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How Do Successful Firms Find the Right People?

Placing the right people in the right role lets companies innovate and grow. But there’s no surefire way of getting the perfect fit. Some companies are turning to big data to solve this problem; some go with the gut to find creativity and judgment. Beth Axelrod, eBay’s head of human resources, explains how the company goes about finding and retaining the talent it needs.


Consistently getting the right people into the right roles enables organizations to grow and innovate. Failing to do so can turn behemoths into bankrupt has-beens. Finding the right people is a priority for every firm, and yet it remains something of a mystery.

Writing for the Atlantic, Don Peck recounts how one turn-of-the-20th-century manufacturer made hiring decisions by tossing apples into a crowd of possible workers. Those fast and strong enough to bring the fruit forward got a job.

Today’s cutting edge is “people analytics,” applying big data to the difficult task of effectively matching people to jobs. Google has become widely recognized as a leader in mining internal data to improve its HR processes. The company has quantified which behaviors and qualities top managers consistently exhibit and looked for clues on the kinds of interview questions most predictive of future success. But in an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, vice president for people operations at Google, acknowledged that for all the insight the company gets from analyzing data related to hiring and managing, “I don’t think you’ll ever replace human judgment and human inspiration and creativity.” (For more from Bock, see his interview with Yale Insights.)

Knack, a Silicon Valley-based startup, has created video games that could begin showing up in job application processes or yearly evaluations. “These games aren’t just for play: they’ve been designed by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists, and data scientists to suss out human potential,” Peck writes. The data provided by just 20 minutes of play “analyze your creativity, your persistence, your capacity to learn quickly from mistakes, your ability to prioritize, and even your social intelligence and personality.” The output is a clear picture of “your psyche and intellect, and an assessment of your potential as a leader or an innovator.”

Royal Dutch Shell’s GameChanger unit, which seeks out disruptive ideas, had Knack test some 1,400 workers who had submitted ideas for innovation. When Shell meshed the gaming assessment with a database that had tracked the success of the ideas, the results were so compelling they’ve prompted a push to find broad application for Knack’s games at the company, according to Peck.

The internet and technology space changes quickly, so lifelong learners are required in all areas, according to Beth Axelrod, senior vice president of human resources at eBay. Yale Insights talked with her about how eBay connects hiring with innovation and continued growth.

Startups can use the lure of a potential big payday from an IPO to draw in talent. As tech pioneers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay evolve into mature companies, they have to take a different approach. Axelrod notes that eBay tries to maintain a startup ethos, organizing hackathons and skunk works projects to drive innovation, but she emphasizes that the firm has a longer-term focus than a startup. “Hot is a fleeting notion. Whoever’s hot one day is not going to be the next day,” Axelrod said. “One of the things we’re very committed to in our company is building what we call an enduring success.”

Part of choosing talent for the long haul is making sure everyone has a chance to thrive. “Despite the norm of there being very few women in leadership positions in technology companies, that can change and we are one of the companies that aims to change that,” Axelrod said. She points to a targeted effort over the last 30 months that has more than doubled the number of women in leadership positions at the company. “When senior leaders focus on this and make a long-term commitment to enabling women to build lasting careers, it is possible to expand the number of women in leadership roles.”

 

TRANSCRIPT

Q: What are you looking for in terms of talent at eBay?

Beth Axelrod: When we’re looking for people that we’d like to have join our company, one of the things that we look most carefully at are people who are aligned with our purpose—that very fundamental core reason for coming to work every day. Beyond that, there are other things that we look for that we think are very important. We like to hire people who are deeply, deeply interested in creating great customer experiences. We also like people who enjoy the prospect of playing on a global landscape. We’re a very big global company, and most jobs in our company actually connect into a global patchwork. So we like people to have an appreciation for that. And then I would say one of the most—so, two other things that I think are really important. One is we expect people to be lifelong learners. That’s very important in the internet technology space, which moves so quickly. We need people who have tremendous curiosity and will ensure that they are evolving their own knowledge at the pace at which our industry changes. And the other thing that we look for are people who are genuinely committed to their own personal growth and development, because it is through that growth and development that people actually scale with the growth of our business.

Q: How does eBay continue to innovate as it matures?

Axelrod: Innovation is critical to the long-term success of the company, and innovation comes in lots of different forms, and there are many things that we do to foster it. And I’ll just try to give you a few examples. So, at the employee level, we hold, as you’d expect, we hold hackathons, we have special forums that are all about our employees showcasing the innovation that they have developed, and some of the best innovation in the company comes from those skunk works and lab rats’ forums as we call them. So there are things that we do at the employee level. There are also things that we do in terms of either hiring people from the outside or acquiring companies that have innovated and bring specific either talent or technology to us.

And the things that we do at the leadership level that are really important to us as a leadership team being very focused on innovation: so, one, we are extremely externally focused on our customers and on the competition. Second, we make it a point to go out and talk to founders of startups to keep a finger on the pulse of innovation in the outside market. But we also talk to those folks to understand how they innovate in their companies to make sure that we’re able to bring the best of that approach into our company.

And then, lastly, I would say we take our senior leaders—we take them around the world to new markets where we have to innovate on our product to enter new markets. And we literally take the entire senior vice president population to, for example, Russia, where we just were recently, as a part of our entry into the Russia market, because the innovation takes all kinds of different forms, including innovation in order for our products to succeed in different geographies. And we’re very committed to innovation. I think that e-Bay is seeing the resurgence and the rebirth of its innovation roots that it was founded on. And that’s part of what’s driving the growth that we’re enjoying today.

Q: How will you continue to attract talent after evolving from a hot to a mature company?

Axelrod: There will always be one or two companies in the Valley that are hot, but hot is a fleeting notion. So what? Whoever’s hot one day is not going to be hot the next day. And one of the things that we’re very committed to in our company is building what we call an enduring success. And so what we try to do is to get the word out around who we are as a company and the fact that it’s not about being hot but rather building something great and enduring that will enable buyers, sellers, and consumers all around the world to purchase and to make purchases and to transact with each other. And so that really gives us the latitude to think about the long term of the company and think about how the talent that we need to take that journey and not to worry so much about who’s hot today because that will change tomorrow.

Q: How does a giant tech company create a diverse workforce?

Axelrod: I think what’s particularly challenging to technology companies and technology companies in the Valley is around gender diversity, and it’s one of the things that I am most proud of us as a company. We have a long-term commitment to gender diversity at our company. That commitment is led by our CEO John Donahoe. We invest heavily in trying to ensure our women are able to create lasting careers at the company. And the good news is that we’re already seeing the benefits of that. So we have had—we have been focused in earnest on this for over 30 months now, and in the 30-month period, we have more than a doubling of the number of women we have in leadership roles in our company, which is actually quite phenomenal. And so what we have now is real evidence to suggest that when senior leaders focus on this and make a long-term commitment to enabling women to build lasting careers, it is possible to expand the number of women in leadership roles.

And so I feel like we’re only getting started. We’re not by any means declaring victory. But it does provide a lot of encouragement that despite the norm of there being very few women in leadership positions in technology companies, that can change. And we are one of the companies that aims to change that.