Seth Godin, a leading marketing expert, is often mentioned with superlatives. BusinessWeek has called him “The Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age.” His book, Permission Marketing, was an Amazon.com Top 100 bestseller ó for a year. Tom Peters called his next book, Survival is Not Enough, a “landmark.” Many of Godin’s views relate to recruiting or have parallels to recruiting. Godin, who will be the keynote speaker at ERE’s conference this fall in Florida, discussed the intersection of recruiting and marketing with ERE.
ERE: MetLife just did this study, asking employees if they think employee satisfaction is high in their companies. At companies with two to nine employees, about 56% of employees said a definite yes. As you go up to 50 employees, 1,000 employees, 5,000 employees, and 10,000 employees, the numbers go down into the 30-something percent range. Why is satisfaction at larger companies so low while at small businesses it’s 56%?
Seth Godin: I’m surprised it’s not 60%. Tiny companies are like people. The buffers between what the company does and who is doing it are very small because you can see everyone who is involved. Tiny companies act in a genuine, authentic way, treating people the way they’d like to be treated. Big companies evolve a personality onto themselves. They’re the machine, they’re the man. Lots of people are willing to act in ways they would never act on their own and ascribe that behavior to the fact that it was the company’s decision.
ERE: Let’s say you do have nine employees. And you grow to 100, 1,000, 5,000. Does this necessarily mean you’re now seen as “The Man”?
Godin: Employee satisfaction is entirely related to the respect and autonomy employees are given. Over and over again, it has been found that you cannot buy employee happiness, but you can earn it by treating people with respect and giving employees the autonomy to make decisions. And so, when you apply both of those factors ó the first being that small companies act like people, and the second that people who work in companies where they get respect and autonomy are happy ó we have a challenge for big companies. The number of steps that people are away from the founder increases. Since the founder isn’t there to watch people, she needs to make up rules and regulations. She needs to make up policies. Those policies inevitably lead to treating people with less respect, giving them less autonomy and having people do things for reasons they don’t understand ó because the company said they have to. And it doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s the easy outcome. That’s what almost always occurs.
ERE: What types of companies buck the trend?
Godin: Companies that buck the trend do either one of two things. They radically decentralize their operations so that each individual facility acts like a company of 20 or 30 people instead of one giant company of a few thousand. You might see this in a way that a clever restaurant chain might work or the way Starbucks managers have more autonomy in the way they treat people. The second thing is that companies go through enormous lengths in hiring people. Companies that hire people really, really carefully as opposed to trying to regulate everyone after they get in the door are able to have thinner rulebooks and are able to give people more opportunity because they’ve gone through such great lengths to bring them in.
ERE: How much pull does a front-line recruiter have in some of these areas, such as changing a company’s culture and its hiring strategy?
Godin: Most of the people reading this don’t realize they are marketers. But they are marketers. And there are two kinds of marketers. There are marketers who sell a product that’s really great and work hard to tell an authentic story about it. And there are marketers who need to sell lots of tonnage and try to make the price low. Well, in recruiting, there are people who are trying to hire great employees because the quality of the employee matters, and the only way you’re going to get a great employee is if you have a great job for them and you tell an authentic story about why they want to work there. And then there are recruiters who just have to put people in the chairs. They’re selling a mediocre thing and trying to get volume. If you are the second kind of marketer, whether you are selling widgets or jobs, you have to look yourself in the mirror and make a hard decision, which is, “Do you want to invest your personal brand, your personal time, in recruiting that’s not getting you anywhere? Or are you actively trying to change it or leave?” And what I say to marketers who are stuck selling third-rate widgets in shrinking markets is that they should leave. Because when 10 years from now you’re no longer at the company, no one’s going to want your explanation that the stuff you marketed for all those years wasn’t worth marketing. And when you’re a recruiter 10 years from now looking for a great job as a recruiter, the fact that you stayed doing three or five or 10 years filling seats in a factory doing dead-end work that paid the least amount and had lots of regulations, it’s going to be really hard to say that it was a worthwhile way to spend your time. And so, I think the pressure that is on the front-line people is to go upstream, to go to the designers and say, “We need a better product.” Or to go to the managers and say, “We need to treat our employees differently.” And I’ve seen this work. I’ve seen people come into organizations and actually change the culture from the bottom up by bringing in different kind of people and leveraging their positions in the workplace to get that person responsible work that leverages their efforts. You’ll be able to bring in better people if you do that.
ERE: I get the feeling you think companies have bigger problems than how they market jobs. That you believe that there’s a problem with the way companies function, how employees are treated.
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Godin: There are people who like high-pressure environments where they get yelled at. And so, working the way up the ladder is just the right job for those kinds of people. There are a lot of people who want a job where they have a lot more peace of mind in their day. And so it’s not this one-size-fits-all job. But what we do know is that working in dangerous, hot conditions on an assembly line where you’re not respected or treated well and not paid very well is a really hard job to do. And, in a competitive marketplace, the only people who are going to take those jobs are the people who have no better offers. If you’re charged with filling those jobs and you are offering lowest-common denominator work to the most desperate, it’s going to be really hard for you to exceed expectations.
ERE: You once said that advertising has stopped working. Does that apply to recruiting? Godin: It applies to recruiting more so than almost anything else. The LA Times classified section used to be two or three times as thick as it is now. It used to be that the way to fill a job was to run a classified ad a little bit bigger. First of all, craigslist and the Monsters of the world have totally turned that world upside down. But more important, the very best applicants don’t come to you after you’ve run a blind box ad in the newspaper. They come to you because employees bring them to you. They come to you because customers bring them to you. They come to you because you have a blog that gets read by 80,000 people a week, and you mention an opening, and 4,000 people show up and say, “I’d really like to take that job.” One of the great examples is a guy named Joel Spolsky. Joel runs a company called Fog Creek Software. Joel hires summer interns every year. He has hundreds of amazing people applying for a three-month chance to prove themselves and to launch a new project. The end result is he’s getting great work from great people inventing great products, and there’s a waiting list to work for him. And he doesn’t run one ad.
ERE: Is there something odd about the way companies think about advertising or not advertising for jobs? We ran an article about finding people through MySpace, and one recruiter I talked to said that it was valuable, but that he would never have thought of looking there. If you’re Coca-Cola, you don’t think twice about advertising where the consumers are.
Godin: We all grew up watching everything from Bewitched to all the other men-in-the-gray-flannel-suit TV shows, with a vision of what it meant to go to work. And the most talented people don’t have that same vision. The most talented people, the ones you want the most, aren’t looking where you’re advertising. They’re not necessarily on Monster. And they don’t view “buying” a job the way someone views buying a widget or a car. Jobs are the spoke; they’re custom; they’re one-offs. Rather than imagining that your job as a recruiter is to fill 100 jobs, I think it’s to fill one job at a time, 100 times. And that means recruiting, not advertising. It means finding the person you want and persuading them to come over. Or, more importantly, and even better, having your employees and your customers finding you the people and bringing them over. If you think about something like Federal Express, you know if you want to be a FedEx driver long before FedEx runs an ad. That’s because FedEx’s story is authentic. FedEx’s story is well-told. You know what you’re getting into. I compare that to getting a job at, say, the postal service or a job at some anonymous packing plant down the street.
ERE: What if you’re in IT, and you’ve never thought of working at FedEx. Maybe a Monster ad’s useful, because you realize, “Wow. FedEx. This is a company I never thought of as an IT company.”
Godin: No question about it. The beauty of a Monster or the classifieds ó it is classic permission marketing. You are doing very anticipative, personal, and relevant ads to the people who want to hear them. That’s different than interruption marketing. Interruption marketing is the marketing I was talking about when I said advertising was going away. Permission marketing is worth more than ever. Someone who raises her hand on Monster and says, “Hello, I’m here, I’d like to apply for a job” ó that’s the first [person] you want to look [for]. But then the mistake organizations make is someone applies for that job, you have your computer screen her, and less than a minute later, you churn out an email saying, “Based on a computer reading the magic words in your carefully crafted online resume, you’re rejected by….” How foolish is that? Doesn’t it make more sense to view that person, who probably knows other job seekers and other IT people, as your next recruiter? That even if you’re going to say no, you can turn that person into someone who can market you, by being remarkable, by enlisting them in helping you find someone who is a better fit for what you do. Every contact you make with a customer or an employee or a job applicant is one more chance to find an amazing employee.