While companies are struggling to identify and retain talent in their industries, others are advocating a less orthodox strategy: recruiting the most talented employees, detaching themselves from their business experience.
“If you want radical innovation, you have to look at unlikely candidates,” says Marion Poetz, professor of innovation at Copenhagen Business School. As your industry becomes more technologically driven, consider turning to marginal talent who can help you move forward so you don’t sit on the sidelines.
For startups, this means considering different candidates from the start. When Sarah Kauss founded S’well, which produces custom bottles, she wanted to differentiate herself with an elegant, airy design. “In the beginning, we were just wondering what was already on the market and how to position ourselves in relation to that,” she recalls. Then she decided to hire fashion designers to create her bottles, which cost up to $45. The gamble paid off: S’well quickly became a reference in terms of trends. “We were pink gold before Apple, and then they called us and asked us to make a bottle for their store in Cupertino,” says Sarah Kauss. This contract was quickly followed by others, which enabled the company to reach 100 million in sales in 2016, twice as much as the previous year.
Even if you’ve been in your industry for decades, outsiders can become your best resource for creative problem-solving. Ten years ago, Thomas Novacek, head of R&D for the Schindler Group’s escalator subsidiary, was struggling to transport these huge pre-assembled products that he had to fit into small spaces. Thomas Novacek then sought help from experts in other sectors, including a former employee of a ski resort and a former employee of a model train factory. Finally, they were joined by a professional from the mining sector, who came up with a solution that reduced the number of escalator components.
To ensure that an outsider doesn’t turn into a failed experiment, Karina Wilsher advises remaining strategic about her contributions. Everything can go wrong if you just let go of someone original and wait to see what happens next,” she warns, before adding, “Sometimes there’s a risk in introducing a nugget: everyone will want a piece,” Wilsher says. You have to be very disciplined and take the time to take care of it.”
When this kind of grafting is performed in tech companies, it requires even more precautions. Thomas Novacek puts his underdogs through months of preparation to make sure they’re up to speed on the fundamentals of his industry, such as the incredible specificity of safety measures in the escalator industry. But once they are ready, they can quickly apply their expertise through this prism. “To implement these radical ideas, you need in-depth knowledge,” says Thomas Novacek, who has also poached nuggets in sectors such as aeronautics and the automotive industry.
Ideally, these newcomers become drivers of change that will force the rest of the teams to remain curious and flexible in an ever-changing world. For John Sullivan, a talent management expert and professor at San Francisco State University, when it comes to any employee, “the number one skill is the ability to learn quickly and independently. “But outsiders have several qualities that are unique to them…
“There’s a secret ingredient to hiring someone who knows I believe in them enough to take a risk,” says David Williams, CEO of Fishbowl, a software company in the Salt Lake City area. David Williams has hired everyone from his electrician to the person who sold him a snowboard, and he’s far more likely to hire someone who is creative and patient with a sharp mind, rather than relying on the industry he comes from. This talent strategy has allowed David Williams to keep Fishbowl in the Inc. 5000 rankings for seven consecutive years – while maintaining a particularly low turnover.
A vision challenged
“To survive in any industry, you have to manage a lot of ingrained behaviors and assumptions that are hard to shake off,” says Dan Pappalardo, founder, and CEO of media group Troika. “If you just recruit people who fit the mold, everything stagnates. “That’s why Dan Pappalardo recruited a cultural anthropologist to help his Hollywood teams better understand consumer expectations.
A cultural fit
When you lose interest in sector-focused expertise, you are free to leverage personal networks and get your hands on individual talent. That’s why Mike Catania, founder, and CTO of several startups in Florida, hired several of his University of Massachusetts alumni in technical positions – regardless of whether they graduated with a degree in music theory. “Since I knew their personalities and work ethics, I could easily brief them – much faster than I would have done for conventionally hired employees with more industry experience.