A Path to Leadership

Metrics and a hands-on approach allow Ascent Services to make the staffing company’s job seekers gain the skills necessary to build a career

 “Some companies refer to themselves as a family," says president and CEO Joe Nordlinger. "I’d refer to us more as a sports team.”
“Some companies refer to themselves as a family,” says president and CEO Joe Nordlinger. “I’d refer to us more as a sports team.”

With draft day behind them and a postseason on the horizon, baseball managers and owners keep their thumbs on the pulse of important statistics—RBIs, hits, home runs. “In our business,” says Joe Nordlinger, CEO and president of Ascent Services Group, “it’s not dissimilar.”

Ascent, a staffing organization that specializes in providing temporary professionals in the technology, pharmaceutical, and corporate services industries, uses metrics to drive the business’s rapid growth. “Some companies refer to themselves as a family,” Nordlinger says. “I’d refer to us more as a sports team.”

Each employee at Ascent has a role to fill and goals to accomplish, but it would be inaccurate to say statistics alone drive the company. Nordlinger works hard to keep his employees concentrated on the careers of professionals rather than transactions. This focus is especially important now, as Ascent is in the process of rolling out new initiatives.

One of the company’s most prominent projects is the “Ascent Path,” which Ascent’s leaders envisioned in 2013 and are building this year. The Ascent Path is designed to help professionals improve themselves—and, inevitably, their careers—through development in four key areas: skills-based volunteering, team-based volunteering, nonprofit leadership, and thought leadership.

The idea that would eventually lead to the Ascent Path was envisioned after the company’s leaders conducted a comprehensive series of focus groups with the consulting professionals that the company represents and managers to whom it funnels talent. Ascent frequently uses extensive surveying to generate ideas. In this case, candidates said what they wanted most is a staffing agency that is willing to invest time and energy in making them marketable. Hiring managers want candidates who leverage their expertise and leadership experience outside of the office as well as in it to demonstrate a willingness to take on more responsibility.

In a move that satisfies both needs, the Ascent Path uses volunteer opportunities to make candidates more marketable. It promotes volunteer work that displays a candidate’s skill set, board leadership for nonprofits, work organizing a team, and thought leadership within specific disciplines of the technology and human services industries. “We want to be the brand that people associate with,” says Nordlinger, who wants clients to think of Ascent as a partner in building their online professional presence and improving their marketability. He adds that only about 45 percent of the Ascent Path has been implemented so far, but Ascent plans to showcase the final product by the end of 2014.

What’s left is to expand the offerings Ascent currently has available in the San Francisco Bay Area to the rest of the country, such as hosting a trade show of board opportunities with nonprofits. In the meantime, Ascent offers several options on its website for web-based seminars to learn more about the value of nonprofit work as well as professional organizations that assist in cultivating skills-based volunteering opportunities.

The Ascent Path is a concrete example of the company’s growth, but it is far from the first time Ascent has focused on career development rather than simply matching individuals to job openings. It’s a marked difference from other staffing agencies, says Nordlinger. Others employ a transactional business model, focusing on plugging warm bodies into open spots. But Nordlinger insists that the people who reach out to Ascent aren’t simply looking for a job. “The people working for us are professionals,” he says. “They are career-oriented. And they’re looking for opportunities to enrich their work experience.”

With this in mind, Ascent sponsors several professional associations, to which the buyers and practitioners of discrete disciplines in different industries can belong, free of charge. There are no vendors, job seekers, or consultant members within these organizations; instead, they are comprised of experts—people who work within each organization’s discipline for Fortune 5000 companies around the world. Ascent doesn’t advertise through or manage these groups, but it is well known that the company is their founder and silent sponsor, and Ascent’s leaders take the long view on the groups’ worth. “It’s goodwill,” Nordlinger says. “Over time, it reinforces our relationship with our existing clients and introduces us to new ones. We are building a valuable network so there is no need to sell overtly.”