How to Create Your Own Supply of In-Demand Leadership Talent

The right hiring strategy can proactively shape your supply of talent, now and into the future. 

Long before Marissa Mayer rose to national prominence as the President and CEO of Yahoo, she earned a legendary reputation at Google by tackling one of their toughest long term challenges: creating a successful strategy for attracting and developing leadership-grade talent with the skills needed to support the search innovator’s skyrocketing growth.

In 1999, Marissa joined Google as their 20th employee and first woman engineer. She quickly found herself evolving past her initial engineering role (her background was in artificial intelligence) into a broad product management position.

Eventually, Google tasked Mayer with a whole new kind of challenge: finding a way for Google to source a particular set of broadly skilled, adaptable leaders that the labor market simply wasn’t generating on its own.

Mayer bet that she could solve this problem by re-framing it. Google wouldn’t try to hire executives with the demanding skill-set it required of its product managers. It would try to develop them itself. Through her then-experimental Associate Product Manager program, she would search for highly trained computer scientists with a knack for understanding how to apply technology. The right candidates, she projected, could learn the broader nuances of these demanding roles just as she had, albeit, she hoped, “with less yelling.” Specifically, that meant systematically exposing APM hires to a diversity of products across the company, ranging from experimental research projects to flagship mobile development efforts.

It was an ambitious plan. And it worked. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman suggests that “the APM program sits right up there with Gmail, Search, Maps, and AI. In the program’s first year, 2002, Marissa hired eight APMs. By 2008, she was hiring 20 a year. To date, around 500 APMs have gone through the program. Indeed, the list of APM alumni reads like a who’s who of overachievers in Silicon Valley.”

A Roadmap to Elevated Ed Tech Executive Hiring

The story of Marissa Mayer’s institution of the APM program at Google resonated with me because it’s true to my own experiences finding, recruiting, and developing top talent in the Ed Tech industry.

Ed Tech leaders seeking to make key hires as they scale up operations are confronted with a strategic dilemma not so different than that faced by Google twenty years ago. In short, Ed Tech simply doesn’t (yet) produce the quantity of intra-industry executive-level talent needed to support its own accelerating growth. The industry is facing both a supply and demand problem: accelerating investment is driving demand for leaders that far surpasses the industry’s internal talent pipeline.

This talent crunch has several urgent strategic implications for Ed Tech hiring.

  1. Ed Tech companies need a rigorous method for defining, evaluating, and sourcing functional skills and capabilities in potential candidates. A perfect candidate who demonstrates every single desired skill across a deep Ed Tech-specific resume can be incredibly difficult to find. To source from other industries, develop leaders from within, and successfully find talent with highly sought after abilities, Ed Tech firms need a proactive process for evaluating candidates’ functional abilities in a range of hard and soft skills.
  2. The lack of an extensive industry infrastructure for recruiting and developing leadership-level talent means that the Ed Tech industry still hasn’t earned a standout reputation with elite young graduates and professionals. Ed Tech doesn’t yet have a reputation as a launching pad for private sector careers. Its association with the often non-profit world of education, meanwhile, often leaves candidates from outside the industry with a mistaken impression that compensation is bound to be lower across the board.

    Ed Tech companies need to proactively develop mechanisms for not only finding talented individuals but convincing them that the Ed Tech sector is a great place to both have a social impact and acquire crucial skills for a long private sector career. Building a pipeline of talented leaders requires selling your company--and the Ed tech industry--to talented individuals with strong career options.
  3. A well thought out strategy for rigorously evaluating candidates’ potential helps fight unconscious bias, find valuable talent in unexpected or underutilized places, and ensure a truly rationalized hiring strategy. To promote personal and educational diversity in the industry, bring in fresh thinking, and cast the widest net possible for rising stars, companies hiring in Ed Tech need to institute objective evaluation rubrics in their sourcing strategies.

These strategic concerns collectively mean that defining and executing a successful long-term hiring and development strategy is much more than a gnarly logistical problem. HighFive approaches Ed Tech executive search with the conviction that firms in this space need to tackle these challenges head-on through elevated hiring processes geared to ground-level business challenges. A brief anecdote from my own career helps illustrate how a thoughtfully defined hiring process can truly transform a company’s ability to bring in top talent in a highly competitive hiring market.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman notes that “...when you can’t find the right people to help your company scale, you have to make them. Being in a rapidly-scaling company can feel like being the lead in your own superhero saga. Each day pits you against new problems that feel like they need superhuman-levels of endurance to overcome.”

I’m intimately familiar with the fact that superhuman-endurance is not a sustainable organizational strategy: prior to founding HighFive, I was faced with solving the same sort of talent crunch that had haunted Google’s early days. I decided to institute a leadership development program that would ultimately seek to function as a long-term source for executive development. I recruited executive sponsors from business units across my employer’s organization, the hiring managers who would ultimately benefit from this fresh approach:

  • Candidates who passed an initial phone interview were invited to submit “video cover letters” (which resulted in a lineup of truly impressive and off-the-walls creative submissions).
  • A thorough evaluation process culminated in a “hiring summit,” where finalist candidates would meet in person with company leaders (and one another).
  • The summit was carefully crafted to provide sponsoring executives with a structure for evaluating candidates in a variety of functional contexts.
    • A mixer provided a chance to see the candidates’ soft skills in action.
    • An on-premise writing sample offered a well-controlled test of writing ability.
    • Group case studies followed by presentations and one-on-one interviews provided an avenue for evaluating more specific skills and aptitudes.
  • At the end of the process, sponsors collated their evaluations to generate an aggregated analysis that went far deeper than prototypical interview and hiring processes.

From there, the sponsoring executives chose finalists to hire. Sponsors were overwhelmingly satisfied with the talent ultimately delivered by the program.

This became an opportunity to bring in a cadre of talented young leaders who were eager to prove themselves. What’s more, this program had successfully attracted a truly astonishing field of applicants, ultimately posting an acceptance rate below that of the most selective Ivy Leagues. This hiring process not only helped get better information on potential hires, but showed these hires that they were applying for selective, desirable jobs at a forward-thinking, process-oriented, data-driven company.

An Elevated Human Capital Strategy for a Growing Industry

Some organizations don’t have the budget to institute leadership development programs, and some businesses have needs that really do require experienced veterans from very particular backgrounds. My efforts to develop a leadership hiring program aren’t an all-encompassing prescription, but rather a concrete example of how a focused, deliberate strategy for finding, evaluating, and winning over top talent can provide both an immediate answer to an urgent need for new talent and a long-term solution for developing more leaders in-house.

The right hiring process will look different for every company, but it will always ultimately need to provide specific solutions that are aligned with specific business problems confronted by fast-growing organizations. A genuinely strategic hiring process doesn’t require a massive expenditure of resources. The key enablers for a transformed hiring strategy are, simply:

  • An executive-level commitment to elevating hiring practices.
  • A willingness to be creative to find the right talent.
  • The sustained work needed to transform ad hoc resume gathering and interviews into a cohesive, repeatable process for sourcing and evaluating functional skills from a huge pool of initial candidates.

HighFive Partners believes in the mission of the Ed Tech industry, and we’ve seen, up close, how the ability to source and develop talent can powerfully shape a company's ability to execute its business goals. An elevated approach to hiring not only reflects the strategic realities of the market for talent, but actually seeks to shape those strategic realities over the long term. We want to see an economy where the sharpest graduates and most promising professionals clamor for positions in the impactful, opportunity-filled Ed Tech industry. And we want to help Ed Tech as a whole build a pipeline of talent that will support the industry for years to come.