How to Make Talent Development a Key Differentiator

Robert Donovan has reverse-engineered the hiring process. Here he breaks it down step by step

Robert Donovan, DOM360
Robert Donovan, DOM360

1. Know what you’re trying to build

When Robert Donovan left the Marine Corps, he planned on taking some time off, but all that changed when he responded to a help-wanted ad. He found a job polling for the Republican National Committee and later joined a large Florida ad agency where he wound up doing direct-mail campaigns for political action committees and politicians.

After learning the ropes at the ad agency, he started to notice a problem. “Any client that wanted to do digital or new media was simply reducing their spend in traditional advertising, and agencies weren’t always built to capitalize on emerging trends,” he says. Donovan left the agency to build another—DOM360. A CEO, he says, needs to have a clear vision for talent from the very beginning. “I knew that with digital marketing, I could use real metrics to prove return on investments to my clients, so I put traditional marketing on the shelf,” he explains. “Then I looked for people who understood what we were trying to do.”

2. Spot talent; be open to nontraditional sources

Although Donovan needed great talent, he was funding a startup and couldn’t compete with larger agencies willing to throw big salaries and benefits packages at college graduates with flashy résumés and loaded portfolios. “I needed great talent while we were bootstrapping the business, so I literally hired guys that were pouring drinks at the coffee shop and trained them myself,” he says. Donovan learned to spot talent through a casual conversation and developed a skill for asking leading questions to elicit revealing responses. Soon, he had an office filled with fifteen talented associates who were helping him land new accounts.

3. Learn how to hire

While the method built a good foundation, Donovan soon realized he needed to develop a more sustainable strategy to grow quickly. “We had a handful of people and things were going well,” he says. “I realized I had a good gig for myself, but wanted to make life better for a bunch of people.”

Now, DOM360 has sixty-five employees and will likely break one hundred in 2015. The growth has come as Donovan has refined his approach, which he says any CEO should do as the company evolves. Donovan did so by learning talent assessment software. Before uploading or sending a résumé, prospective hires at DOM360 all take a sixty-minute test that considers multiple aptitudes based on individual job descriptions. Donovan has reversed the process. Instead of scanning a pile of résumés, he assesses candidates first and considers traditional qualifications last. Finalists go through several rounds of interviews, starting by talking to low-level employees that screen candidates before passing their suggestions up the chain. The whole process might take sixty days or sixty months, but by the end, both parties have made a real commitment. “People call us and ask to work here every day,” Donovan says. “By making the process long and arduous, we all know what we’re getting into, and we have low turnover rates.”

4. Connect with colleges and universities

Many employers have discovered the value in working with local schools, but Donovan is actually helping them change their curricula to build better candidates. “Colleges here weren’t producing the people we actually need, so we’re adjusting their marketing and advertising curriculums to match the digital age,” he says.

Cities around the nation offer short classes or workshops to help marketing professionals earn add-on credentials and industry certifications, but Donovan argues that standard coursework should include these emerging areas, and he’s convinced department chairs at Clemson and the University of South Carolina. CEOs who influence curriculum through these interactions, career fairs, chambers of commerce, and other means, will wind up with talent that matches real-world needs.

5. Value the employee

In building a culture at DOM360, company leaders promote environment and process. Instead of scolding employees for mistakes, they examine workflow to determine where a breakdown occurred. “We want to treat our people very well and show them that they are truly appreciated and respected,” says Donovan.

That credo extends to both pay and hours. There are no hourly employees at the company—everyone from top to bottom is a salaried employee. There are no shifts. There are, however, standard and mandatory breaks. Everyone has to step away from their work at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. They play ping-pong or foosball, ride a company bike outside, or take a walk. One other rule ensures no employee works through lunch—no one is allowed to eat at a workstation.

6. Give people the chance to thrive

Because DOM360 has its own in-house development team, the company doesn’t rely on third-party software unless it has a back-end programming interface the team can alter. The strategy creates the perfect blend of people and technology for DOM360 to serve its clients, and it allows Donovan the chance to give his employees meaningful work that fully utilizes their talents. “We’re a marketing company, but we’re really the twenty-first century marketing company,” he says. As trends emerge, this infrastructure helps DOM360 tap into engagement and social media, and the company is expanding capacity so teams can deploy and create content quickly.