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The future of recruiting: How you can hire exceptional employees

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

Hire exceptional employees

It’s a common phenomenon to see companies struggling to hire exceptional employees – in fact, 76% of hiring decision makers say attracting quality candidates is their biggest recruiting challenge. They may attribute this to a talent shortage, their company’s reputation or not knowing where to post jobs. But what if the problem lies with the way the recruiting process is archetypically designed? What if our standard views on hiring make us fundamentally unable to attract and retain the people we want?

I discussed this with Hung Lee, a well-known thought leader in HR who founded the recruiting platform and curates the popular newsletter Recruiting Brainfood. He has observed that there are certain men and women who can’t be hired or retained with the practices we’re used to.

“Some people resemble the artisans of the past – highly-skilled workers who care about their craft, whether they’re developers, writers, designers or beer makers,” says Hung. “Companies want those employees because they produce exceptional, innovative work, but hiring them is difficult.”

He elaborates on why that is:

Perhaps the reason is that the recruiting process, deeply rooted in the industrial revolution (hiring “pipeline” is an industrial metaphor), is just not suitable for people with an artisanal approach to their work. They’re confident they excel at their job and can find work easily so they have reduced motivation to go through multiple screenings or interviews.

So we should be acknowledging that some people – modern-day artisans – can’t be hired with the standard process. But, I had more questions for Hung Lee: how do we recognize artisans and how do we hire them? Most importantly, how do we retain them and give them the means to thrive?

He says that we can learn from the history of work to shape the future.

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Artisans of the past and future

Before the industrial revolution introduced assembly lines and mass production, people got necessary goods from artisans: blacksmiths, dyers, shoemakers, weavers, bakers. Those skilled workers had been apprentices of the craft and they mastered it after years of training.

So when you ordered a sword from a blacksmith, you didn’t tell them how to make it. The blacksmith knew – better than anyone. If you told them you wanted the handle upside down, they’d turn you away because they felt strongly about correct specifications. And they always did a great job because they were passionate about their craft. They took it seriously and excelled at it.

This is what Hung describes as “artisan” in the current workplace – imagine Cassandra, a highly-skilled software developer from London. Coding is her passion and she has a strong GitHub and StackOverflow presence. She likes working with innovative companies and often freelances when interesting projects come her way. Hung breaks down the elements of the mindset of artisans like Cassandra:

  • They are devoted to mastering their craft: An artisan cares about mastery. They spend a lot of time in self-improvement and dedicate their life to their trade.
  • They work better when given autonomy: Artisans need to work on their own terms and choose their tools, materials, schedule and customers.
  • They hone their craft at work and at home: Artisans often do the same type of work at home as they do in the office. Cassandra, for example, may go home after work and code.
  • They produce handmade products: Artisans use their hands to build, create, shape, improve. Cassandra’s code is ‘handmade’ because she typed it in.
  • Their work is values-driven: Artisans are very committed to working on things that they value. They may even sacrifice economic benefits for the sake of their craft.
  • They have a holistic understanding of a product: Artisans are usually able to make a complete product from start to finish. Cassandra, for example, as a full-stack developer, can produce an application all on her own.

Why is it difficult to hire artisans?

From what he’s seen of people with artisanal mindsets, Hung observes that they’re highly resistant toward resume screening, assessments or multiple interviews. That’s a recruitment process that was designed during the industrial revolution to hire assembly line workers – people who might be hard-working and good at their jobs, but who would be expected to follow directions and operate in a structured environment.

People who have an artisanal mindset won’t subject themselves to that sort of hiring process or mode of work. Hung puts it bluntly: “Artisans are thinking ‘I know I’m good, and if you don’t know I’m good, it’s your problem.’”

Think about our friend Cassandra. She’s exceptional at what she does, so she receives messages from recruiters constantly. Most tell her to apply for a job, schedule a screening call, send her resume. But Cassandra doesn’t have the incentive to answer, and might also not agree that the methods of assessment are valid.

In the rare cases Cassandra responds because she’s interested in the role, she’s asked to complete assignments and go through multiple interviews. Before long, she thinks that the hiring process may be a reflection of the company culture – structured, inflexible, asking her to prove herself – and she soon loses interest.

However, one company contacts her without asking her to apply or schedule an initial call. They know what she’s worked on – they’ve looked at her GitHub profile – and they’ve spoken with Joe, her former colleague who recommended her. They’ve also heard her name being tossed around in conferences and social media. They’ve done what Hung says is important – look for social proof and evidence of work:

“It’s like when you’re thinking of trying a new coffee shop – you won’t ask to test the coffee or interview the baristas,” says Hung.”You’ll check the shop’s popularity and you’ll hear what other people say about it. And if you like its reputation, you’ll have a taste.”

This company wants Cassandra as part of their team and they understand that she has a different appreciation of work than other office workers. They propose that she works with them on a paid innovative project for a month so she can see whether she likes the workplace and would like to join full-time. Now, this is something Cassandra might be interested in.

This approach might make hiring artisans like Cassandra easier. Hung clarifies: “Instead of one party immediately asking the other for a major, life changing commitment, both sides get together and find out what working with each other is like.”

Ok, you hired them. Will you retain them?

Artisans are difficult to retain. And the reason is that they mostly care about their craft. They’re not ‘businesspeople’ who want to optimize for profit, efficiency or productivity. That’s why they’re usually more comfortable in startups where there’s room and opportunity for innovation.

If you operate inside a tight framework, not allowing the artisans the flexibility to work on their own terms, they’ll soon withdraw their labor and find work elsewhere.

Also, most companies try to please their customers every way they can. Artisans don’t think the customer is always right. If a customer asks for something that’s wrong (like an upside-down sword handle), an artisan will probably refuse to do it.

I asked Hung Lee if companies can realistically provide that flexibility. Wouldn’t it be difficult to accept losing business because customer requirements aren’t up to Cassandra’s standard? Hung’s reply highlights the change of mindset companies should go though:

When a person refuses to perform a task because it’s not up their standard, they’re unprofessional. And that’s because professions are inherently non-artisanal. If you’re a professional, you’ll deliver what they ask of you in the best possible way (customer is always right), while if you’re an artisan, you care more about doing what you know is right.

So, there’s a price to pay when you employ artisans or exceptional employees. You can’t direct these people like assembly-line workers. They’re not people who take orders (although they might accept your guidance and leadership).

Are artisans worth the trouble?

It’s entirely possible to build a successful business with non-artisanal workers. But, as Hung emphasizes, without artisans, the company might hit an early limit in innovation. You might be able to satisfy customers, but you may struggle wowing them.

And, despite the difficulties in hiring and retaining artisans, they seem to be the people that CEOs want. Ask any senior executive if they’d do anything to hire an expert developer who can perfect their company’s product and they’ll probably say yes. Dropbox CEO Drew Houston explains this in an article in Experteer Magazine: “I’m drawn to people who really love their craft, and treat it like a craft, and are always trying to be better and are obsessed with what separates great from good.”

And he’s right, because, philosophically speaking, artisanal work is more attractive to all of us. It used to be different: the industrial revolution moved artisans out of the game because a factory could produce faster and cheaper.

“The products wouldn’t be as good, but they were good enough and that’s what we accepted,” says Hung. “But, we’re slowly returning to a time when we have a better appreciation for what is good.”

True enough, most of us would be willing to pay extra for a handmade bag or watch, or a limited edition book. Hung Lee also uses the example of music:

I ask people to think how much money they’re willing to spend on buying music online. Then, I ask them if they feel the same way about concert tickets. Concerts are always more popular because you don’t just buy music, you buy a unique, artisanal moment, and you have proof that a human hand has created it.

It’s definitely an organizational challenge

If you want people who obey directions, you might get a decent business and product. But if you want to go further than that and employ artisans, you need to be prepared to have a different relationship with them.

Think about the degree of control you’re willing to allow a person to get them to come onboard. If you want to hire a highly skilled person, you need to give them room to operate.

Also, it’s best not to force everyone through the same recruitment process. Have default pipelines for most junior or mid-level roles, but don’t make artisans go through them.

And, of course, think about the future of your business. As companies grow, they become more process-driven and that drives artisans away. Essentially, companies can either optimize or innovate. Artisans prefer the latter, so when you start optimizing for efficiency, they might go work for a startup instead. My naive question to Hung at this point was whether keeping artisans by slowing growth would be a fair trade-off.

“A better solution would be for companies to split,” says Hung. “They could create smaller internal units or ecosystems where artisans would preserve their autonomy and values-driven innovation.”

Hiring and retaining artisans is tough (not even Hung Lee has a complete plan!) Start by customizing your recruitment efforts to the candidate, instead of forcing them to adapt to your standard recruitment pipeline. Granted, it’s work, but the benefit is landing a star employee who can help you improve your business using their special talent.

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