Grow a Pair — Treat Other Firms as Your ‘Farm Teams’ and as Part of Your Talent Pipeline

I get frustrated with recruiting leaders that continually say that they want to be bold and strategic but they end up actually taking only minor actions. Well, if you’re feeling bold again, I have a strategic big idea for you to consider — build an inexpensive future talent pipeline of already trained and proven-on-the-job talent by identifying potential “farm teams” to recruit from.

Recruiting farm teams are slightly little less desirable or “one-level down” firms in your industry that you target specifically because their former employees have performed so well after joining your firm. Of course, you don’t get formal permission to recruit out of “your farm team,” but you don’t need it because their employees already dream of someday moving up to the next-up-level firm.

Farm teams are common in baseball, but the MLB version involves providing financial support, and thus it is expensive and time-consuming. The “recruiting farm team” approach in contrast is informal. This model allows other firms pay for the development of the talent and you wait to recruit the best away at the precise time when the farm team employee begins yearning to move on and to work at a higher-level company. For example, one Ohio bank used to use GAP stores as its farm team for managers, because they were so well trained in customer service that they routinely became top performers after joining the bank. Its farm-team recruiting strategy also succeeded because the bank was much more prestigious to work for, but also because most GAP managers had always dreamed of no longer having to forever work nights and weekends.

Firms like GE and CACI effectively treat the military branches as their farm teams, when they target and recruit away already trained and proven military talent. Airlines subtly recruit away trained pilots from the military, because airline jobs are more desirable because they don’t require many months away from their families and they pay well. Facebook and Google routinely use a “let others find and develop talent approach” when it acquihires an entire team of talent by buying startup firms and their employees as a package deal.

A Snapshot View of Farm Team Recruiting

The recruiting farm team approach starts with identifying your own top-performing hires who have been recruited over the last handful of years and then statistically determining the names of the firms that the very best employees originally worked for. These farm teams are the firms that are a level or two below your firm in prestige or status but they excel at hiring and developing entry-level talent. Farm team firms may also be smaller sized firms, or they may operate in smaller markets or even in less-desirable industries. The farm team concept works because your firm is someplace that others already dream about working at someday. If you work at Target, a firm known for great training, but you someday aspire to work at Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus, you understand the concept of farm-team recruiting.

The most effective farm team recruiting approach is using employee referrals. Next is direct sourcing using LinkedIn to identify individuals that have worked at your farm team firms for the appropriate length of time. And finally creating an “online prospect talent community” is effective for recruiting because it allows you to build a relationship with potential hires over time (but you only hire them when they are ready and you have a need). Obviously some of these firms may object to being treated as your recruiting farm team ,but surprisingly, sometimes the targeted firm actually benefits because the firm earns a reputation as a training ground or launching pad for talent that eventually ends up at the better-known firms. This first career step reputation can help farm teams when they are recruiting for their entry-level jobs.

You Poach Their Customers, So Why Not Target Their Employees?

Every part of any business is highly competitive. There’s no discussion — it’s simply accepted that it’s us against them. In the marketing and sales functions, they consciously try to steal the competitor’s customers every day without a second thought. In recruiting it should be no different. Employees are not “owned,” and employment at will gives them the right to leave at any time for any reason. And when they leave and come to your firm, it’s because they have exercised their freedom to seek out the best opportunity. It’s not the recruiting firm’s fault that their current farm team firm could not or would not offer them the best career opportunity. It’s a recruiter’s responsibility to their teammates to acquire the very best talent, and the fact is that in most cases, the best talent is already working across the street at a competitor, so you need the skills and the strategies to draw them away!

The Many Benefits of Treating Other Firms as Your Recruiting Farm Team

The recruiting farm team approach has many positive benefits and a high ROI. Those benefits to the recruiting firm include:

  • These hires are likely to be top performers and high-quality hires – because you are picking from the cream of the crop at the farm team, you have a great chance of getting a top performer. Because your recruiting targets are no longer rookie entry-level workers, they have already matured, proved themselves, and gained focus. And new hires from these farm teams are almost guaranteed to have a high success rate at your firm, because you have data showing that others before them were almost always successful.
  • New hires are likely to be leaders – it makes sense to focus your recruiting on individuals who have worked their way up at your target firms to the point where they are now ready for a leadership, team lead, or manager role. You may also target current leaders who, although they are still developing, would be happy to have the chance to move on to be a manager at a more prestigious firm.
  • You decrease the chance of a hiring failure – perhaps the best benefit of this approach is that you will unlikely get a single new hire failure. This is because the farm team has already culled out its weak employees, so the remaining employees to target are individuals who have proven themselves in an actual work environment that is somewhat similar to yours. And because your potential targets are pre-identified, you can assess them gradually over time. And if they work in a retail environment, you may even have chances to actually observe them on the job at their current firm. Because of this extra assessment over time, you are less likely to make major errors during the hiring selection and screening process.
  • Recruiting them will be easier – your sourcing will produce superior candidates because you already know which firms produce the top hires. And convincing these individuals will be easier, because so many other former employees have already taken the pipeline to your company, the best targeted employees will already know that joining your firm is the next step in a successful career path. There will likely be a significant number of current and past employees helping you identify the best but also going the next step and encouraging them to make the move to your firm.
  • You save training and development money – why not let other firms cover the considerable costs, time, and risks associated with training new talent? Using this approach, because someone else is doing the training, they end up carrying the cost of every training failure. And then your firm can cherry pick the ones who have developed the most.
  • Hiring from farm teams is much faster – because everyone involved knows the proven pathway between the firms, less time is required to convince the individual who probably already feels that they have earned the opportunity to move up a level. Less assessment time may be needed also because you have pre-assessed these individuals over time. Having higher-quality candidates who require less assessment will also save a great deal of hiring manager and recruiter time.
  • These farm team hires produce results almost immediately – because they are already trained, seasoned, and they know your industry, you probably won’t have the initial slow development period that you would have with an untrained rookie hire.
  • You can expect a longer tenure from these hires – because the individual has been dreaming about moving up to your firm for a while, they are more likely to stay longer than the average untrained new hire.
  • Your firm gets better and a competitor firm gets worse – if you are really competitive, you would soon realize that recruiting valuable top-performing talent away from a competitor increases the value of your firm while simultaneously reducing their value.
  • College grads who are two years out are superior – one of the variations in farm-team recruiting is to hire college grads who have been working for one or two years out of school. Under this “two-years-out” variation, not only do other firms train and develop this college talent for you, but the extra time after graduation makes it more likely that the grad will have matured and that they now know precisely what they want in their next job.

Tips For Attracting the Best Farm Team Employees to Your Firm

If you decide to implement a version of the recruiting-from-farm-teams approach, here are some of the most effective recruiting tips and suggestions to consider:

  • Determine which firms to target – the key here is not to guess but to run the numbers to identify which firms have historically provided your firm with top-performing, innovative, and successful hires. Also look for companies where the hires seldom succeed … in order to avoid them. Next use data to determine the specific jobs that hires from individual farm teams have been most successful in. Be sure and run the numbers periodically because over time some farm teams may no longer produce quality hires.
  • Your primary recruiting should come from a targeted referral program – when recruiting from firms where many of your employees have previously worked, there’s nothing more effective than employee referrals. Obviously the former employees now working at your firm will be excellent employee talent scouts, because for at least a year or two after leaving, they will maintain their contacts at their former firm. Having worked at both firms will also make these individuals convincing recruiters. It also makes sense to encourage all of your employees to search their phone and social media networks for contacts at your targeted firms. And finally it is a good idea to provide a higher referral bonus for jobs filled by individuals recruited away from your farm teams, because they are such quality hires (Uber does this).
  • LinkedIn tells you how long people have been at the farm team – LinkedIn is by far the most effective source for identifying the names of any top talent that your employees don’t already know. A LinkedIn profile search will tell you which individuals by title work at each of your farm teams. In addition, their anniversary date will tell you how long they’ve been there, which may help you predict when they’re ready to leave and “move up” to your organization.
  • Develop an online farm team prospect community – because you have identified your prospects long before you’re ready to hire them, build a relationship with them using an online prospect community. Encourage your potential targets to join this community. And then use it to keep in touch and to further convince them on why they should strive to work for your firm someday. Encourage community members to call your recruiters when they realize that they have “served their time” and they are ready to move up to a higher-level firm. Also encourage those from target firms — people you interview but are not quite ready to hire — to join the prospect community and later push jobs to them after they have had more time to develop.
  • Tag those who apply from your farm teams – use your ATS system to tag or mark applicants from your farm teams because they have such a high probability of becoming quality hires. Use the tag to remind your recruiters to take a thorough look at resumes from farm team firms.
  • Request referrals during onboarding – also ask new hires from your farm teams on their first day “who else is good?” and “which departments at the target firm attract and develop the best people?”
  • Target those who are promoted – look at the target firm’s public promotion announcements to see whom they have promoted. Then after waiting 12 to 18 months, recruit those who have been promoted based on the premise that they are now anxious for another.
  • Offer a small reward to farm team employees that apply – if you’re really bold, offer a small incentive (like a $25 Starbucks card) for people in key jobs at your farm team firms that apply for a job at your firm. Offering a similar reward to them for agreeing to an interview is likely to also dramatically improve the number willing to come in for an interview.
  • Realize that their current manager may actually be supportive – the best managers at the farm teams may realize that there is a limit to the opportunities that they can provide for their up-and-coming employees. Don’t be surprised when some current managers actually encourage their employees at the right time (before they get frustrated) to move on to the next-higher-level firm, where they can continue to grow and learn beyond what the farm team can ever offer.
  • Also realize that the farm team concept works internally also  if you like the approach and how it works, don’t forget to also look at the data from internal transfers at your firm. Use the data to determine which internal departments and divisions have effectively served as launching pads for your own home grown top talent. For years GE used its appliances division as an internal farm team and training ground for assessing and developing talent that later moved up to other more strategic divisions. These internal teams and departments should be classified as “internal farm teams,” and their managers should be recognized, supported, and rewarded for developing and then releasing top talent.

Attraction Factors That Can Draw Farm Team Employees to Your Firm

In your employer branding, recruiting, and referral messaging, highlight any obvious attraction advantages that your firm has over their current “lesser-opportunity firm.” Some of those attraction factors that draw talent away from lower-level less prestigious firms include:

  • Prestige attracts – if your firm has been recognized as a great place to work, it is a prestige name, or it has a high-quality product brand image, use those factors to attract workers from firms that don’t have your cachet. Having prestigious industrial customers and vendors may also attract the best talent from farm teams.
  • Great managers attract – the best in almost all fields want to work with the best CEOs, executives, and managers. In addition, many of those working at farm teams will desire to work with the latest management processes and tools that unfortunately they can only read about while at their current firm. The most desirable who strive to become leaders and managers are also naturally attracted to organizations with both great managers and great leadership development programs.
  • Great coworkers also attract – just like in sports, the best employees naturally want to play alongside other great players. Small firms (or firms with low recruiting standards) don’t offer talent a chance to work with, learn from, and compete against the very best coworkers. Make it clear to your farm team recruits that top talent hired from their current firm are universally happy after making the step up to your firm.
  • Size and rapid growth provide more opportunities – just like athletes, talented employees naturally want to play in the highest league with the most opportunities. Unfortunately, their current firm may not be big enough in size to offer the wealth of different jobs that are needed for accelerated career movement. If your firm has a rapid growth rate, or if internal transfers are frequent, use this as a powerful attraction factor for those who work at farm teams with fewer or less frequent opportunities.
  • Technology attracts — most early-tenure employees want to work with the latest technology. If your firm is on the leading edge of hardware and software technology, your chances of attracting farm-team talent will improve dramatically.
  • Advanced products and customers attract – a chance to work on industry-leading products and services alone will draw many away from your farm teams. If you have a higher income or more prestigious retail customers, use that factor to recruit the best talent away from your farm teams.
  • Location attracts – many employees want to work in and live in big cities or in desirable recreational areas of the country. So recruiting from firms in your industry that are located in less-glamorous areas can be an effective recruiting approach.
  • Training/learning opportunities attract – some farm team firms can’t (or won’t) offer their workers their desired level of continuous learning and training. If your firm has superior training, job rotations, or leadership development, use it as a recruiting factor for employees who want to continually develop and learn.
  • Promotion opportunities attract – smaller and slower-growing firms often can’t offer top employees enough chances for promotion. Larger and more geographically dispersed firms simply provide more and faster chances for transfers, projects, and promotions.
  • Pay opportunities attract – higher-level and faster-growing firms may have higher margins, which may allow them to pay significantly more and to offer superior benefits than their farm team firm can.
  • An opportunity to join a vibrant new industry – firms that offer newer technologies should target rusting and brick-and-mortar firms as their farm teams. The best employees at RadioShack for example now know that it is time to jump ship to greener pastures.

Final Thoughts

Although it might be new to you, the farm team approach is a tried-and-true recruiting approach. It is effective because it is fast, cheap, and it produces quality hires. In addition, it doesn’t require a great deal of recruiting expertise, because you are targeting proven sources and prospects who are likely already interested in your firm.

Also consider Google’s staffing motto: “Even if we’re not currently hiring or have a specific role for someone, if we find a candidate who is super talented, we’ll talk to them to see if we can create a role for them later because they’ll provide great value for the company.”

The only real drawback is that some in HR and lawyers will be unnecessarily worried about either being sued (there is generally no legal issue unless you are stealing trade secrets). Others may worry about being “raided back” by these target firms, but their lower level of prestige almost assures that any reverse poaching won’t work on your own top talent.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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