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The Care and Feeding of Talent

Levi Strauss veteran Thomas Kasten offers 10 tactics for team leaders who simply must attract and retain the best talent imaginable — in arguably the most nerve-racking business climate imaginable.

During his 33-year stint at Levi Strauss & Co., Thomas Kasten watched the distressed jeans maker dominate and deteriorate, stumble and surge. Through the fringed ’60s, the bell-bottomed ’70s, the acid-washed ’80s, and the frayed ’90s, Kasten says one thing has remained the same at Levi’s: People have the power.

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A former vice president and talent advocate at Levi’s, the now-retired Kasten helped the large, old-economy stalwart update its recruiting strategies for the 21st century. In the process, he learned a thing or two about the care and feeding of talent.

“Compensation and benefits no longer dictate why and when a talented person joins or leaves a company,” he says. “Today, the two most important factors are the quality of management and employees’ ability to work on way-cool things.”

Here, Kasten offers 10 tactics for team leaders who simply must attract and retain the best talent imaginable — in arguably the most nerve-racking business climate imaginable.

1. Teach the Biz

“Introduce your people to the balance sheet,” Kasten says. “And help them understand how they can affect it.”

Employees in larger organizations rarely have a clear sense of what their employer produces, what it markets, what its industry looks like, and what competitive advantage it holds. Sometimes, people need to view the company from outside before they can fully understand it, Kasten says. That is why he brought the Levi’s tech team to a fashion show in San Francisco — to engage them in the company’s product and help them understand their contributions to the bigger picture.

“When people are educated, they are engaged,” Kasten says. “And if they are engaged, they are likely having fun. Who’s going to leave a fun, engaging job if it pays well too?”

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2. Invite Career Changes

Job titles no longer define a person’s identity or purpose. Today, employees are more likely than ever to consider themselves free agents and to move between jobs with great frequency and little hesitation. Therefore, Kasten says, “Companies must adjust the jobs within their organizations to be more effective and fluid.”

At Levi Strauss, Kasten helped create a “Talent Inventory” that contained the name of every employee and each person’s skills and interests — job-related and otherwise. Company leaders used the database to place employees in new jobs at Levi’s that would both interest and challenge them. Sometimes, that meant creating a new job for a valuable and restless employee. Kasten said the benefit of retaining top talent far outweighed the inconvenience or cost of rethinking the company’s org chart.

3. Heed the Platinum Rule

Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. Treat them the way they want to be treated. Every company consists of myriad individuals — people with distinct wants, needs, and expectations — and Kasten says employers need to recognize the importance of personalized service and attention if they hope to retain their top talent. It’s all about you, and you, and you, and you …

4. Encourage Free Expression

Organize after-hours beer bashes. Take your team out to lunch. Bullshit before your next meeting. By encouraging all team members to engage in open, honest conversation, Kasten says, a leader builds a climate of trust. That climate will, in turn, provide the leader with insight into the minds of the people who make his company hum. He will know about frustration, anger, and apathy before those emotions bubble to the surface, which will allow him to act proactively.

Kasten offers the example of one team leader within Levi’s who posted a piece of butcher paper near the company kitchen. Dubbed the “Graffiti Wall,” this plain white surface became a real-time chat and feedback forum for employees who didn’t feel comfortable voicing their complaints out loud.

5. Establish a Buddy System

A mentor is a new recruit’s crystal ball. Often overlooked yet consistently successful, mentoring systems give new employees a sense of history and community when they enter a strange company environment. By introducing new recruits to the office culture immediately, mentors make them feel important and necessary to the company’s success. If they feel needed, they are more likely to stay.

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“Org charts are no longer sufficient,” Kasten says. “New employees need to see the social network in effect.” In other words, they need to witness interactions between employees, watch meetings unfold, and share a lunch hour with folks from the other side of the organization. They need to see how things really work.

6. Be Fun

“Allow your people to customize their space — to build a nest that will encourage productivity and creativity,” he says. Order a slew of beanbag chairs, snag some oddities on eBay, and buy a few cans of paint — the difference in environment and attitude will be astounding.

At Levi’s, Kasten encourages managers to orchestrate field trips to Pac Bell park, to the opening of Star Wars Episode I to the wine country of Napa, and to the Good Humor truck outside the building. Spontaneous trips like these communicate a culture of sincerity and fun, he says.

7. Know Your People

Whether your team consists of 3 or 193, you should know the name of each and every person who works with you. End of discussion.

8. Clarify Your Communications

New employees seldom know exactly what is expected of them, how they will be measured, or whom they will work with most. It is the leader’s job to communicate those essentials clearly and immediately. Kasten says team leaders must communicate expectations and metrics clearly and succinctly from Day One in order to establish a sense of order and trust for new recruits as well as long-time employees.

9. Conduct Exit Interviews

“Retention of talent often begins at the end of the process,” Kasten says. “If you’re not conducting exit interviews, you are missing a huge opportunity for your company.”

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Chances are, an employee who is walking out the door will be more honest and forthcoming than a person who still depends on your company for a paycheck. But in order to ensure truly effective exit interviews, a leader must establish a climate of trust long before he receives the letter of resignation.

10. Craft an Elevator Pitch

Kasten believes team leaders should arm themselves with an elevator pitch designed to attract talent at the drop of a hat. Like an entrepreneur’s pitch, this speech should be concise and compelling, and it should answer these questions:

How is your company different? How is it way cool? What is its vision? What is its competitive advantage? Why should a talented person join your team? What benefits do you offer?

“Market your company to recruits the same way you would market your products to customers,” Kasten says. “Advertise your competitive advantage.”

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