Good Business | October 7, 2017

Five ideas for getting talent right

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This post is part of a talent project led by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN) and supported by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The project aims to shed light on challenges and solutions related to the attraction, development, and retention of talent within entrepreneur support organizations.

A couple of years ago, I headed up the social entrepreneurship and social finance efforts at the BMW Foundation in Berlin. As I got to know more and more social innovation organisations, big and small, I started to notice an unsettling trend. Organisations in the sector were failing to attract and retain talent with some of the hard skills that are absolutely fundamental to succeeding and scaling — skills like strategy and finance.

I was curious if this was a broader, global trend or just something that was happening in Germany and so wanted explore further. I got in touch with my friends at UnLtd in the UK, and it turns out this was something they had been thinking about a lot too. We teamed up to find out more and called this the Talent Project: an assessment of challenges, opportunities, and trends in social innovation. The initiative scanned more than 50 intermediaries — foundations, social investors, accelerators and incubators — across 20 countries and four continents.

Interestingly, and in retrospect, perhaps not surprisingly, many of these organisations saw similar trends and shared the common concern that our sector is under-investing in talent. This is not simply a question of salaries, although this plays a role. It’s also largely a matter of how actively we in the social impact sector focus on attracting, retaining and developing talent and, also how we go about sharing lessons. What started as a small initiative to explore this issue grew and began to spin-off related projects like a work secondment program for staff between organisations and a coordinated push through a variety of thought pieces and a final report. In light of this, I wanted to take the opportunity to share five ideas about how we, as social innovators, can attract and retain the best and the brightest.

1. Recruit the unusual suspects

As I write this, I’m on the train from Berlin to Leipzig where one of Germany’s top business schools is hosting its first summit on social entrepreneurship and impact investing. I’m moderating a panel but I’m also armed with a stack of business cards and hoping to recruit some bright interns for some of the social innovation organisations I work with. Business students have, in my experience, been particularly receptive to the idea of solving some of the world’s biggest problems, but are chronically underexposed to the work we do. I include engineering and computer science students in this category too.

It’s really excited me to hear from some business students who passed over jobs in management consulting and investment banking in favour of roles in social innovation, and glad to see how this is becoming less of a fringe decision than when I was in business school ten years ago.

2. Water the saplings — the seeds are already sown

Consider the findings of “Millennials and Money,” a 2014 study from Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group. It found that Millennials — those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 — are the generation most willing to trade financial return for greater social impact. With these values already in place, it should be easy for us to get people excited about the chance to work alongside us. But we need to be active about this and sell talented people on the opportunity and on our vision.

3. Pay more, hire fewer

Pay is a classic complaint in the social innovation sector and it drives me crazy to see how low-paying roles multiply at many organisations. Aside from starving junior employees the attention they need and deserve, putting all kinds of lifestyle strains on employees, and creating negative outcomes from high turnover to burnout, the pay issue is fraught with problems. I will choose a lean, well-paid team over an army of poorly-paid workers any day and know that the productivity of the former will massively outstrip that of the latter, without driving the lean team into the ground. This has worked for business visionaries ranging from Henry Ford to Michael Dell and it’s something we need to get serious about too.

4. Share stories and lessons

The onus is on us to start collaborating more to share our best talent attraction and retention practices; to bring talent to the top of the agenda at conferences and other forums where we get together to exchange; to commission and conduct research; and to write about our experiences.

5. Show what success looks like

I have a silver bullet I use when I want to get people excited about what can be achieved. It’s a three-and-a-half-minute video on YouTube and it has the power to transform any room. Have a look yourself at this piece about Project Daniel and see if you’re not fired up (and not a little bit misty-eyed).

Our sector is full of generous, civically-minded leaders who give so much of themselves already for the greater good — let’s remember that our passion is infectious and give the next generation a peek into the exciting things that are happening in our world.

Now, more than ever, we need to get the best minds working on the colossal problems we are facing globally. It’s heartening to know that the generation that is now coming of leadership age recognises that purpose is more important than profit. Now let’s work hard to enable that generation to take its best shot.

Ryan Grant Little is Principal of RGL Strategic, a Berlin-based consultancy working in the fields of impact investing, social innovation, technology for good, and corporate social responsibility. He is co-founder and advisor to CanadaHelps, a donations platform that has facilitated more than $700 million in charitable donations, for which he was awarded E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year (Social Enterprise, Canada) in 2016. He holds an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Find him on Twitter.