Google. Facebook. Apple. These tech titans appear to have overwhelming advantages over your company when it comes to recruiting top talent. They offer incredible resources and reach. They have world-class brands that can burnish a resume. And not the least, they can offer more money. A lot more. Google once gave one of its executives $100 million in stock to keep him from leaving to join Twitter.

I’ve spent most of my career in Silicon Valley, competing with these household names to hire great people. And while I’ve certainly lost many a candidate to their bottomless wallets, I’ve won more than my fair share of these battles. You don’t need buckets of money or a world-famous brand to get top talent. But you do need a better strategy. Here’s how you can beat them, rather than joining them:

1) Treat your employees like allies, not assets.

Notice how we speak about hiring. “The war for talent.” “Stockpiling great people.” “Collecting rockstars.” The implicit assumption is that people are assets, some of these assets are particularly valuable, and these valuable assets should be acquired and hoarded like a dragon’s treasure.

You don’t need buckets of money or a world-famous brand to get top talent. But you do need a better strategy. Tweet This Quote

While this attention is flattering, being treated like an object is not. Just ask any trophy spouse.

The right approach is to treat your employees like allies—independent people whom you need to court by finding mutual interests and reaching a formal, mutually-beneficial agreement. This way, you can make people feel valued as an individual, not just as an asset.

This strategy is especially powerful when you’re recruiting against big organizations; let Google and Facebook prepare standard offers, delivered by HR personnel. You can court potential employees personally and directly.

2) Define a clear, mutually beneficial mission that, if achieved, helps both company and employee achieve important goals.

Another dangerous fallacy is to assume that great talent automatically translates into great results. At one point in Google’s history, founder Larry Page decided that management was getting in the way of productivity. So he fired all the managers and had all 400 of Google’s engineers report to a single person. (He did this at an all hands meeting without consulting any of them—including the VP of Engineering, who was quite surprised to suddenly have 400 direct reports!) Needless to say, Larry soon realized the error he had made, and realized that management is actually necessary.

A great manager doesn’t just define the work, she also makes sure that the employee understands how both he and the company benefit from that work. Tweet This Quote

The key to great management is clarity—making sure that employees understand their mission. But it doesn’t stop there—a great manager doesn’t just define the work, she also makes sure that the employee understands how both he and the company benefit from that work. This way, each employee truly understands the context for his work, and can better suggest changes and improvements as (inevitably) circumstances change.

Only three percent of companies set and regularly revisit individual employee goals. Tweet This Quote

Astonishingly enough, very few companies actually follow this basic principle. According to Deloitte, only three percent of companies set and regularly revisit individual employee goals. Just by checking in regularly, you can be better than 97 percent of your competitors!

3) Offer employees the chance to transform their careers.

The accepted wisdom is that companies no longer offer professional development. With the exception of a few old-school organizations like GE, training, learning, and development get lip service. It might be tempting to save a few bucks by following the norm, especially when you’re a small, cash-poor startup. But in doing so, you’d be giving up one of your most powerful recruiting tools.

In the past few years, you’ve probably already heard enough about employee engagement to last several lifetimes. But lost in the hype is this key fact: Employees under the age of 25 rate professional development as their #1 driver of engagement. And employees in the 25 to 34 age range rank professional development #2. It makes perfect sense that people at the beginning of their career would prize the opportunity to build the base of soft assets (skills, experiences, etc.) that they’ll leverage for decades.

Offer employees the chance to transform their careers. Tweet This Quote

You can tap this hunger for development by offering the chance for true career transformation. You may not be able to afford to build a fancy corporate university, but that doesn’t mean you can’t provide great learning opportunities. Here in Silicon Valley, one way I’ve been able to retain top software developers is to offer them the chance to learn hot new technologies. Giving a bright person the chance to learn iOS to develop your iPhone app may seem riskier than hiring someone who already has iOS experience, but it’s the kind of learning opportunity that top talents appreciate (and it may be cheaper to pay someone to learn, than it is to pay an existing expert).

If you’re not sure whether or not an opportunity is truly transformational, simply ask, “Would achieving this mission warrant a new entry on the employee’s LinkedIn profile?” If the answer is yes, it probably is; if the answer is no, it probably isn’t. One useful exercise for defining a transformative mission is to write the resulting LinkedIn profile entry in advance, to make the benefits clear and concrete to everyone involved.

Treat employees like allies, define their missions clearly, and give them the chance to transform their careers Tweet This Quote

When you treat employees like allies, define their missions clearly, and give them the chance to transform their careers, you and your company will become known as great employers, and you’ll be to hold your own against the Googles and Facebooks of the world.


To learn more about treating employees as allies, check out my book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

If you want more guidance on implementing these ideas at your organization, you can sign up for our mailing list and get additional materials and help from my company, Allied Talent.

About the author

Chris Yeh

Chris Yeh

Chris is the VP Marketing for PBworks, partner at Wasabi Ventures, and an avid startup investor and advisor. He is also a co-author of The Alliance and serial tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.