In the media

How to handle innovative talent in large companies

By Nikita Bang

09 February 2021

This article first appeared in POV.International

What can big companies learn from start ups when it comes to hiring people with very specific skills in digitisation, accelerated innovation or sustainability and circular economy? Quite a lot, it turns out.

By definition a start-up company has limited funds, so newly hired talents are most often taken on to provide a specific competency that can take the company to the next level. Most frequently, they will get hold of someone who has done something similar in a similar environment, or someone who can help point out the right direction to go in when the owners recognize that they do not even have a full knowledge of the next steps.

Limited funds and the fact that they often only have one person doing the job means that the start up company will naturally get the maximum out of the person from day one. And that has proven to be effective.

Having just one person in the post (in the beginning at least) and their feeling of ownership of the role is something that attracts talent. When you cannot compete on salary, the pension scheme or the long company history, then you can compete on the size of the ​​responsibility, the entrepreneurial way of working and a possible co-ownership.

That is how start ups manage to speak to both the hearts and minds of newly hired talents. They hand them a blank canvas and ask them to start painting. They rely on their skills, and therefore do not interfere in what colours they paint with, what designs to start with, or for that matter the size of the canvas. Why not? Because it does not make sense to hire a talent to take on a specific challenge, with all that means in terms of expense and risk, to then spend time supporting the wrong person, or get in the way of the person doing the job.

In other words, in a start up you go to great lengths to find the right talents with the right experience, and therefore you also let them get on with doing the things that they know from experience how to do.

What can large, established companies learn from this?

Large companies rarely lack impressive narratives in the hiring process. They have a recognised name, measurable results and often decades of branding to draw on to attract talent.

The challenge is that everyday life in the company does not always live up to the stories. Precisely because there are long company traditions, it becomes more difficult to give employees free rein and a quick way to self-determination when they step into a large ready-built machine where the caretakers have power.

While companies may pay close attention to speaking to the employees’ heart and business motivation, at the same time, they have no doubt about where they want to go, and  how to get there. For example, they have already decided on the framework for the new sustainability department and know what goals they want to achieve – all that is left is having someone to implement them. So companies end up welcoming, and then handing an almost final picture, to the new employee rather than an empty canvas, and cannot understand why that reduces motivation and results.

The new employee may be promised space to make their mark, but simultaneously, time and resources are invested in "onboarding" and conveying "this is how we do it here" from the first working day. We see people who are employed in digital departments presented with strict dress codes. Or maybe they are told that they should use a PC instead of a Mac - a sacrilege that is probably best compared to asking an FCK fan to wear a Brøndby shirt when he or she shows up for work on the first day. Or maybe the young digital native employee is spoken to in the same way as you spoke to people you hired ten years ago, and then the connection between the story they were told when they were hired and the reality they are presented with as employees begins to crumble. It is not unusual to hear statements such as: "yes, but they do not want me to do what I am employed for ..."

Companies think they provide space and freedom - but in reality they rarely do. According to the best estimate, the large companies receive a maximum of 20 per cent of what the new employee would have been able to deliver under the right conditions.

The new employee is unconsciously demotivated from the moment he or she enters the company and is told: "you must be like us". Companies end up handing over a very small canvas, where they have made sure they set out  which brushes to use, which colours to mix and how the brushstrokes are to be made- and often they have also just drawn the outline of the last unpainted corner.

What should companies do instead?

The days are over when new employees have to fit in. To create innovation, many companies need the new talents to have room to grow and as shiny a canvas to paint on as possible. If that canvas is not blank enough, then experience shows that it only takes 4-5 months before people end up institutionalised, and then it is two steps forward and one back. The creativity and desire to experiment that is so essential for the company - and the employee - is packed away so they can fit in.

It is about giving up control and trusting that new employees can help set the direction and draw the picture for the company using the experiences they bring with them in their backpack.

We have identified seven main rules when hiring new, innovative employees for new business areas: 

1. Remove the obstacles. Let the talent get a Mac if he or she has worked with a Mac all his or her life, even if the rest of the organisation uses a PC. In General Electric, the top management has decided and communicated that if a company rule gets in the way of new employees' development, then a quick solution must be found, otherwise the matter goes directly to their CEO, who then finds a solution. Oddly enough, not that many cases get forwarded. Pragmatic solutions are found.

2. Be greedy on behalf of your company. Why not get the most out of new employees by giving them a blank canvas to paint on, and not trying to impose on them how to do things?

3. Mix the new person with other new and innovative colleagues. A single person with new ideas alone among a group of employees who have been in the company for many years will naturally try to fit in - and so the reason why he or she was hired at all will disappear.

4. Trust the talent. Let the talent bring his experience into play and set direction and goals for his field rather than having everything planned before hiring.

5. Pass the ball. Have the strategic overview and provide crystal clear lines, but let the employee run with the ball in their day to day working life.

6. Create a short line up to management. Your employees need to know that their ideas can have a real impact and are taken seriously; that gives them a far greater desire to develop their next good idea.

7. Encourage experimentation and close dialogue with customers. Fuel is needed to fire the company culture.

As Picasso, who if anyone knew how to fill a canvas in his own way he did, said: "If I know exactly what a new painting will look like, then I paint something completely different".

Read the article in Danish in here.

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