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Prevent a Talent Crash

Priceline’s vice president of talent, John Patterson, offers a time-tested program for recruiting, retaining, motivating, and growing talent — a radical redefinition of the traditional HR role.

Vice president of talent at priceline.com, John Patterson is strapped into the lead car of Wall Street’s most erratic, vicious rollercoaster. Last week, priceline’s stock plummeted nearly 50% following the announcement of disappointing third-quarter projections.

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The man responsible for quelling the fears of priceline’s talent and for persuading even more attractive candidates to jump aboard his wild ride, Patterson shared his 10-point program for recruiting, retaining, motivating, and growing talent during the worst of times at Fast Company’s TalentLabs event in San Francisco last Wednesday. In short, he says effective recruiters and leaders must adopt four personas: Talent Advocate, fervent supporter and protector of recruits; Talent Scout, marketer of and mentor to talent; Tempered Radical, exterminator of lethal internal policies; and Trusted Advisor, a reliable coach and mentor.

“Salary and options are no longer the deciding factors in the new economy,” he says. “It’s my job to build and retain priceline’s talent by ensuring that each employee contributes, grows, and has fun on the job. I can’t do that within the limits of a traditional HR role.”

1. Be a Talent Advocate: Fight for every employee the way your CFO fights for every dollar!

“Everyone is a temporary employee in this talent war,” Patterson says. “It’s your job to make sure each employee’s two or three years on the job is as productive and as rewarding as possible.”

Patterson contends that human-resource representatives must treat human capital with the same respect and interest that the finance department shows the company’s money. Just as the finance team cracks the whip on departments or company leaders who don’t allocate funds properly or who squander valuable resources, the HR team must come down hard on managers who consistently drive away good talent or who inadequately prepare new recruits for the job ahead. “Your talent is on loan to those managers,” Patterson says. “They don’t have the right to abuse that investment.”

Patterson also recommends that talent advocates continually re-recruit the company’s best people. He advocates frequent reviews and conferences with employees to determine when, where, and how HR can induce star talent to stay on board. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as demonstrating an interest. Other times, the talent advocate must find a new internal role for a bored or restless employee, or negotiate a new contract with meaningful, personal perks and incentives.

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Patterson uses something called “The Big Three” — contribution, growth, and fun — as a measuring stick for employee satisfaction. If any employee is not contributing, growing, and having fun on the job, Patterson says priceline has failed as an employer. In the new economy, people are most likely to quit jobs that don’t offer “game-changing work” — projects that redefine an industry, a company, or a career — and stimulating projects that encourage personal development, he says. Team members must feel challenged, but not continually frustrated. And, most important, they must have fun.

“People quit managers, not friends,” Patterson says. “Community at work is important, and cool tools like air-hockey tables and scooters help bring together a community of smart, cool people. Don’t be afraid to have fun.”

2. Be a Talent Scout: Out-think the Monster Board!

The traditional role of the recruiter-as-headhunter has changed, and so has the definition of “talent scout.” Today, Patterson says HR departments must attract top-tier talent with a three-pronged approach, and then extend their responsibilities to include employee-growth and retention strategies. First, talent scouts must learn to leverage the power of the Web by building and fostering a digital gateway where candidates can learn about the company, chat online with employees, and email the appropriate representatives with questions, comments, and résumés.

Second, Patterson believes talent scouts should hire a marketing firm to specifically sell the company’s culture. “Communicate the company brand to prospective candidates,” he says. “Show pride in what your company is all about.”

Brand marketing leads to Patterson’s third objective for the talent scout: “Put the job boards out of work.” With millions of candidates now online, chances are not great that your company will fish through reams of resumes and hook the perfect candidate for the perfect job at the perfect office on the perfect day. Patterson encourages recruiters to think creatively about referral incentives for employees and other alternative models for finding and attracting the top talent.

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3. Be a Tempered Radical: Purge your company of toxic policies that may poison the candidate pool!

It is no longer enough to find good people fast. Patterson insists that recruiters and leaders must change the game if they hope to win in the long run. They must become tempered radicals, and blast out toxic policies before they poison the corporate culture and turn away potential candidates. Is your dress code an unnecessary deterrent to applicants? Can you spearhead a flexible work schedule for commuters and for parents? Why is the 401(k) plan not available to new recruits? Constantly rethink the company’s policies for geographical transfers, for standard compensation, and for internal advancement, he says, and don’t be afraid to break the rules. “Your policies should sound like this: ‘Don’t be a jerk, play nice, and come to the office enough to do your job. If you do those things, I’ll judge you according to The Big Three, and we will both thrive,’ ” Patterson says.

In order to change the game effectively and permanently, team leaders and recruiters must stand by their convictions, Patterson says. Communicate the rules clearly and openly, but don’t hesitate to rewrite them as needed. Small, thoughtful changes — such as domestic-partner benefits — can have an enormous impact on morale and retention. “I ask my employees, ‘If you ran the joint, what would you do differently?’ ” Patterson says. “If leaders don’t make those important, grass-roots changes happen, who will?”

4. Be a Trusted Advisor: Honor thy talent!

“At priceline, there is a rule that no employee may quit before he or she comes to talk to me,” Patterson says. “Because if I don’t know which of The Big Three is broken, I can’t begin to fix the situation for that employee.” These simple, familiar troubleshooting interviews feed outstanding information into the HR department and affect the overall recruiting and retaining strategies at priceline. But they don’t work at every company. Patterson says a leader must build an atmosphere of trust and integrity before he or she can expect any employee to come forward with honest feedback. Employees must feel as though team leaders and HR people want to coach them, grow them, and manage them through this tumultuous new economy.

“Start with the premise that you are a crappy manager, and that’s why your people are leaving,” Patterson says. “Treat your employees as resources for improving your performance and the performance of the company.”

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Click here for Patterson’s quick list of ten Talent Rules!

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