Accounting for talent Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Years ago, Anne Taylor gained an appreciation for just how challenging it can be to hire the right people.

Taylor was in her mid-20s and a partner in a small business.

“I was interviewing people, and one of the other partners in the business said he thought I was making a mistake on some of the people,” she says. “He told me that I wasn’t looking for people better than me. He said, ‘You ought to only be looking for people better than you are.’”

As a young person in the world of business, that didn’t compute for Taylor.

“I found that to be rather a concern for me,” she says. “First of all — having no humility at that age — could I find someone better than me? But I thought that if I did find someone better than me, it would be threatening to me in some fashion.”

Taylor, who is now the managing principal for the 4,800-employee mid-America region of financial advisory services firm Deloitte LLP, says time and experience showed her that personal pride must always take a backseat to the good of the company when hiring. Hiring someone who is better than you doesn’t necessarily mean you need to hire someone who is an all-around superior person. It means that you must recognize your own shortcomings and the shortcomings in the collective skill set of your employees, and then hire to strengthen those weaknesses.

“They might not be better in every way, but they might be better in certain ways,” Taylor says. “That piece of advice is still true. When I look for new recruits, they might bring something that I, even with more than 25 years of experience, might not bring to the table. There might be a knowledge of technology, an energy or just something in their breadth of experience.

“I still always look for that, how are they going to be better than I am, better than we are collectively as a group.”

Here’s how Taylor leveraged that experience to help her find and keep the best people at Deloitte.

Create a good environment

The wants and needs of a good job candidate would seem to follow logic. It’s what just about every worker wants: competitive pay, solid benefits, a healthy work environment, and a chance for raises and promotions.

But the best job candidates look for something else, and Taylor says it’s the first thing you should offer them. The best candidates want assignments and responsibilities that match their talent and experience.

As the leader, it’s your responsibility to find those challenges and keep them coming.

“You want to match what they can do but also stretch them,” she says. “That’s what most people who come to Deloitte are looking for, but we have to continue to find those opportunities. It might be fairly early opportunities to lead teams or opportunities to look at more than one client at a time or new industries. That’s what makes for a great environment.”

Taylor has also emphasized the need to develop mentoring opportunities for new employees. At Deloitte, management tries to custom fit the opportunities at the financial service firm to the career path each employee would like to follow.

“Employees are looking for mentoring and interest in them, interest in their careers,” Taylor says. “One of the things we’re focused on is how do we customize what they want from a career experience to fit their current needs. Everybody has different phases in both life and work experience, and we look at how we can match their energy, interest, developmental needs and abilities to what we can offer.”

Deloitte developed the concept on a large scale in the 1990s with the rollout of the company’s women’s initiative, a program that focused on what Deloitte would need to attract and retain female employees.

Taylor wasn’t a big fan of the initiative when it was first introduced in 1993.

“I was already a partner, and my first reaction was, ‘Oh, please don’t single out the women,’” she says. “The last thing I wanted to be was more visible. At the time, I had twins who were about 2 years old, so I felt kind of visible already, and I didn’t want any more highlighting of the challenges that might be out there. I had gone to engineering school, so it wasn’t new to me to be one of the few women.”

But as Taylor and other executives at Deloitte looked into the subject, they found the company needed to make some changes in how it addressed the needs of female employees.

“We were hiring much like other companies, women at a 50 percent rate of our total hiring for over 10 years,” she says. “It’s the same amount of time it takes to get into the partnership, and women were less than 5 percent of the population of partners.

“So I had thought that women hadn’t been in the work force for as many years on a consistent basis to advance. But what we found out was that most women who left us were not leaving the work force. There were a lot of myths about what was happening. The end result was that there were a lot of programs and initiatives created at that time that changed our culture and made it a much better place for both men and women, more family-friendly and more flexibility, more focused on personal choices around career demands.”

The results of the women’s initiative helped Deloitte’s leaders shape a more well-rounded approach to meeting employee needs.

“Our female workers loved serving clients and the work we did, but we just didn’t have some of the other things they were looking for in a work environment, so they were going other places where they saw more women advancing.”

Become a motivator

Taylor calls it the “eternal quest” facing presidents and CEOs everywhere: how to get the most out of your employees, taking their talent and brainpower, and putting it to the most effective use for your business. It’s a critical element in attracting and retaining employees who want new challenges.

At the center of the quest is communication. But it has to go in two directions — speaking and listening. And not always in that order.

“The first thing you want to do is motivate,” Taylor says. “You want to find out what makes someone else tick. I learned awhile ago that the best way to do that is to ask. That’s also part of our idea of customizing our approach to our employees.

“I think we’ve gone along far too long in assuming that everybody ticks in the same way. But now we have different people coming from different backgrounds, more women in the work force, more people of different generations, whatever it might be. And to find out what motivates them, you have to ask them.”

At Deloitte, each assignment given to an employee is an opportunity to teach. Even assignments that an employee might view as routine or mundane are opportunities to provide employees with a new challenge and a chance for self-analysis.

Taylor says you must always find ways to go deeper with your employees.

“After you’ve motivated, listened and asked, you have to help your people figure out what they can learn from every assignment,” Taylor says. “There are always assignments that seem mundane or repetitive, and the challenge I have is to ask them every day to figure out what they’re going to learn from this assignment.

“Maybe it’s not technical knowledge on this one, maybe it’s better interpersonal skills. Or maybe you need to learn something about communication skills. But every assignment creates an opportunity to learn. That kind of environment is what keeps people coming back to the same employer.”

Individual and collective assessment has been a common theme throughout Deloitte’s Houston operations in the past months as southeast Texas continues to recover from the destruction brought on by Hurricane Ike.

The fallout from Ike has put Deloitte into a uniquely innovative position, thinking of ways to help out both clients and each other.

“I think almost everybody in Houston has thought of one thing they’d do differently — they’d probably buy more batteries next time,” Taylor says. “But from a Deloitte perspective and a personal perspective, I’ve unfortunately been involved with many emergency situations in our firm. Each one is different, but each one is the same. We focus first on our people, then on our clients.”

Deloitte’s leaders quickly found out that the biggest hurdle preventing Deloitte employees from returning to work wasn’t property damage or a lack of electricity. It was a lack of child care. If an employee ran out of child care options and it was practical to do so, Taylor and her leadership allowed parents to temporarily bring their children to work.

Deloitte’s offices maintained power after the storm, allowing another unique opportunity to serve clients.

“We had clients who were working in our offices since we were fortunate enough to maintain power,” Taylor says. “We had people, as many organizations did, who had devastating loss and people who had minor inconveniences. But our people recognized how they could help each other out. It’s a perfect example of rethinking and improving for next time.”

Mission statements and strategic plans tend to take a back-seat in the aftermath of a natural disaster, when restoring the normalcy of everyday life becomes the most important goal. But even in the wake of Hurricane Ike, Taylor saw a chance to both educate and motivate her employees to come up with new ideas.

“It’s exactly the notion that we’re proud but never satisfied,” she says. “We work very hard to assess ourselves internally, and we’re pretty much our toughest critic. But we also get with our clients and ask them to assess our work. How did we do? Did we get the people we are looking for? If not, why not?”

Find a balance

Taylor believes the only way to measure the effectiveness of a leader is by noting the extent to which he or she is followed. And the way you gain followers is by empowering them.

It’s a difficult balance to achieve. She says you must give employees both freedom and structure in their jobs.

“The most successful way is to make sure you are giving them the right amount of support,” she says. “You can overem-power them, and they’ll just flounder. So you have to balance that lever of support and freedom. That, I think, is the art of leadership. It’s balancing the degree to which you support someone versus how you give them rope and let them run free.”

As with finding what motivates your employees, you need feedback to get a read on whether you are meeting their needs, both in terms of support and empowerment.

But to get the right feedback, you need to set the right boundaries and ask the right questions.

“The question to ask is, what is the end result we’re trying to achieve?” she says. “If there is a magic question you should ask, that’s it. Sometimes you get caught up in the minutiae along the way, but it’s that end result that you’re looking for.

“As leaders, we can get caught up in thinking too much. We make assumptions. But asking the right questions is really important. If we ask the right questions, we get great information.”