Why Digital Talent Doesn’t Want To Work At Your Company

Some digital companies are hiring--and in fact are in hot competition for certain types of employees. But you don't have to be Google to attract top-tier talent.

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Why doesn't digital talent want to work at your company? It’s not because you’re a consumer packaged goods company, rather than Google. It’s not because you’re in Ohio instead of Silicon Valley. It’s not because your salaries are too low, or because you don’t offer free food and laundry services.

It’s because you’re not providing them the right opportunity. The talent you want would be happy to work in an un-air-conditioned garage in New Mexico if it meant the chance to change the world.

This, the opportunity to do great things, to make a real difference, is what drives most digital talent--whether they’re developers, designers, producers, marketers or business folks. 

Most companies don’t offer this, so they skip your company and work somewhere that’s more innovative and exciting. End of story. But the good news is that you can offer them something exciting and great. The promise of changing a giant, behind-the-times organization into an Internet-savvy business is an incredibly exciting challenge and a big way for ambitious people to make an impact.  

But it takes more than lip service to make the sale. Job candidates and new hires with digital chops must truly believe in the company’s dedication to digital transformation and they must see that they are empowered to make this change. Trouble is, many big businesses aren’t structured to deliver on this type of opportunity. The attributes of a soul-crushing, Sisyphean, anti-digital workplace run deep.  

Digital talent won’t want to work at your company if:  

  • Every element of their work will be pored over by multiple layers of bureaucracy. Even if that’s how the rest of the company operates, it can’t spill into the digital department. In a technology environment, new products and businesses spring up daily and a new endeavor can go from conception to launch in a matter of months. Reining in the momentum will be read as inaction and a clear signal the company isn’t willing to grasp the new way of the world.  
  • Mediocre is good enough. While clocking out at 5 p.m. is attractive to some, it will discourage digital talent. They want to be expected to do something great. They want to be pushed. They care about their work. Their leadership, and those they rely on to get things done, must match their appetite for success.   
  • Trial and error is condemned. The freedom to try out new ideas allows employees to take initiative, make decisions, and learn from their mistakes. It also demonstrates an attractive and inspiring entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Your company is structured so it takes a lifetime to get to the top, and as such there are no digital experts in company-wide leadership positions. Digital talent--often in their 20s and 30s--need to see a clear path for uninhibited career development that’s based on merit, not years spent, and that’s beyond the confines of the digital department. If they don’t, they won’t see a reason to stay with the company in the long term.  
  • Your offices are cold, impersonal and downright stodgy. It may sound like it conflicts with the “you don’t need to be in Silicon Valley point,” but appreciate the nuance. A traditional office layout is designed to communicate power among certain individuals and barriers between departments. This does not support the collaborative ethos which is intrinsic to the web. Companies should do everything possible to provide the digital team friendlier, open office space. A location in a hip, young neighborhood (which surely exists in every mid- to large-sized city) is also a big plus.  

When all of these digital-talent deterring points are addressed, company leadership has effectively and proactively demonstrated the company’s dedication to a digital transformation. It is at this time that their words, a broadly communicated firm stance on the significance of the company’s digital goals, will make the most impact. Without this conspicuous top-down support, politics in the organization or simply one influential disbeliever can hinder the effort, limit the extent of digital integration possible, and discourage valuable employees.  

You need them more than they need you. Demand for their services is so high, they can afford to be finicky. If they don’t like where they’re working, another firm with a more attractive culture and more grand opportunity will quickly swipe them up. That could be your company. But it could just as easily be someone else.

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Adapted from Users Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business (Portfolio), by Aaron Shapiro, CEO of HUGE, a digital agency that helps companies including PespiCo, Comcast, Target, HBO, and Unilever reimagine how they interact with their customers and manage their business in the online economy. Visit aaronshapiro.com.

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[Image: Flickr user Gil Megidish]

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55 Comments

  • This is so close to the truth yet simultaneously a million miles away from reality. The new emerging "talent" have an ingrained "it's my right to be on the same level as you with your 20 years of experience" attitude. Quite frankly the attitude stinks. The "new talent" know little if nothing about legibility and type. They may be hungry and be prepared to work 12 hours a day, five days a week. I was "new talent" 20 years ago. I worked an average of 14 hours a day 6 days a week throughout the 90's & 00's, I still do today. Provide the clients and opportunities and the talent will come knocking on your door. Without these you have nothing to offer.

  • T.W. Anderson

    Absolutely true. People want to change the world, and salary isn't always the best motivator. Offering someone the chance to change their life is far more valuable. 

  • Erin

    So exactly who wants to work at a bureaucratic, "mediocre is enough", trial and error is condemned, tenure-based, cube farm? Do non-digital people enjoy that?

  • david maurand

    why limit it to 'digital' talent. It applies to *all* creative talent, digital or otherwise.

  • Lisa Robbinson

    Digital talent doesn't want to work at this company.

    It doles out rollerskating parties instead of raises and only those fresh out of school are fooled. Even they eventually realize it's just like any other web shop, only without the safeguards and bureaucracy that ensure the machine runs semi-smoothly.

    HUGE needs to stop trying so hard to party like it's 1999 and hire some grownups.

  • Web Design Company

    I got to agree, most people want to be in a company that is either going somewhere or is creating something exciting. Unfortunately it sometimes seems to be the case that what we least enjoy about our jobs is probably the best profit generator for the company - leaning to turning out crap to pay the bills 

  • Ash Nallawalla

    Great article and great comments. It's isn't possible for anyone to have worked at a few thousand workplaces and cover every point, so some of the nit-pickers are missing the mark.

    Another reason why talent doesn't want to work at your company is the quality of management. I don't see it these days but in the 1990s I worked in environments where managers were bullies and staff used to leave in droves. Do they still exist?

  • Pete Rory

    It seems to me that this essay makes some basic incorrect assumptions. Namely, "Everyone in my field is like me" and especially "Everyone in my field wants to make the world a better place." Both of these things are untrue for 99% of fields and 99.99% of jobs in the for-profit world. By way of personal anecdote, I went to a big time techie college and have a lot of big time techie friends and the vast majority of them ("digital talent," whatever that means) do it because of the money and the perks and the status. In other words, they don't want to work for your company because, in fact, you aren't Google. 

    The essay goes on to list a bunch of totally generic bullet points that are reasons anyone in any field wouldn't want to work for any given company.

    So, this is an okay and very general overview of why you should find talented employees and give them opportunities to do good work. But please don't fool yourself into thinking that people in any given job are doing it because they want to "make a difference." That is vague and meaningless and ultimately not really true.

  • Aidan Garza

    This doesn't just apply to "Digital-Talent". If you go up another 10,000 feet, it really applies to innovative people in general; however, given the nature of the world today, innovation is most-often associated with technology. So, I completely agree with the points made in this article, but I don't consider myself a "techie" and they still apply to me and my company because I do consider myself an innovative thinker.

  • Allison

    This article sums up a lot of problems in our industry. I work as a front end developer for a super large company; part of my job involves coordinating front end work provided by a smaller, creative company who also did the design work for the project we are involved with.  They have awesome creative techs who it's my pleasure to work with, but the attitude can be horrible. We are working on an application deployed to hundreds of thousands of users, with data pulled from many different streams. Our creative tech partners aren't interested in supporting legacy browsers (which our users have), are out right rude to in-house java side developers, do not care to spend any time whatsoever on understanding documentation, basically freak out when a tester contacts them for any defects, etc.  They want to do the fun part, and walk away from the rest. 

    I am contacted by recruiters all of the time, usually promoting the "fun" work atmosphere of their clients.  I am on the older side of this industry at a dusty 36, but to me "cool office" translates to "we want you to work 12 hours a day."  I really don't need beer pong partners that badly.  

    I just wish this whole industry would grow up a little. We could contribute so much more to much bigger projects if time was taken to understand, appreciate and respect everyone's roles. Stop worrying about if you can bring your dog to work, and focus on the actual work. No one likes a bureaucracy, but one man silos don't build large scale applications. I want to work on big things that reach lots of people. Being part of a start up isn't the only way to accomplish that.   I am sick of getting calls for "javascript ninja" or (gasp) a "front end stud".  That happened. What is going to happen to our industry when 10 or 20 years?  

  • deborah nixon

    It's not just digital talent that is looking for this. All talent wants to do meaningful and top quality work with a group of dedicated and passionate colleagues.  The best companies know this and put time and money into creating highly engaged, high trust organizational cultures.

    www.trustlearningsolutions.com

  • Joe Michaels

    I could NOT agree more. You absolutely NAILED it, Aaron! And, yes...it IS true for marketing and promotions people as well. I conceived a low-cost, scalable system that can make any company (and, especially, nonprofits) the absolute KINGS of their markets. But, in all but one case, bureaucracies have prevented its implementation. Mediocrity is the new black.

  • Blain Rempel

    I struggled with this article, because in many ways it is "bang on", but it many of the same ways it is completely wrong or irrelevant.

    Firstly, "digital talent" is not special, unique and different as much as every "my area of expertise" would like to believe about themselves. ALL people want to feel valued and that they are contributing in some ways, although to some, "valued and contributing" IS just showing up each day and getting paid. LOTS of talented people aren't interested in "changing the world" - they just want to put their talents to work.

    Conversely, there are many (most?) jobs that aren't going to change the world. Here's a news flash for some of you; even some of the most mundane jobs require dedication and talent and even some of the most mundane products or features require talent - there are very few (relatively speaking) opportunities to participate in truly "change the world" types of work and I need all of my staff to put their talents to effective use regardless of what it is they're working on. I'd like to pretend that everything we do is exciting and world-changing, but it isn't, and I need the boring routine stuff to be just as good as interesting and exciting work.

    There are also many times when "pouring over work by multiple layers of bureaucracy" or "condemning trial-and-error" is needed - there are times when I need something to be rock-solid and bullet-proof and I need multiple areas to "sign off" on it because the risk of being wrong is too great. Is that stifling and "soul-crushing"? Sure, but we're out of business if we get some of this stuff wrong. None of us have to like that, but we do have to accept that reality.

    What many of these types of articles fail to recognize is that first and foremost we're a business; we provide products and services our clients value and will pay for and I need to do that in a way that costs less than what I can charge. And I like to have some margin of safety between my expenses and revenue, because I want to be able to provide a reasonable level of stability to my team. So that sometimes means we do things in ways that are "conservative", because whether my teams are doing exciting work or not, they want to know they have a place to work tomorrow and that they're going to get paid.

    So, the article raises many good points, in isolation, but maybe not with as many "easy answers" as we'd like.

    At least that is my experience.

  • Jim

    As an IT Recruiter, I can tell you that if you have this type of outlook on work you will have a miserable career, even in "digital" positions.  Demanding the world from your employer before proving yourself and feeling entitled to everything will ensure that you get passed over for most jobs and promotions.

  • Pamela

    Jim you've got a point in there but if employers want to avoid high churn then they've got to acknowledge it's a two-way street between employer and employee is all...

  • Pamela

    Ok, the bucket term 'digital talent' might not be the right label here but this article lists some of the exact reasons I've moved on from jobs before.  I want to keep enjoying what I do, I want do well, push the boundaries, and always look ahead and I want to work for companies who want the same things. That's why I don't work at huge, clunky 'traditional' organisations anymore.  Is this a Gen Y thing?

  • phil herzog

    Superb article...should be read and re-read by every hiring manager of creative talent.  PH