How to attract and nurture design talent

In an industry that is increasingly competitive, retaining talent has become a top priority for design leaders.

By Richard Banfield
August 23, 2016
Painting by the Chinese Ming Dynasty artist Chen Hongshou. Painting by the Chinese Ming Dynasty artist Chen Hongshou. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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In the early stages of a design company, finding the right talent to grow your team can seem like a distant problem. Particularly as you start out as a small group of founding members, seeking and developing talent on a regular basis simply isn’t top of mind. But for larger teams and established studios, it is something that needs to be addressed almost daily. As the company grows, even the most loyal team members may move on and will need replacing. Our design leaders are constantly having to ask how they will find and keep the best people.

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The reasons people leave design firms vary, but may be due to a change in personal circumstances, like getting married, having children, health concerns, or moving states or even countries. Professional reasons for leaving a company are often characterized by the desire to move up or out. Up refers to ambition, while out is more likely due to dissatisfaction with the company or the team.

In our conversations with design business leaders, we learned that a significant reason people left teams was bad working relationships. What’s noticeable is that these failing relationships were almost always with their managers, so it is not the company they are leaving; it is the manager or a team dynamic that is not working for them. The chemistry between team members and leaders seems to be the most often quoted reason for frustration. It may take a long time for these frustrations to result in them leaving, but once it reaches that point, it is very difficult to persuade them to stay with the team.

In an industry that is increasingly competitive, retaining talent has become a top priority for the design leaders we interviewed. Something that makes design leadership even more challenging is the fact that larger, more resource-rich companies are eager to add design talent to their teams. A rash of acquisitions and design team creations by companies such as Capital One, IBM, Accenture, and Deloitte is an indication that these larger companies intend on being part of the design landscape. Headhunting and poaching are an unfortunate reality of the design and technology world and this, combined with design schools and institutions struggling to keep up with demand, means design leaders face an uphill battle.

Fortunately, some design leaders have been successful in attracting and, more importantly, retaining top-notch talent. This chapter sheds some light on their best practices and inside secrets.

Small teams and building out

Our interviews made it clear that for smaller companies or early stage teams, an organic approach to growth is almost inevitable. In these startup stages, these small teams are mostly focused on getting the work done and are less concerned with a formal talent acquisition strategy, largely due to the fact that they almost always know the people they hire. Friends, family, and acquaintances are the pool from which new talent emerges for these fledgling businesses — 20% of leaders interviewed told us they relied on friends and family referrals for new hires.

As these companies grow, the hiring practices become, by necessity, more deliberate and structured. Very often these small teams don’t have the luxury of support staff and rely on a more formalized approach to help with the hiring process. In parallel with the changes of a growing team is the need to change focus from one type of skill set to another.

“When we went from seven to 15 people, the focus for hiring was always on billable production people, developers, and designers,” says Dominic Bortolussi, founder of The Working Group in Toronto. “I was doing project management and Andres (Bortolussi’s partner) was doing project management. So, every single person in the company, until we were 15, or even up to 20, were pretty much production people.” In many of the companies we spoke to, this was the norm. Early employees would wear a lot of different hats, which in essence was how they filled the gaps that would be filled by support staff further down the path of the business. As the teams got bigger, the requirement for more support staff was an organic and natural progression. Instead of being surprised by this change in hiring focus, mature leaders prepared for the transition.

Anthony Armendariz, who runs Funsize a small — but growing — 11-person product design studio in Austin, TX, relies on existing relationships for now. “In terms of the recruiting, it’s all been organic. Today we have only hired people that we know personally or that someone we work with knows personally, or we’ve had pretty good experience with. It’s all referral-based recruiting, or we see someone we really want to work with and we’ll try to find a way to work with them.” Growing doesn’t mean you can’t hire your friends and family, but unless you have a large network, it might begin to get strained.

The hire-your-friends approach was reiterated by Marty Haught, founder of Boulder-based Haught Codeworks. “For many years, the people on the team were friends of mine that I’ve worked with over the years. I thought, ‘I really liked working with him, and I want him to work with me on these projects.’ So, a lot of it was that.” Haught acknowledges that as they’ve grown, this strategy is giving way to an approach that includes some formal onboarding and training, “But lately, I’ve brought on two more junior members. One is actually doing a formal apprenticeship with Haught Codeworks. They’ve come recommended by some friends of mine.” When it comes to talent, the importance of your network is a constant theme for these design leaders.

From our conversations, it seems that startups and smaller design firms rely on their personal networks for talent. This makes perfect sense until the company grows to a point where these structures need to be formalized or unless the company is receiving outside funding and plans on growing quickly. We encountered only a handful of independently owned design companies that intend on quick growth with the help of external funding. Venture-funded service design startups are extremely rare and were not part of the scope of our interviews.

Developing talent is similar to developing a sales pipeline

Approaching the talent pipeline in the same way that successful companies approach sales seems to be the key to finding great people. For service and product companies alike, to achieve sustained growth without the pains, you need a solid list of potential hires in your pipeline. If the sales pipeline is the lifeblood of a service business, then the talent pipeline is the air it breathes. For design teams that work within larger organizations, the talent pipeline might be their core strategic effort. Acknowledging that talent development is an ongoing effort that requires patience and planning is a trait we recognized in the most successful design leaders.

Carl White, of Think Brownstone, is emphatic about this: “We treat recruiting like we do business development. It’s about relationships, and it’s going to take time. Our pipeline for candidates is as active as our new business pipeline. We spend a lot of time, sometimes up to three months, recruiting folks. If we find someone that stands out, we have a conversation with them, likely in-person.”

Even with the knowledge that establishing a talent pipeline is critical, many leaders are still not sure where to start. The key appears to lie in having a public conversation about the company and the work. “We focus on being good about sharing everything that we know,” says Brian Williams, CEO of Viget. “We’ve been blogging for years. We try to go to conferences and speak at conferences as much as we can. We encourage the staff to do that. We try to host events when we can in our space, to see what’s suitable and helpful for folks. So, just being a good member of the community is an important part of that, but really just trying to build up the reputation: do great work, share the work, be able to talk about that, and do the little things that help people understand what the culture is all about. That tends to create a lot of connections and a lot of people come in that way.”

Throwing a wide net creates a funnel that attracts talent to you, which means there are always prospects knocking at the door. Turning people away is a better problem to have than wondering where your next hire is coming from.

Just like sales pipelines, there will be some opportunities that take longer to close than others. Occasionally, an ideal candidate may come along, but they already have a great job or the timing to join you isn’t quite right yet. This is part of the process, explains White: “If it’s a good fit and it’s a match, then we keep them moving along but there are a lot of times we don’t have an opportunity for them yet. I bet a third of the time, that’s the way it’s happened: ‘I like you, you like me, but I’m in a relationship right now. If I get out of it and when the stars align, let’s get together.’ That’s worked really, really well for us.”

Like a sales pipeline, flexibility is required, and not all hiring strategies need to be the same. “If you’re looking for a more senior hire, there’s a certain point in their career when they are simply never going to get hired via a job board or requisition again,” Jennifer Dary, head of the consultancy Plucky, reminds us. “They’ll get hired over drinks or lunch where you’ll have several strategic conversations discussing your needs and theirs. It’s so important to remember that these more senior hires will arrive in your pipeline differently than, say, a junior person fresh out of school. Your pipeline has to be flexible enough to account for a variety of paths and introductions.”

Understanding how each team hires and grows requires an understanding of the type of culture a company supports. In the case of NGen Works: “The team actually hired the team,” says Carl Smith. He adds, “One of the things I’m really happiest about is that we realized early on, if you want people to have a sense of loyalty, you have to make sure that the people they’re working with are the people who wanted them. The core team actually seeks out people they want to work with and invites them in to work on a project. That’s the onboarding process. You actually join the team that wanted you on a project. Over time, if it works out, they hire you. The team hires the team.”

There is a key point to make here: team members are not adding people to the team at random; instead, once a project has been approved by the client, the team members invite freelancers with specific project-related skills to join them on those projects. If a freelancer consistently provides value to the team, then they may be invited to join the company full-time. “Now, the flip side is the team fires the team. It’s very much like Survivor. If it gets to a point where you’re just not doing well, you will get voted off the island,” cautions Smith. “They’ve jokingly started referring to me being voted off the island. I’m fine with it,” he laughs. Although I like many aspects of this approach, I’m personally not comfortable with letting the team make the final decision on new hires. Very often a leader needs to add people that might not be the popular choice but are required to move the team forward. I love the idea of having the team involved in the decision to hire new team members, but ultimately, I believe the leader’s job is to make the final choice.

Actively creating opportunities to meet new talent was a theme that came up again and again in our conversations. With only a few exceptions, all of the interviewed leaders had a specific strategy to add new candidates to their talent funnel. Although hiring strategies varied widely, the consistent feature was that they weren’t left to chance; there was always a planned approach with senior leadership involvement every step of the way.

Post topics: Design and Business