Competing in a Sellers’ Hiring Market: Using Transparency and Authenticity
To say that the hiring market is incredibly tight right now is an understatement. We are truly in a seller’s market, and candidates can afford to be picky. Really picky. There are a number of influencing factors at play, many of them related to COVID, but not all.
The pandemic has caused individuals and organizations to reevaluate priorities. Employees are taking a hard look at what they really want from their careers, and companies are stepping away from the status quo and focusing on more formalized and strategic hiring practices. Some of the largest companies in the world are considering an indefinite extension of their work from home protocols, and more and more startups are launching with a remote model and the intention to stay that way.
As a “buyer” in this kind of super competitive hiring market, how do you win the best talent? How do you make sure your company measures up and can attract the best of the best?
On a recent episode of the BUILD Podcast, Blake Bartlett spoke with Adam Turner, co-founder and CEO of Postscript, an OpenView portfolio company that has done incredibly well navigating these shifting and challenging hiring dynamics. In the past year, Postscript has hired more than 150 people as the company rapidly grew from 20 to 200. They make it look easy, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
Their hiring success is partly due to the fact that they have been intentional about the basics:
- Building a great internal recruiting team
- Creating a hiring process that presents Postscript to its best advantage while also delivering an excellent candidate experience
- Upholding a baseline level of transparency about what everybody gets paid, company-level metrics, career laddering, and so forth. They also make sure that their compensation packages are fair and competitive
All these foundational elements are non-negotiable table stakes, but Adam credits something else for their consistent long-term hiring success: the company’s culture of transparency and authenticity. “Now, more than ever, it’s about the people and the relationships that you’re building, especially in a remote setting,” says Adam. “All things being equal, it’s these human elements that determine whether or not a candidate chooses you.”
Transparency: The Power of Vulnerability
When the team at Postscript talks about transparency, they don’t just mean the basics of sharing details about compensation, the company vision, and other big-picture and human resource-related things. At Postscript, transparency has a lot more to do with being vulnerable. And that means everyone—from employees to leadership, and even board members.
Giving Everyone the Chance to Get Real
Postscript’s approach to transparency is to avoid faking it and just be completely up front about what’s happening—at work and outside of work—and how people are dealing with that.
This is especially critical when a company is experiencing rapid growth that drives everyone on the team into unfamiliar territory. When individual contributors suddenly find themselves in management positions, they aren’t going to magically have all the answers. At Postscript, they don’t need to pretend otherwise. “There’s just no more room for facades,” says Adam. “Gen Z and the younger folks are especially good at seeing right through that.”
In the Postscript cultural context, vulnerability means acknowledging that every team member—even leadership—is a real person with a real life outside of work. It means being able to share struggles openly. And it means truly caring about enabling each person to live their best and fullest lives.
Adam has personal experience with the power of vulnerability. “I’ve found that vulnerability can be my strength,” he says. “I once shared a real story during an all-hands in front of 200 people about something that was happening in my life outside of work. I felt able to bring my whole self to work in that way because I see that transparency reflected by our leadership.”
Applying Vulnerability to the Business
While vulnerability is definitely something that leans heavily toward the human side of company culture, it can also be applied to more business-centric conversations.
“It starts with being transparent about the numbers,” says Adam. “But then you add vulnerability about where you’re not doing well and where you need to focus more effort. From there, you can break it down and get super specific about exactly how different departments are affecting the inputs that create a given output.”
Being super transparent about the business equation so that teams understand how their day-to-day influences outcomes goes a long way toward improving performance. It also serves as an open invitation to the entire team to engage in creative problem solving to address issues. “The best ideas come from different parts of the company than in past decades,” Adam points out. “Transparency helps to break down the decision-making responsibility and spread it across the entire organization.”
Authenticity: The Path to Resilience
Transparency and authenticity go hand in hand because multifaceted (personal and business) transparency organically leads to a truly authentic culture. The thing to remember is that once you get on this path, you will be given opportunities to be authentic, and you need to step up and take them … every time.
“Authenticity is something you need to prove time and time again. That’s what makes it so hard to fake,” says Adam. “And as you bring new people on, they need to see it for themselves on a day-to-day basis. They can’t just trust the person next to them who says that leadership is authentic or the company culture is all about authenticity. They need to experience it first hand.”
Delivering Bad News is a Great Opportunity for Authenticity
No one likes to deliver bad news, but the silver lining is that sticky situations provide a chance to step into your authenticity in ways that make a real difference.
Instead of sheltering people from bad news by hiding it or repositioning it, just put it out there. In the end, people will appreciate the honesty. In addition, telling it like it is encourages resilience and personal agency as the team pulls together to address the challenge as a whole unit.
This kind of authentic environment is especially attractive to high performers whose next-best opportunity is to start their own company. “Authenticity in moments of crisis can help with retention,” Adam explains. “Because high performers will realize that they are learning at a much faster pace. The company is not only treating them right in terms of compensation, it’s also supporting a culture that involves them in big decisions they would be excluded from at a less authentic company.”
Ultimately, it’s the tough challenges that shape your best employees. Adam shared an anecdote about having to tell a Postscript product team that the project they’d been working on for three months had to be abandoned because of a vendor issue. “We sat everyone down, explained the conversation we were having with the vendor, and asked everyone what they thought,” says Adam. To be clear, the intent was not to democratize the decision. It was to open up an honest and authentic conversation about the reality of the situation, namely that in a startup, things are going to be super dynamic.
“We ended up deciding to pivot the team, which was really hard for some of the team members,” says Adam. “But, in the end, the person who was struggling the most not only made it through, they became one of our best team members. They turned the experience into an opportunity, and now they are able to explain it to other team members who might be struggling with similar situations. They became a culture carrier.”
Referrals: An Important Benefit of a Truly Strong Culture
Transparency and authenticity also play an important role when it comes to referrals. Anyone will tell you that the best candidates are almost always referrals. On the surface, referrals may seem like low-hanging fruit, but that’s not the case.
When someone makes a referral, they are really sticking their neck out for the company. They are, in essence, putting their reputation on the line by encouraging a friend or colleague to join up. When you’re talking about this level of personal risk, monetary compensation—in the form of referral bonuses—is not the appropriate answer.
Instead, you need to make sure the basics are in place (compensation, a great candidate experience, etc.), and then you need to go the extra mile. This is where the culture piece comes in. When you create a culture of true transparency and authenticity, your employees internalize that experience and become culture carriers who evangelize your company to candidates.
Turning Customer Reviews into Candidate Referrals
The power of transparency and authenticity to pave the way for great candidates isn’t restricted just to employees. Today’s candidates are very proactive about doing their research. You can bet that they will be scouring the internet for social proof that you are who you say you are. They will look on traditional sites like Glassdoor, but they will also search out customer testimonials on sites like G2 and, in Postscript’s case, Shopify.
What customers say about you matters because it’s a reflection on the culture of the company. “Candidates definitely consider whether customers love or hate a company, and if reviews are bad, that can be a huge red flag,” says Adam. “Postscript reviews often call out specific team members by name, which is a really positive reflection of the way we talk about being here to make our merchants more revenue, and how much we care about every customer. Done right, you essentially wind up with customers referring candidates, which can be incredibly exciting, and is also a renewable source of energy for the business.”
Move Past the Fear and Start With Yourself
When Blake asked Adam what advice he would give to founders who want to establish a culture of transparency and authenticity, Adam said simply, “Start with yourself.”
Building a strong culture is a ground-up operation. You have to invest in your day-to-day interactions with people, always making sure to be consistent about the way your actions embody the culture you want to create. Walking the walk helps in two critically important ways. It gives people the opportunity to see what kind of leader you are, and it provides a model that they can mimic, which is exactly how culture gets built.
The first step is getting past the fear. Adam acknowledges that transparency and authenticity are both easier said than done. Or, as Blake put it, it’s easy to describe, but in real life it can seem like lightning in a bottle. The key is to lean into the discomfort.
“There’s so much noise today in all of our day-to-day that sometimes the strongest signal can be discomfort,” Adam says. “If you are feeling fear or anxiety, that’s an opportunity. Dig deeper into those opportunities as they come up, because those are the moments when employees are watching to see how you react. Seek discomfort, and lean into it.”
As your company heads into the hiring fray to try and woo the best-of-the-best, remember that culture is more than just posting your company’s core values on the wall or the website. It’s never enough to say the thing. You have to do it. And even more than that, you have to do it every day. “In the end,” Adam says, “It’s the micro things—actual human-to-human interactions—that determine your culture,”