(Editor’s note: Mike Cassidy is CEO of Undertone Networks. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)

Finding and keeping good talent can be a difficult task in any industry, but in the New York online ad market (where we compete) it’s especially challenging, as the sheer number of “cool” companies in the space makes it highly competitive from a recruiting standpoint.  Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to find and nurture good talent. The bottom line is something you probably already know: The right people can drive growth for almost any business.

To help you achieve that growth, here are a few tips I’ve found useful over the years in discovering, growing and keeping talented employees:

Step One: Recruiting – The critical thing to remember before you begin the recruiting process is to have a very clear idea of who you are looking for from the outset. It’s helpful to use the past performance of employees in that role as a guide, and to consider the skill set you’d want in the ideal candidate. Spend more time on the front end, before you begin searching, to determine what you are looking for. Know exactly which qualities and experience you are seeking, where you will look for prospective candidates, the make-or-break criteria you will use for hiring, what questions you will ask them and exactly who will do the interviewing.

Once you have found candidates that seem like a strong fit, challenge them during the interview process by asking them to research and present a homework assignment as part of the process. Use reference checks to confirm your belief in someone, not to shape it. Be open to input from your staff on all hires and, more importantly, use it.

Too many companies fail to take the time to adequately evaluate candidates in the rush to find someone to fill a position, without ever questioning whether that person is the right person for the role. This may all sound like extra work, but in the end it ensures you hire the best candidate for your company, even if it takes a longer period of time.

Step Two: Growing talent – Provide real feedback by implementing an appraisal system, regardless of the size of your company. Constructive ongoing feedback gives your employees coaching on how to improve their performance and grow in their roles.

As part of the growth process, you should also encourage your employees to stretch beyond their current skill set to accomplish more. Urge them to take a leap and make the investment to provide training and development programs that will give them the tools they need to meet and exceed their goals. We’ve implemented a company-wide minimum annual number of training hours for each employee, which has worked very well. Not only does this foster employee growth, but it’s an effective recruiting tool as well.

Step Three: Retaining talent – The step that many entrepreneurs struggle with is making sure you keep talent you’ve hired. One of the best ways to do this is to listen to your employees by incorporating surveys as a feedback loop.

This approach has worked wonders for Undertone. Through it, we learned that our employee demographic had changed. Many of the employees had gotten married and started a family. In order to provide them with meaningful benefits, my company began to offer medical coverage that was more family-friendly, adjusting the coverage to the changing needs of the employee base.

Aside from perks and benefits, it is also helpful to remember what else you can offer your employees. Among the most important are:

  • Role clarity: Your employees want to know what their roles are, what they need to achieve them and what the rules are for getting to the next level.
  • Autonomy: People want to know they’re working on tasks critical to the business, and they want to be trusted and empowered to do it well.
  • Accountability: Holding staff accountable is not just about being fair. It also sends a message about what is and is not acceptable. This is critical for employees who are trying to figure out how to succeed, and helps raise the bar for quality at the same time.
  • Praise: Everyone wants to be recognized when they’ve done something right. You can motivate employees by highlighting their strengths rather than harping on their weaknesses.

After you find and nurture your best employees, recognize when it’s time to relinquish control and let your staff do the work. It’s a poorly kept secret that CEOs can be a chief roadblock to their company’s growth for this very reason. Know when to get out of the way of your talent and allow your business to grow before your eyes.


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