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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Atkinson

Building a Talent Farm

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

One of the most successful enterprise tech startups in NYC history, AppNexus was acquired by AT&T for $1.6B in 2018. I joined in early 2010 when we were less than 30 people to build what became the Global Services (GS) organization. The team grew to nearly 200 people, and the company to over a 1,000 people. We were the largest independent platform for buying and selling online advertising. As I look back, one of the primary drivers for our success was our “Talent Farm” strategy. The idea was to hire very high potential talent into the GS team, train them in our industry and technology, and then create pathways into other parts of the company to maximize their growth and impact.

In hindsight, the strategy clearly worked. GS became an exceptional organization, and at the time of the acquisition many of the senior leaders throughout Sales, Engineering, Product, and Finance were brought up through this system. Also, many GS alumni are now successful founders and leaders throughout the industry.

This strategy can be a growth driver for any company. It enables companies to hire and retain extraordinary and diverse talent while creating truly sustainable competitive advantage. It creates an incredibly agile workforce that can flex as organizational needs change over time. It also fosters a culture where employees are encouraged to envision and develop into their best self through work. In this blog series, I’ll share how we did this. I invite you to follow along.

We’ll start, in this post, with the mindset necessary to make this strategy successful. Next, we’ll cover the interview framework used to identify high potential talent. Then, we’ll discuss how to cultivate a culture of learning and teaching to accelerate a new employee’s time to value. We’ll close with how to define and embed an internal mobility philosophy that accelerates the movement of talent throughout the company.

The Talent Farm Mindset

The cornerstone of the Talent Farm strategy is to optimize hiring to select for potential rather than previous work and educational experience. In GS we went as far as writing in our job descriptions, “no relevant work experience required.” We built a team of ad tech experts by hiring people with no ad tech experience. Being in hyper-growth, we were frequently understaffed. Yet, we hired people who couldn’t create value for some time after they started. This is counter intuitive and can face resistance by those who haven’t seen it work.

Many managers believe they cannot afford to wait for someone to learn the industry and the specific skills required for job. For many roles that’s true. The specific type and depth of relevant experience is simply required. You cannot hire someone to be an accountant who doesn’t have a deep understanding of accounting practices. You cannot hire someone to be a software engineer who has never written a line of code. However, in a talent farm the bar for “required experience” is pushed as low as possible. For many, this requires a mindset shift.

The shift is from “I need outcomes now” to “I need to create the conditions for extraordinary outcomes.” Many leaders lock their attention on business outcomes, e.g. hitting sales numbers, meeting product launch dates, reducing customer churn. These are all vitally important outcomes of course. However, with an outcomes focused mindset, we tend to under invest in the activities that allow us to achieve those outcomes with greater ease over time. We also tend to make short term decisions that can hurt us in the long term.

The Outcomes Focused Mindset

Some recent examples … at Boeing, the CEO was hyper-focused on launching the 737 Max on schedule or sooner. As a result, quality and safety standards eroded, and tragedy followed. At Uber, the CEO was hyper-focused on “winning.” As an unintended consequence unethical judgement was silently permissible, resulting in a public scandal.

The downside of the outcomes focused mindset is often more subtle. A sales leader is driving so hard to hit his quarterly numbers that he doesn’t take the time to cultivate good sales hygiene practices within his team, which thereby makes it harder to hit his numbers. An engineer is driving so hard to meet her deadline that she doesn’t take the time to refactor her code, which overtime makes it harder to meet her deadlines. A manager’s team is understaffed and falling behind, so he hires someone who checks the boxes and can do the job, which lowers the talent bar on the team, which makes it harder to motivate and retain great talent, which makes it harder for the manager to deliver the outcomes expected overtime.

The Conditions Focused Mindset

With a conditions focused mindset, we have an eye towards the desired outcomes, but our daily focus is on creating the conditions for outstanding outcomes to occur. Here are some examples ...

Nick Saban is the famous University of Alabama football coach. In what he calls “The Process,” he tells his players to never look at the scoreboard. The focus isn’t winning the game (the outcome). The focus is executing each individual play to the very best of their ability (the conditions). If you win all the plays, you win the game by default.

The rise of community policing, popularized in NYC in the 90’s, provides another example. The City was racked with violent crime. Rather than focusing its energy directly on stopping violent crime, it turned its attention to engaging with communities to reduce disorder and minor offences like broken windows and driving through stop signs. It worked. Reducing the conditions that stimulate violent crime resulted in less violent crime.

Hiring for Potential

The hiring for potential strategy is an application of the conditions focused mindset. We let go of our anxious desire to deliver short-term outcomes. We embrace the lack of near-term productivity. We hire for the qualities which suggest an individual has extraordinary potential to learn and make an impact over the long term.

In the next week’s blog post we’ll cover what those qualities are and how to identify them in an interview. Here it is!

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