How to hire someone awesome when you can’t pay the big bucks.



Hiring great people is hard at the best of times, let alone when you can’t afford amazing people. I listened to a podcast recently where their CEO of an NFP (and a former mid-tier law firm partner) was asked how people who are currently in high paying corporate roles make the transition to the sector. Her answer was effectively “make a move early, so you don’t get used to the cash”. This is probably not a tagline you’d run to attract people to the sector, but it is one that is realistic. Of equal interest to me was the time I spent in the private health sector, where I was blown away by low non-clinical salaries when I was looking at market rates for support roles. These businesses often don’t need to run off the same budget constraints and are calling out for high-quality staff to modernise that sector. If you’re not in the health sector, to give you an idea of where things are at, the majority of our health services would disappear overnight if someone took away fax machines.


So even if we take it as a given that health services can’t afford to pay higher wages, what can you do about it?


1. Reset your expectations.


I can’t tell you how often I have conversations explaining that good people cost money. Very few people will work for less than they are worth without that breeding resentment. I say very few – I have never seen it outside of people winding down their careers, but maybe it exists.


There is a degree to which some roles attract reasonably similar rates across different organisations; to get the best people in that context you need to be sitting in the top third of that range if you can. If not, you need to work out what skills are the most important or the most trainable and focus on those then look at how you can build your own workforce. And/or look at creating a more cost-effective mix; one or some highly skilled workers and some up and comers. Or mixing and matching capabilities so rather than having a team of skilled generalists, you have a team of skilled specialists (often somewhat cheaper than a genuinely skilled generalist) who complement each other.


If you’re hiring for roles that translate across sectors, you need to be aware this is often a significant limiter on the talent you’ll get through if you can’t pay them market rates. IT, Finance, Project and HR candidates all have reasonably transferable skill sets. Mid-career business partners in these disciplines outside the health, NFP and NGO sectors are often on the same salaries as our sectors’ executives. Wishing it wasn’t so, or hoping that people will want to do it for the love of it, isn’t going to bring them in. In that case, you can look at things like part-time hours for (the sector’s cheaper) full-time rates, opportunities for professional development or clear career pathways. Everyone in our sectors says they offer work-life balance and/or a flexible working life … this is rarely actually the case even if it is the intention as you’re trying to do all the things with two cents. On the same theme, it is a false economy if you're a small organisation to try and get away with paying your executive staff as little as possible - the smaller you are the more exceptional your executive team needs to be because they have to be across more and often need to be multi-talented. In my experience, a great executive can often build capability across their teams more effectively than any other intervention in a small organisation. Spend as much as you can stretch to and use the other strategies here to find great senior leaders.


So be realistic about who you’re going to attract and design a strategy around that.


2. Build your own talent.


I touch on “build your own workforce” above. This is great in theory if you have the resources. If you chose this path, make sure you do; otherwise, you just end up with an under-skilled workforce. If you don’t, you’re likely going to get more value from a highly skilled person on a part-time basis or from reducing your FTE and paying a few people more money. Please keep in mind when I am talking about offering roles part-time, I am talking about offering a part-time role at the full-time salary to up the actual hourly rate. A switch to .8 is often enough to bring the salary into the next bracket, and you don’t lose too much productive time. This is often very attractive to candidates.


3. Experience doesn’t mean much.


Experience doesn’t predict a new hire’s success. There is a theory in HR circles: the Peter Principle, which is effectively the idea that people are promoted to their point of incompetence. I have never not seen this concept resonate when I describe it, so I am going to assume you get the gist. So when you look at someone on paper, and it appears they have done amazing things, please take it with a grain of salt. I used to sit as an independent panel member for the recruitment of public sector executive roles and over and over and over again the panel was drawn to the person who simply seemed like they thought they deserved it. To avoid hiring highly experienced duds, you do need to understand what you need in the role, to be able to ask astute questions, and ideally have them complete some kind of work test. In junior positions, this might be a task that replicates something they’d do in their day-to-day work. For senior roles, it might be something that demonstrates their capacity to solve the kinds of problems you have or harness the opportunities you see.


This is good news for cash strapped sectors because if you shift your thinking and hire on potential rather than experience, you can find some exceptional talent at a cheaper rate. The hiring process is no different from the above, but your shortlisting is – look for people on the cusp of their next career step rather than someone who is full-fledged. Burnout is a massive issue in our sectors, so the chances are too you’ll find someone a little less jaded and worn out, who can bring great energy to your strategy.



4. Sell what you offer, but only if it's true.


Don’t say you’re a thing if you’re not. Don’t say you’re flexible and respect work-life balance if you don’t, that you offer great benefits if that just means you have brand name biscuits in the tearoom rather than ALDI specials, that you’re cutting edge if you’re still running off antiquated technology or that you’re a learning organisation if the best you’re offering is a few online compliance courses a year. This will just piss people off, and the good ones will move on.


The reality is that you’re rarely any of the above things in our sectors, or at best you might be one of them. But what you do have to sell is purpose. Why do you exist? What difference have you made in the world? What movement does someone become a part of if they work for you? These are the reasons people move to these sectors; because they are looking for true purpose and meaning in their work. If that is tangible people will come and will forgive most of the chaos.


5. Make the recruitment process painless.

Give up the requirement to respond to key selection criteria people. Good people don’t need to spend half a day writing something you’ll flick through in 30 seconds and unless they’re sector lifers, they won’t. Young people won’t. People from outside the sector will just move on by. People will stay in their current jobs because they can’t be bothered. Make the process as streamlined as possible. It doesn't have to cost a lot either.


That means:


- An easy point of entry; don’t make people re-write their resume in a talent management system.

- A resume, with a cover letter if you must (most people, even good people, just churn cover letters out these days, so they’re not much use.) If it makes you feel better make it clear in the ad you’re trying to limit their wasted effort, so make the resume count. Or ask them 3-5 thoughtful questions you want a brief response to ensure they want and understand the job.

- A phone chat with the best people about the realities – the best and the worst of it - of the role to make sure they want it.

- An interview and a work test.

- References, preferably where the referee is verifiable (online reference checks are excellent for this and have analytics built into the backend to reduce referee fraud.)


I'll write about my views on psychometric testing some other time. For now, do it if it makes you feel like you have done everything you can, but know it’s only going to be measuring a useful thing if you have done the hard work of identifying who your organisation is and what it needs.

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