Talent - Andy Esparza

"There's a war for talent going on, and we're right in the middle of it."

Andy Esparza knows what success sounds like. It's not the "ka-ching!" of a cash register or the "brrrring!" of a customer phone call, but the "clang! clang! clang!" of a cowbell. Whenever he and his colleagues land a significant new hire at Dell Computer Corp., they rattle a bell hanging in what is otherwise a nondescript office. "We jam on that bell," Esparza says. "It feels good."

Sounds good too. Like music to his ears. As the head of staffing for one of the world's fastest-moving big companies, Esparza has the monumental challenge of hiring enough people to keep pace with the company's record growth. In business, there's fast — and then there's Dell, the Michael Johnson of the computer industry. For the past four years, its sales have shot up at least 40% annually (to more than $21 billion). And don't forget its legendary stock, hailed as the top-performing stock of the decade. Today, one of the most successful computer companies of the past 15 years faces a new question: What can it do to stay successful? The answer: In a memo sent out at the beginning of the year, Chairman and CEO Michael Dell listed the company's top 10 priorities for 1999, and for the second consecutive year, the number-one priority was people.

Andy Esparza's job is finding and hiring those people. He is a man on a mission. He printed up laminated cards that his recruiters clip to their ID badges. The cards feature the department's new mission statement: "Relentlessly recruit and hire world-class people." It's a mission that involves real challenges. Not everyone can cope in Dell's demanding, entrepreneurial environment. "We specialize in the unreasonable around here," Esparza deadpans. Esparza's search is further complicated by a highly competitive labor market — the worst that Esparza, an 18-year human-resources veteran, has seen in the past decade and a half. "There's a war for talent going on," he says, "and we're right in the middle of it."

More often than not, Dell is winning that war. Esparza attracts top-notch executives to the company, some of whom are looking for a new job, but many of whom are not — until he calls. While other companies are fortunate to hire a few executives a year, Dell hires dozens. Since taking over staffing two years ago, Esparza has helped bring more than 50 senior executives on board.

Hiring Is Job One

Out of sheer necessity, Esparza has created "a different staffing model than what you find in most companies." For starters, everybody at Dell recruits, not just the 100-plus employees who work in the recruiting department. "It's 'all hands on deck,' " says Esparza, who believes that the single best source for finding new talent is the pool of extremely talented folks who are already working at Dell.

Executives are constantly fishing, networking, and taking names. They even turn job interviews into recruiting opportunities by asking, "Which boss has had the greatest influence on you?" Bingo — there's another lead. They pass names along to Esparza's department through an electronic mailbox that he set up for executive leads. Dell's leadership team contributes partly for selfish reasons: Ro Parra, 40, a senior vice president who spends up to 40% of his time recruiting and interviewing, says that hiring is one way to lighten his workload and to ensure that the company remains successful.

Even the CEO gets in on the act. "I'll call Michael or email him to say, 'We've got a recruit who has a couple of competing offers. Would you call him?' " says Esparza. "And he'll pick up the phone right away, or use his car phone on his way home — whatever he needs to do to make that call. He's a great closer."

Another benefit of keeping everyone involved in the recruiting process is that employees themselves keep standards high. Why encourage people to join your company if you don't believe that they can get the job done? "Employees don't take the company's future for granted," Esparza says. Recently, a technician told him that he'd discouraged a neighbor from applying because hiring the neighbor would only hurt Dell's stock price. "Isn't that great?" Esparza says with a laugh. "And he's right. We need to make sure that we're bringing the right people into the company."

Because of the constant demand for talent, recruiting is a nonstop, year-round activity, like R&D or sales. The result is a steady pipeline of talent. Dell doesn't recruit strictly for job openings; it hires the best available candidates, even if that means creating a new position. "Today, we had a guy come in and talk to 10 different people," Esparza says. "He's really good, but we have no idea where we're going to put him. At the end of the day, we're going to get together and say, 'Okay, he's strong here, here, and here, so let's either put him in an existing job or create something for him to do.' "

Creativity is fundamental to Dell's recruiting process. As reliable as internal referrals are, they simply aren't enough to keep the process going. Neither is the company's popular Web site. Although roughly one-third of Dell's total hires enter the pipeline by submitting a résumé to the site, that group includes relatively few executives. Often, the strongest executive candidates aren't even looking for a job — so it's up to Dell to find them through painstaking research.

Enter Esparza's "leads team," which he compares to a swat outfit, because its members are fast, aggressive, and effective when it comes to "gathering intelligence" and coming up with potential candidates. They comb through newspapers, trade journals, and company Web sites for rising stars, resignations, and companies in flux. For the latter, they know the telltale signs: a merger, a round of layoffs, a declining stock price. "In those cases, we're looking for people who might be a little uncomfortable in their current jobs," says Esparza. He should know. Before coming to Dell, he worked for NCR Corp., which had experienced a few years of negative growth. Dell was the challenge that he needed.

Dell doesn't sit on new leads. One recent candidate, after emailing her résumé directly to Michael Dell, was shocked to hear from Esparza the next morning — before she was even awake. Esparza had forgotten about the time difference and had phoned at 6:30 AM her time. But his impatience paid off: A few weeks later, she was working at Dell. "We jump on leads very, very quickly," Esparza says. "We put extra emphasis on speed and execution." The right technology helps: Information on every candidate goes into a database of current and future leads, so that recruiters can easily track the status of those leads and follow up on them.

Outside the Box

In the old days — in other words, a couple of years ago — Dell focused primarily on recruits from the high-tech sector. Today, it can no longer afford to do that. "Growth does amazing things to an organization, and one of the things that it has forced us to do is broaden our universe," Esparza says. "If we relied on looking only at technology companies, we would never even get close to hiring the number of people that we need. So now we're going to automotive companies. We're going to consumer-goods companies. We're going to aircraft manufacturers. One of the biases that we've had to get over is the idea that people have to have computer-related experience to be successful here."

Dave Allen, 39, is a great recent example. Before coming in as vice president of worldwide operations, he was an expert in chips — of the potato kind. He worked for Frito-Lay. "He told me that he was responsible for the manufacturing and shipment of 40 million bags of chips a day," Esparza says. "He has an amazing understanding of distribution, which is a big part of our business."

Dell can teach its new executives the nuances of the computer industry. But one thing that it can't teach them is how to be effective within Dell's dynamic environment. Fortunately, Esparza knows which skills, qualities, and experiences they'll need to succeed. After reviewing the performance ratings and compensation levels of Dell vice presidents and directors who were hired over a recent three-year period, Esparza and his recruiters now know who has been successful, and why. They also interviewed the bosses of those executives who hadn't advanced or who had left the company. Using the results of that research, Dell identified five core competencies for executive hires: the ability to learn fast; to thrive in a changing environment; to deliver results; to solve problems; and to build teams.

Dell recruiters, along with outside search firms and assessment agencies, use these criteria to decide who gets flown to Austin and who is worth courting over time. For in-person interviews, executives and recruiters distribute responsibility for the five competencies among themselves so that each competency is covered thoroughly. They ask questions that require candidates to tell rich anecdotes that are based on personal experience: When in your career have you quickly built something substantial from scratch? What would you do if you encountered this problem at Dell?

Esparza wants details, substance. "I asked someone that question the other day, and he said, 'Well, at my last company, I was asked to start an operation in Singapore, and when I got there, it was just me and my secretary. In 18 months, we grew it to $100 million a year,' " Esparza says. "Now, that's a great answer."

But first, Dell has to get those high-powered recruits through the door for an interview. The process typically starts with a cold call: "Hi, I'm calling from Dell. We're constantly searching for great people, and you've been recommended to us." Esparza never forgets the kinds of people he's recruiting: busy CEOs, presidents, and vice presidents, who don't have a lot of time for chitchat, but who are intrigued by the prospect of new challenges. "What gets people excited is an environment in which we're growing our business at 40% a year, particularly if they're working somewhere that's flat," he says. "Pair that with the huge autonomy streak on our executive side, and people get turned on: 'Okay, tell me more.' We simply want to pique their curiosity."

Esparza spends so much time conducting phone interviews that his headset seems to be part of his everyday attire. His easygoing demeanor belies his hectic schedule. Clearly, he's someone who enjoys a good conversation — especially with the movers and shakers he calls every day. "You get a little addicted," he says. "When you get to the end, there's an adrenaline thing: 'Come on, baby, just close.' "

Esparza has recruiters eavesdrop on his approach. He has them meet regularly as a group to share their best practices. New hires complete a survey about their recruitment experience to give Esparza and his staff feedback. "We want to be very honest and realistic about what it's like to work here," he says. "It's a very well-crafted, professional way of getting people interested."

It's a Family Affair

Dell doesn't just recruit candidates; it also recruits their families — because relocating often affects more than just one person. In many cases, the decision to come to Dell involves matters unrelated to work, such as finding the right school, house, medical specialist, synagogue, or even ice-hockey team. "My son is a Junior Olympian, and I need to know what the hockey situation is in Austin," one recent recruit told Esparza. "That's a big decision maker for me." So Esparza contacted a hockey parent at Dell, who put him in touch with the local youth-league president, who in turn agreed to meet the candidate in person. That candidate wound up taking the job.

Esparza talks to candidates' spouses all the time. When a candidate and his or her spouse visit Austin, Esparza and his wife often have the couple over for dinner. By doing research on the city, and by making hockey coaches and realtors part of the recruiting process, Esparza is prepared to address whatever relocation issues might prevent someone from coming to work for Dell.

He knows that there's a fine line between personal attention and excessive pressure, but he believes in creating a sense of momentum during recruitment. A quick response to a question keeps that momentum going and nudges a candidate closer to deciding in Dell's favor. If Esparza senses that the momentum is waning, he might send flowers or candy — or he might even hop in a car or on a plane — to remind a recruit of what Dell has to offer: Opportunity. Growth. Rewards.

That kind of attention helps recruiters build a relationship with candidates — a rapport that becomes crucial when counteroffers start hitting the table. The employer of one recruit flew its CEO in from Europe to counter Dell's offer with a $75,000 raise on the spot. The recruit wavered, and the Dell recruiter, who had coached him on what to expect, asked him to consider one question: As sweet as the extra money might be, has anything changed about the job itself?

That sealed it: another victory for Dell in the war for talent, and another reason for Esparza to jam on the bell in Round Rock.

"We feel that we have an organization that's making history here," he says. "But we realize that our future depends completely on continuing to bring in great people — more and more of them. So all of the extra attention that we give them in recruiting — the personal touch — that's absolutely genuine. We want them, and we are willing to do a lot to get them."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in Baltimore. Contact Andy Esparza by email (andrew_esparza@dell.com).

Sidebar: What's Fast

Andy Esparza is a field commander in the war for talent being waged by Dell Computer Corp. Here are four key elements of his battle plan.

Hiring is job one — for everyone.

Finding great recruits isn't just HR's job. The best resource for finding new executives is a company's pool of current executives. For Dell executives, Esparza says, recruiting colleagues "is a regular part of their job."

Don't just fill an open job — fill your company with stars.

"Why would you choose not to hire a great person just because there's no job opening at the present time?" Esparza wonders. If Dell finds a talented executive who's prepared to sign up, then it will create a job in order to tap that person's talents, rather than wait for a position to open up at the company.

Great people already have great jobs.

Which means that it's up to you to find them, not the other way around. Esparza's "leads team" is constantly on the prowl for companies that face adverse market conditions, or companies that are going through a difficult merger — in short, organizations that are promising sources of recruitable talent.

It's a family affair.

In an era of dual-career couples and high-achieving youngsters, recruiting people to join your company means persuading their families to sign on as well. It's become routine practice for Esparza and his colleagues to spend time talking to the spouses of recruits, to match up their kids with sports coaches and schools — to do whatever it takes to communicate to recruits the virtues of life outside Dell, rather than just the benefits of working at the company.

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