By Christina Henderson
It was a painful, yet familiar, story for executives around the table. Kevin, a top manager at a Montana technology firm, had recently made a job offer to Mark, a promising programmer from Salt Lake City. Mark sold his house, packed up his wife and kids, and moved to Missoula on a Saturday to begin the new position on Monday.
On Saturday and Sunday, Kevin received emails from Mark three times a day relaying how excited he was to show up at the office on Monday. But when Monday came and Mark hadn’t arrived at work by 9:30 am, Kevin knew something was wrong.
A phone call confirmed that Mark’s wife had decided Montana wasn’t for her. She had packed up her stuff that morning and headed back to Salt Lake City. Mark loaded his kids in the car and chased after her. He never started that job in Montana, though he still hopes to get there someday.
While most new hires make it through at least the first day, stories of revolving door employees are not unusual for Montana tech companies. For the past three years, annual surveys conducted by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research have identified recruiting skilled workers as the #1 barrier to growth for Montana high tech and manufacturing firms. In addition to attracting talent, hiring managers have noted that effective employee onboarding is a related workforce challenge.
At the Montana High Tech Business Alliance CEO Roundtable in Great Falls, past Alliance board chair and founder of RightNow Technologies Greg Gianforte summed up the issue:
“Once we find people, how do we get them plugged into an organization so that they become effective quickly, and then stick?” he asked.
Gianforte led discussion among a dozen leaders of companies from cities across Montana, including Lewistown, Missoula, Bozeman, and Helena. The executives spoke candidly about their successes and failures when it comes to employee onboarding.
Here are five best practices they shared for hiring people that stick.
1. Recruit the whole family.
An important step in the hiring process is engaging a job candidate’s significant other or family so they feel good about moving to Montana, too. Kevin’s story is perhaps an ideal illustration of this point.
Matt Conroy, vice president of engineering for financial technology company SoFi, said his company spends significant time with job candidates and their families when recruiting for their Helena office.
“We will bring them in and have them spend a week in Helena,” Conroy said. “We’ll pay for their hotel, pay for their flight, feed them. Interact with them in the community. We’ll take them out to dinners, take them to the bar, whatever it happens to be. We try to engage with them.”
While it might seem like an expensive proposition to pay for a week-long, family visit to Montana, according to Conroy, it’s a low cost considering the risk of a failed hire.
Gianforte took a similar approach at Bozeman’s RightNow Technologies. The company would pay for an out-of-state senior candidate and his or her spouse to spend a weekend in Montana.
“We wouldn’t make an offer if they haven’t [spent the weekend],” Gianforte said. “It’s also part of closing the deal. In Bozeman, if we can get a family to come out, they go spend the weekend down in Yellowstone Park or someplace and then come back. Now the spouse and kids are fully on board. Or they’re not, and you’ll never close the deal, but better to learn that earlier than later.”
While there are cases like Kevin’s where a partner vetoes a potential job in Montana, a spouse with an interest in a community can also influence a candidate to consider a position. Adrian Doucette, President of North Central Stockman Bank in Great Falls, has found that hiring individuals whose spouses grew up in small towns or have family nearby is particularly helpful for finding people willing to take jobs in rural areas.
“It seems like they stick a lot better if they have ties in the community,” Doucette said. “Plentywood, Montana may not be very engaging for a lot of people, but if you grew up there, you want to go back.”
Alliance member companies have used class reunions, alumni associations, and social networks (online or offline) as fruitful sources of leads for possible hires with local connections.
2. Sell your community, not just the company.
To attract and keep talent in Montana, executives agreed it is vital for out-of-state candidates to understand the range of local amenities – from fly-fishing and skiing to arts events and pet rescues. If candidates can imagine an enjoyable life for themselves and their family in that community, they are much more likely to relocate.
Tom Spika, founder of Spika Design and Manufacturing, said, “If you think [recruiting in] Bozeman is tough, try Lewistown. We’re two hours from Walmart. But we’re a mecca for outdoor recreation – backpacking and mountain biking. We’re still what we refer to as the true main street Montana.”
Tom’s daughter, Bekhi Spika, Marketing Director for Spika Design, is undertaking a project of branding and marketing the Lewistown area, for both tourists and locals.
Bekhi conducted surveys on the street in Lewistown, asking questions like, “How do you find out what’s going on? What do you do here? What do you do for entertainment?” Tom said it’s easy to find something to do, once you start digging.
“We have musicians on the street during the summer. We have open mic night at the coffee house. The Choke Cherry Festival,” Tom said. “For us, it’s crucial they understand exactly the community they’re getting into and the attractiveness of it. So many of them say, ‘That is exactly what I’ve been wanting my whole life. I don’t want to be living in this rat race I’m in in California.’”
Jenn Ewan, senior counsel with Michael Best in Missoula, cited a number of resources available to employers who could use help with recruiting. Hiring managers can contact alumni associations to do mailings to Montana graduates. Local economic development agencies can compile packets of information to help firms with recruiting. Molly Bradford’s company, GatherBoard, powers websites like MissoulaEvents.net and BozemanEvents.net that serve as a hub for information on what’s happening locally.
The key is to highlight the unique advantages of one’s hometown. As Gianforte noted, some people think being far from Wal-Mart is a good thing.
3. Take candidates for a test drive.
In addition to selling their communities, executives also use a variety of tactics to make sure someone is a good fit for the company culture and the position before making an offer. One way to evaluate fit is to place potential hires in unconventional and informal settings that allow you to see another side of them. Gianforte took one candidate skiing after a morning interview.
“When we left for the ski hill, we were convinced we were going to hire this guy,” Gianforte said. “We did, like, three runs on the hill, and it was unanimous — nobody wanted to hire him. It wasn’t because of his skiing ability. He was a whiner, and he wasn’t willing to take any risks. It was interpersonal skills. It’s amazing how you change the context, and you get a completely different perspective on somebody.”
According to the CEOs, try-before-you-buy projects can also be an effective way to avoid hiring mistakes. For example, by inviting software developers to do paid, temporary work for the company, managers can sift out top performers from the talent pool before committing to long-term contracts.
4. Engage current employees in hiring.
A number of companies include current employees in the hiring process to ensure better outcomes. Tim Austin, Chief Operations & Information Officer for D.A. Davidson in Great Falls, said that his company empowers employees to speak up when they have reservations about potential hires.
“We’ve had the peers actually override the managers who felt differently on a candidate,” Austin said.
According to Jack Manning, Partner at Dorsey and Whitney in Missoula, his law firm makes sure that lawyers are interviewed by the secretaries.
“In a small office, everybody has to get along,” Manning said.
Gianforte noted that with sales positions, RightNow Technologies initially made a big mistake in not involving its current employees in the hiring process. After a particularly unproductive year, Gianforte knew something needed to be addressed.
“We asked the top sales people, ‘How can we fix this problem?’” Gianforte said. “They said, ‘Management, you go off and hire these yahoos. We go to lunch the first day with the person, I can tell you by the end of the lunch they’re not going to make it.’”
So RightNow management revamped their interview process, creating a system that incorporated peer interviews and vetoes. It became much more rigorous — each hire ended up going through 5-7 interviews — but Gianforte said the stakes were high.
“We figure a hire was close to a $2 million decision,” Gianforte said. “Our failure rate on interviews was a lot higher, but our success rate on hires was a lot bigger.”
5. Onboarding begins with the CEO.
Leaders at the roundtable underscored two final points: the onboarding process should be carefully considered and responsibility for building lasting relationships with new employees rests with the founder or CEO.
CTA Architects and Engineers takes extra care to onboard its employees. Jimmy Talarico, CTA Project Designer & Business Development in Bozeman, experienced first-hand the benefit of carefully planning a new hire’s first day and first few weeks on the job. HR staffers at CTA make sure the office space is ready with pens, scissors, a computer mouse, and any other supplies the new hire might need.
“When they get to the office, they know where their place is and they feel welcomed,” said Talarico.
New hires go through an organized training process to familiarize them with company culture, procedures, and software, followed by a periodic check-in to make sure each individual feels like part of the team. They receive a bag with the company logo filled with swag that acts “like a team jersey.”
CTA’s HR department also creates an “owner’s manual” for each office, talking about the culture in Bozeman, for example, and topics such as what employees in the area do for fun. According to Talarico, this emphasis on relationships and community engagement has especially taken root among millennials in the office.
“A group of younger employees, every day they go to lunch together,” Talarico said. “They go buy groceries together on their breaks, they go to happy hour once a week.”
Each of the firm’s 430 employees receives an email introducing new hires, Talarico said.
“When they show up at the office, it’s not like meeting a stranger,” Talarico said. “It’s really the beginning of a friendship.”
The tone is set early on when CTA President Scott Wilson calls each new hire personally if they’re not local to let them know they are a valuable team member.
At RightNow Technologies, CEO Gianforte made a similar effort to establish a personal connection with every new hire.
“We flew every new employee in to Bozeman, no matter which office we hired them in, anywhere in the world, for two weeks of onboarding,” he said. “And I always went and spent two hours with them the first day on corporate culture. Then I’d have all the new employees to dinner at my home. I did that every month for 15 years. It helped.”
About the author: Christina Quick Henderson has served as executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance since its launch in April 2014. Henderson writes and speaks on Montana business trends, entrepreneurship and high-growth companies for Montana Business Quarterly and other publications. She holds an English degree from the University of Iowa and an MBA from the University of Montana, Missoula.
About the publisher: The Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 275 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates.