How to recruit an all-star team

Do you aggressively go after talent by courting a prospect that you think can help elevate your business?

Do you operate like a social media ninja, relying on LinkedIn, Twitter, and the latest online tools to identify and pluck talent virtually?

Do you work with in-house and outside recruiters to tap recruits from competitors and also mine your own network of friends and former colleagues?

Sound like logical steps, right? They are, but they often come up short and aren’t sustainable unless you’ve first built a strong foundation within your organization. When you’re rooted in the pride of doing exemplary work, candidates flock to you rather than you having to chase after them.

I was reminded of that fact this week as I headed to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Just as I had learned during a visit to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at Ohio State University earlier this fall, studying the recruiting techniques at elite institutions can teach us in business a lot about bringing on the best people.

The bottom line is that it’s not about salary, compensation, stock plans, or vacation time. After all, college athletes aren’t paid, and Army officers could be making exponentially more as civilians. Rather, it’s a winning culture that attracts the best people and makes for the best fit.

While your business probably doesn’t have the vast resources and brand recognition of these top programs, some of their recruiting talent might rub off on you. Here are a few recruiting lessons I’ve learned that I wanted to pass along.

Make legacy come alive. My son and I took a photo in front of a statue of the legendary football coach Woody Hayes, known for his obsessive drive for excellence. Most companies—tech companies in particular—define legacy as outdated software programs and hardware systems that need to be replaced, instead of the stories and legends that can inspire generations. Even if your company is a young startup, you can still cultivate the backstory of your founders to make recent history relevant.

Showcase a facility worth visiting. Both the football fields at Ohio State and the historical battlefields surrounding the Army War College are coveted sites for visitors. Sadly, many businesses still see their physical location as a collection of white boards and cubicles, rather than monuments to achievement and teamwork. Think carefully about the photos, murals, and other images that appear on your walls—they are telling your company’s story. Design your office in a way that makes people proud to come to work.

Set your goals impossibly high. The Army War College accepts a small fraction of the officers who apply, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are a similarly selective football team. Both strive to be the best program in the country. Are your recruits looking at your organizations as just another résumé stop, or a cause with a clear and audacious mandate? Progress is incremental, so even if you don’t meet all your goals, reaching for the stars will help you recruit and retain your star employees.

Bring back successful alums. These institutions are quite literally halls of fame where they tout the accomplishments of their alums. Many of them return again and again, attending fundraisers, giving guest lectures, and rooting for the team from the sidelines. Rather than seeing your former employees as defectors, consider them successful alums who still care deeply about your organization.

Make diversity real. The Army War College and Ohio State are ethnically, racially, culturally, geographically, and socioeconomically institutions. Although they still skew too male given the nature of their fields, my beloved contact at the Army War College is retired Colonel Ruth B. Collins, who is now CEO and alumni director at the Army War College Foundation. She’s a true expert in leadership and mentoring. It’s no secret that corporate America, including tech companies, can learn a lot about the advantages of attracting a diverse pool of talent.

Celebrate your people. Yes, both cultures are rah-rah. Losing is detrimental to recruiting in athletics, and can be disastrous in the military, so correcting mistakes is embedded in the culture. So too is giving props to people for getting it right. Do you work for someone who gives high fives and fist bumps and fires off congratulatory emails for a job well done? If not, he’s going to have a tough time fielding the best team.

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