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How To Make Your Top Talent Poacher-Proof

Talent poaching is among the most irritating forms of flattery. Here’s how to guard against it.

How To Make Your Top Talent Poacher-Proof
[Photo: Flickr user TheBusyBrain]

Poaching is no small issue. Right now, Tesla and Apple are fighting over engineers. Uber poached Carnegie Mellon University’s entire robotics center to build self-driving cars. Poaching is so rampant that Apple, Google, Adobe, and Intel allegedly made secret agreements to not woo away each other’s employees. This year, they paid $415 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by workers who felt those agreements hurt their salaries and job mobility.

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Run a solid business with strong talent long enough, and you can count on a poacher to dangle opportunities and higher pay in front of your best employees. To keep your talent (without breaking the law), you need to defeat would-be poachers well before they arrive. As Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has said, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” Here are three strategies you can use to “poacher-proof” your business.

1. Compete On Culture

Culture is what makes you different from other companies. It’s the set of characteristics that would surprise competitors if they could shadow your staff for a day.

Here at NakedWines.com, our competitors probably don’t know that the majority of our employees work in customer service, on what we call the Customer Happiness Team. They probably don’t know that our happiness reps have no scripts whatsoever. In fact, they’re encouraged to speak off the cuff and say things customers won’t forget.

Competitors have probably never heard about our rotating program called “Project Giraffe.” It gives a team member $75 to do an independent project for the benefit of any customer. For instance, when one of our customers lost her husband, Project Giraffe sent a basket of the couple’s favorite wines and included a card signed by our entire team.

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The point is that these quirks are culture, and they make our company a unique place to work. Could someone copy us? Sure, but imitating competitors is a bad idea for the same reason that imitating Lady Gaga’s wardrobe is unwise: Being unconventional is only effective when it’s authentic.

2. Have A Vision Worth Sticking Around For

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy told the U.S. Congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

That plan rallied brilliant scientists and engineers who could have made way more money on Wall Street. To keep your own employees, make a plan that is your industry’s equivalent of landing on the moon–it should be possible, seductively exciting, and somewhat daunting. Vowing to grow your customer base 50% is not inspiring. On the other hand, Bill Gates’s “a computer on every desk and in every home” was.

Top talent will stick with you because they want to be around when your vision is realized. Once you land on the moon, come up with an even bolder idea. Find fresh ways to generate the same suspense and anticipation that kept everyone along for the journey the first time around.

3. Give Employees Voice And Power

A relationship disintegrates when both unhappy partners, for the sake of preserving normalcy, pretend like everything’s fine. It’s the same with employees: They’re most poachable when they’re repressing frustrations they feel unable to address. Give them a voice and the means to enact change when they need to.

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A few times a year, try issuing a public but anonymous survey that asks, “What are you the most and the least proud of at our company?” Some answers will be ruthless, but all will be honest. They’ll force you to address the broken processes and stressors that would otherwise make your staff susceptible to poaching.

In addition, let anyone in the company pitch ideas and run with them. This allows employees to create the type of change that poachers use to seduce their targets. When your voice matters and you can choose what you want to work on, why would you change jobs?

You’ll notice I haven’t offered advice about dealing with poachers who offer higher pay. That’s because your very best talent won’t sacrifice an outstanding culture and compelling vision for a few extra bucks. Those that will can be replaced.

For business owners, poaching is the most aggravating but sincerest form of flattery. It’s also a sign that competitors fear your success–which is a sign that you’re doing something right.

Benoit Vialle is the COO of NakedWines.com. He has spent more than 15 years in technology and e-commerce, including at Bouygues Telecom, Palm, and over a decade at Microsoft.

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