Recruiting Talent: Lessons from Unusual Yet Effective Approaches

By: Verne Harnish “Growth Guy”

Aug 30, 2012 1:00:00 PM ET

When Dietmar Petutschnig needs to find great engineers for his manufacturing company, ISD Limited in Whangarei, New Zealand,he heads to the docks. ISD is focused on innovation in the agricultural sector. One pursuit, for instance, is turning effluent from dairy firms into drinkable water. Recruiting people who fit into the company’s culture is crucial to its R&D efforts–yet that’s not so easy, given the country’s remote location. “How do you find engineers when all of the engineers want to leave the country?” asks Petutschnig, who acquired ISD in 2010 through Minerva Reef Fund, a venture fund he started with a partner.

Know the values that matter in your culture

His answer is toshow up atcoastal ports in late October and early November, when sailors navigating the globe tend to take shelter herefrom Caribbean storms. The incoming vessels are full of people who have been successful enough in a previous business career to afford to buy sturdy enough craft to cross the ocean. Moreover, folks drawn to long-distance sailing tend to be mechanically inclined,since there’s no one to phone for repairs. “In the ocean, you have to fix things for yourself,” he says. And they’re resourceful and tough. “These are people who have made it across very challenging circumstances,” he says. They’re not easily rattled, he says, if a company hits a bump.People with this set of qualities have tended to thrive at ISD.

Not all growth companies face the same geographic challenges to recruiting as ISD does. But even those based in engineering hotbeds like Silicon Valley or the Boston tech corridor face competition from around the world for talent. And Petutschnig’s innovative methods carry lessons for every company, whether you’re located in dairy country or a big city. (I’ll get to another example of really creative recruiting by the tech firm Atlassian later in the column).

Tap informal networks for talent

One crucial part of what ISD does is show up in the right place at the right time. In some cities, that might mean hanging out at a particular Meetup where the tech talent tends to gravitate. At Petutschnig’s previous firm, Nunet AG—a tech company that serves broadcasters that got acquired in 2006—that would have been a practical approach. But at ISD, he, instead,keeps in touch with other sailors, whom he considers his “recruiting agents,”to find out when new arrivals are coming in–and shows up at the waterfront, ready to strike up a conversation.

“Docks are very social platforms,” says Petutschnig, whoowns a 44-foot catamaran and sailed here with his wife, Suzanne DuBose, from the U.S. on a trip from 2008 to 2009. “You tend to know of people before they even come. Someone will meet them and say they’re coming next year.”

Ease into long-term work relationship

If Petutschnig hits it off with a new arrival, he’ll offer coffee or a drink to continue the conversation “You find out about their dreams, where they’re at,” he says. Then he might throw out the possibility of staying in New Zealand for a while by working at ISD. Sometimes, the right candidates will get interested. “They’ll postpone their day of departure from next season to a few seasons down the road,” he says. And with three-month trial periods of employment typical in New Zealand, both ISD and the candidates know they will have a chance to try out the arrangement before it becomes a permanent one.

So far, ISD has hired four candidates this way: a director (who’s Petutschnig’s business partner) and three engineers. That’s brought the total headcount to 20 people. “Our goal is to be a $10 million-revenue company in the next three years,” says Petutschnig.With innovative hiring practices like this, he’s on his way.

Don’t wait for candidates to come to you

Another company that’s gotten really creative about getting the right people on the bus – literally – issoftware firm Atlassian, which has offices in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco. It’s more than doubled its head count to 550 over the past two years. A few months ago, it launched its “Europe, we’re coming to steal your geeks” recruitment roadshow, traveling around European cities in a bus to find 15 developers in 15 days. “We had a unique opportunity with the European economy not going as well,” says Joris Luijke, vice president of human resources/talent. Atlassian’s bus tour – a great idea for a company known for doing unusual and creative things – picked up interested candidates, where company representatives offered them a beer and told them about life in Australia. The company publicized its day-by-day progress on Twitter. Attracting press coverage everywhere from Spanish TV to the Wall Street Journal, Atlassian got 1,000-plus applications – and found 15 great developers willing to move to Australia.

A couple of crucial takeaways: Atlassian realized that recruiting is, as Luijke puts it, “a numbers game” and made efforts to generate enough buzz about its hunt to attract a large pool of talent. And once it found amazing people, Atlassian didn’t waste time. It offered them a job on the spot. “We cherry picked the best of the best,” says Luijke. That’s how creative – and aggressive – you have to be in today’s economy to snag tech talent, before your competitors do.