the right managers in place who can embrace change, and communicate to their teams how a change of course will ultimately enable the company to realize its vision, is crucial. Having team players who want to take charge in taking on new responsibilities, learn new skills, and can easily work alongside other teams, will lay a solid foundation for capitalizing on exciting new opportunities, or tackling unforeseen obstacles that inevitably come your way. 

An engaged workforce goes beyond the bare minimum and focuses on helping the start-up succeed. Plus, engaged employees become brand ambassadors, generating word-of-mouth reviews and online social proof that your company is a good place to work. This draws in more talent, keeps your recruitment marketing costs low, and reduces time-to-hire.  

Talent strategy works hand in hand with business strategy

Your company needs a robust talent strategy to execute on its business strategy. While a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” approach to people and hiring may work in the beginning, it can quickly hamper your company’s growth. Investing in a robust talent strategy ensures your company resources can keep pace with your company’s vision.

For more on how Harvest can help with people strategies and recruitment, check out our Talent Management Services and schedule a call. 

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