Creating a Talent Strategy: Perspectives from Finance, IT, Legal, and Operations

In the third article of our four-part series on crafting an effective talent strategy for today’s enterprise environment, functional leads share how they make talent a priority from within their own departments.

by Guerrero Howe

The imperative for creating an effective talent strategy rests with every leader in an organization, from the CEO down to a front-line manager. Effective executives know how to partner with HR to drive the talent agenda for their departments, while also realizing that the buck stops with them for the success or failure of their team’s talent strategy. Here, functional leaders from across the organizational spectrum share what steps they take to differentiate their talent agenda.

How finance can go beyond compensation packages to help attract the right candidates

Tim Maly has been the CFO and COO at SurveyMonkey since 2009. While he’s responsible for the traditional duties of those roles in finance and operations, he also actively shapes the company’s talent pool. In the cutthroat Silicon Valley job market, competitive compensation is a given, but Maly also helps create a working culture that will attract talent for the long-term. “We look for people who are experienced at working in early-stage companies and who also had big company experience,” he says. “We especially want high-caliber, low-ego people.”

For a growth company like SurveyMonkey, it’s tempting to throw money at the best people and hope they stick around long enough to make an impact. That’s not Maly’s strategy, though. “Of course we have to be competitive on compensation,” Maly says, but also notes that finding people who are interested in the company and its culture is arguably as important. “We set up a culture that fosters transparency,” he says. “SurveyMonkey is all about using data to inform decision making.”

As CFO, Maly is involved with the company’s global real-estate transactions, which he also views as a tool to attract and retain the best people. “The philosophy is to provide a great working environment where people can be productive and enjoy themselves,” he says. Whether he’s looking at acquiring or building in Portland, Sydney, or Dublin, the aim is to create an enticing work environment that also fosters collaboration and innovation.

In an industry as competitive as technology or healthcare, recruiting the best talent is a challenge that must be shared by the entire organization—something that Jennifer Mitzner of St. Joseph Hoag Health knows quite well. The senior VP and CFO finds that one solution to this high demand can be recruiting outside of the healthcare industry entirely, rather than competing with larger health systems. “Recruiting out of the industry in certain areas gives us the ability to leapfrog a bit, and also have someone at the leadership table to challenge the status quo,” she says.

However, that doesn’t mean that anyone can be trained to do any job in such a highly specialized field. Mitzner also notes that financial professionals can be helpful in strategically determining the best aspects of the business to infuse with outside talent. “I would say in the area of marketing in particular, recognition that healthcare is increasingly becoming a consumer business—or, at minimum, influenced by more consumer-driven trends—is crucial,” she says.

This perspective comes in large part from the CFO’s ability to see the business of the industry as a whole, in addition to being able to champion the individual organization’s culture. For Mitzner, this has led to new core values that drive St. Joseph Hoag Health. “The business of healthcare is heavily reliant on effective leadership and teamwork,” she says.

Mitzner also notes that balancing the demands of business with the organization’s mission is critical for CFOs. While this may be obvious for the healthcare industry—and particularly for a faith-based organization—this focus on aligning teams to an organizational mission, culture, or core values will help to recruit, retain, and develop top talent.

Legal plays a pivotal part in developing a company culture that keeps employees fulfilled

Matt Cooper is the executive VP and chief counsel at Capital One, where he is responsible for the company’s legal functions—but he considers his top priority to be talent development.

“Throughout my career, I’ve seen the difference between an employee mentality and ownership mentality play out time and time again,” he says. “I look for as many people as possible who have an ownership mentality, because when you have a majority of those people, they pull the rest along.”

In part because of his own knowledge of the field, Cooper is able to ensure that Capital One can rival private practice in terms of opportunities for attorneys. “We work to create a place that attracts top-level talent, and then we develop and retain that talent,” he explains. To do so, Cooper doesn’t wait for open positions to focus on talent; he’s constantly networking with potential hires, recruiting from firms, banks, and partners.

In addition, once an employee is onboard, Cooper wants them to feel connected to the higher purpose of working at Capital One, whose mission is to make people’s lives better.

“Instead of just talking about who reports to whom and how performance appraisals work, we explain our story and tell them why the bank is here and why legal is here,” Cooper says.

That focus on culture is often critical in attracting the right people to an organization. In fact, it was the focus on company culture in his very first job interview with Vail Resorts that impressed the company’s now-executive VP, general counsel, and corporate secretary, David Shapiro.

In Shapiro’s initial ninety-minute discussion with the CEO, legal issues didn’t come up once; it was all about the company’s culture and whether he’d be a fit. That trend continued as Shapiro met with more members of the executive team. “I found [the emphasis on culture] to be unique, interesting, and engaging,” he says. “There’s a deliberate, thoughtful, authentic commitment to developing a culture for an organization that people want to be a part of. The fact that they focused on that was very attractive to me.”

That kind of focus on culture impacts everyone, including the legal team, and is a crucial element in attracting and retaining the right people who are deemed culture fits from the start. “It’s not window dressing. The people who talk about the culture, they live the culture every day,” Shapiro says.

Just as important as finding the right value fit for new hires is making sure their skills complement and enhance the team already in place.

Lisa McCraw is the assistant general counsel of litigation at Deere & Company. She and her team of attorneys, support staff, and claims professionals defend the company against all types of liability and tort cases, managing risk and adding value to the business. One of the most important aspects of McCraw’s role is filling the seats on that team, and one of her secrets of success in that realm is to hire for more than just legal skill and experience.

Two of the attorneys on her team, for example, are trained mechanics; another internal lawyer has an engineering background. “Our team knows and understands how John Deere products work and how our customers use our products,” McCraw explains. “I want people with the skills needed to address the whole scope of issues that a corporate entity like Deere may encounter.” That also includes considering candidates with litigation experience, because they understand how to manage relationships with outside firms.

Tech execs take calculated risks when it comes to talent

Perhaps nowhere is the job market more competitive than in technology positions. Recruiting is especially a challenge outside of big tech hubs and cities, which is why Darryl Maslar, the vice president of enterprise information systems at Hillenbrand Inc., spends much of his time making his Batesville, Indiana-based offices an attractive destination for promising tech talent.

One way he stays ahead of other Midwest companies’ recruiting efforts is to reach out to schools in the region and offer work opportunities and internships to college students. Building those relationships early may pave the way to full-time positions for young talent, though Maslar says it takes a certain amount of risk acceptance to do so.

“It can be difficult to get the timing right between a particularly promising prospect and having the right job opening for them when they graduate,” he says. “I decided that if I come across talent with great potential, I’ll just offer them a job without knowing exactly what the role will be. I can promise them it will be challenging and they’ll know they have a job waiting for them.” Sometimes they’ll even go as far as covering a senior’s final year of tuition and integrating them into the company before they graduate.

Aside from creating a fun and relaxed work environment for his team, complete with a Nerf gun arsenal and a remote-controlled mobile robotic iPad platform, Maslar ensures that the rest of the company understands the importance of development for his people. For example, if the company needs to tighten its financial belt, Maslar makes the case against cutting the IT-training budget, and it always remains in place. If his staff doesn’t feel that they have opportunities to grow, he says, they may be looking for that elsewhere.

He’s also created dual-career paths to give some IT team members both technical and management experience, so they can see several ways they could grow with the company. “At the end of the day, it is the talent that propels our company and puts us on the map,” he says.

Talent is also what can make or break a tough transition for a company. In 2014, PayPal and eBay announced the two companies would be ending a thirteen-year partnership. PayPal CIO Brad Strock was tasked with splitting applications, building new data centers, and creating a completely new corporate network to support the soon-to-be independent online payment company. Industry experts predicted that would take two years; Strock and his team were given nine months.

The reliance on people and talent became critical for Strock. At such a crucial time, he couldn’t afford to lose valuable staff, and had to work doubly hard to make the transition worthwhile and as seamless as possible for them, while pushing them to new limits. “We gave people more work than they were ready for because we didn’t have a choice,” Strock says. “We stretched and tested our team, but we trusted them, too. In every case, we supported the people we had in place.”

Strock worked hard to anticipate and address people’s questions, communicate frequently, and allow people to have a say in building their roles on the team. He also recognized the value of a thank you from leadership. “There’s nothing I can do to give back what my team sacrificed, but it’s important for each person to know that their work matters, that we see them, and that they are deeply and truly appreciated,” Strock says.

Now Strock continues to develop his team by ensuring that they have opportunities to align their passion with their job, something he says helped his own career trajectory. The IT department focuses on helping staff develop skills as well as longer-term career goals.

Operations can create programs and structures that get the right people into place

Dan Phillips has been an executive at TiVo since 2006, and spent four years as the chief operating officer. During that time, he’s been able to retain and develop a talented technical staff in the viciously competitive Silicon Valley job market. One of the reasons he cites for enabling this is TiVo’s flat culture that allows any employee to bring new ideas to Phillips and his executive peers. He spends as much time with front-line staff as he does with the company’s CEO.

“When we have a big delivery coming, or something special that we’re trying to bring to market, I’m sitting next to the engineers,” Phillips says. “I might not still be able to code the way I could twenty years ago, but I can go out and get sushi for them while they work their butts off across a holiday weekend.”

Though he might not be overseeing the day-to-day work of all of these engineers, as COO, more than 80 percent of the organization’s employees report in some way to Phillips. This structure can give an operations officer a unique perspective both on the highly specific details and the overall scope and direction of the business. Another side effect of that structure is an engaged, excited workforce. “In the hottest job market, in the hottest place in the world for engineering talent—and talent in general—we’ve been able to keep the core talent here motivated, doing interesting and great things,” Phillips says. “At the end of the day, that’s a big piece of my job, and it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”

NRG Energy Inc. faces its own unique challenge as a Fortune 200 power producer dual-headquartered in Houston, Texas, and Princeton, New Jersey. Not only must the organization attract top talent to fill positions at two offices, but it also needs to have the right tools, processes, and plans in place to manage, assess, and develop all of that talent. Prior to becoming senior vice president of administration, Jennifer Wallace had been NRG’s senior vice president of HR, and the two roles fit together to drive success. “We want to have the best talent across all of our businesses, all of our departments, all of our roles, so that we can deliver the best to our customers and we can continue to lead our industry,” she says.

NRG hosts more than sixty interns each summer, their placement spanning across nearly every function and business unit. But it doesn’t stop there: the “Power Up” rotation program brings in recent graduates from college who had previously been interns, and allows them to rotate through many different roles within each area, eventually placing them in permanent roles at NRG. The ability to think big picture and develop unique programs like this has led to an influx of talent who are not only highly skilled, but also well-rounded, happier, more excited individuals. “We like to match the rotations to company needs, but also to the experience, skill set, and education of these rotation associates,” Wallace explains. “If the individual is coming to us with a finance degree, the track they pursue might include stops in treasury or commercial finance, and then on to financial planning and analysis.”

NRG also helps existing employees seek new roles within the company. A video series called “Dig My Gig” features short interviews with employees in which they share their background, what they do, and why they like their job. “It’s really been a great tool for us to highlight our employees and to help them see their career opportunities here,” Wallace says. Rather than feel constrained in their role or frustrated in their career path, employees are encouraged to find the right gig. This then extends to development and mentorship programs like the “Women in Power” program, which focuses on developing women in the traditionally male-dominated power industry.

In the final part of our series, we look at how other C-suite leaders can craft a talent agenda from their seat. Read Tackling Talent: Advice from HR Pros now.

Share the entire series with your team as a white paper. Download “Every Executive Impacts Talent Strategy (Even You).”