In the age of specialist shortages, good HR policies are more important than ever before when it comes to retaining your own employees and thus their expertise as well as recruiting and integrating new experts. And to do that, you need a strategy and expedient investments. A conversation with Maren Stieler, Director of HR at T.A. Cook, about her interpretation of retention and recruiting.
Interview: Jens Rospek
Ms. Stieler, you’ve been with T.A. Cook for a good two years now. Why would you still like to be working here in five years?
It’s simple: because at T.A. Cook I can actually feel the trust and have the opportunity to assume responsibility. I need to feel comfortable in my work environment and, for me, that’s only possible with a positive and actively embraced corporate culture and certain values such as responsibility and trust. On this basis, I have the opportunity to actively participate in the success and future of T.A. Cook as well as develop personally. This always keeps me motivated and allows me to cope with the tasks and challenges that I face in my job.
The corporate culture is an important factor for you. What is it exactly that makes the T.A. Cook culture so unique?
Humanity, honesty, and authenticity. Everyone really supports each other here and that’s something employees feel from the beginning. We do everything we can to ensure we fit together as well as possible. The “cultural fit” is a key factor for us.
T.A. Cook boasts relatively low employee turnover and many of your colleagues have been with the company for a very long time. Is the culture you mentioned the secret ingredient?
It certainly plays a key role. After all, no one wants to work for a company whose attitudes and values don’t correspond with their own. I think our employees prefer to stay with us because we can offer them a very good overall package. Of course, a good salary and a variety of benefits and incentives are important, too. But you won’t be able to hold on to your staff with fresh fruit, water, and free coffee alone, which is why we try to support employees as well as possible in every aspect of work life. They can structure their workday themselves in many areas and have continuous access to the information they need. They also benefit from intensive communication with their colleagues and supervisors. All of these aspects can be summed up in the term “empowerment.”
What does “empowerment” mean exactly?
Our employees can and should contribute. We offer them the option to structure their work as they see fit and give them a great deal of responsibility. And there’s an open feedback culture, too, which is also demonstrated by the fact that more and more especially younger employees request feedback of their own accord. Employees communicate openly and honestly with each other whenever they need anything, which also has an impact on our training options. With a tailored training and development program, we offer employeeswhat they need to continue developing professionally.
Studies reveal that individual development is an important retention factor today. What strategy does T.A. Cook pursue?
We offer employees the option to select learning opportunities themselves and tailor them to their personal requirements. We believe that the right mix of classroom-based courses, virtual learning formats, and self-learning is the key to success. In concrete terms, that means that communication with customers is the starting point. Particularly when it comes to projects that address the identity of our customers and their company, the right customer communication is everything. To maintain that over the long term, we developed a comprehensive training concept with an external agency last year. But first we had asked the employees about their wishes and requested feedback from our customers.
After that, every employee, from consultant to partner, underwent this program. Here, too, we made a conscious decision to mix classroom-based training, webinars, virtual learning cards, and tailored one-on-one coaching.
Rather than taking the more conventional approach, you invest significantly in your employees. Why is that worthwhile?
Because it supports our strategy of retaining employees over the long term. Questionnaires reveal that learning and knowledge increasingly play a more important role than salary and benefits. But our strategy will only work if we offer our employees what they need and not just any training courses. Of course, that’s ultimately also essential for us as a company. Our aim is to advise customers with our expertise to the best of our ability. This is most effective when our employees work with the customers over the long term and have a detailed understanding of their needs, strategies, and objectives. For us, that means the longer we can build on the employee and their expertise, the more likely it is that the described scenario will come to pass. That’s why, in addition to further developing soft skills, we also invest a great deal in developing expertise and try to cover as wide a field as possible from the very start.
How do you offer training opportunities when your employees often spend time at different locations?
Thanks to our blended learning program, our employees have digital learning cards, webinars, and virtual classrooms at their disposal, which they can access from anywhere at any time. Our program is rounded off with classic classroom-based training courses and tailored coaching. Our employees often use Fridays for training measures, as they’re generally only with customers four days a week.
In addition to external training courses, corporate learning, which is learning inside the company, is becoming more and more important.
Exactly. Every employee has a mentor they can turn to, even informally. But another important point here is the fact that some of the expertise remains with us beyond employment. For example, we had a leading authority in SAP at the company who officially retired two years ago, but still makes himself available to T.A. Cook on some days and then works very closely with the younger employees in particular. He’s familiar with the company and the customers and allows others to benefit from his expertise.
Does this knowledge exchange also work from young to old?
Absolutely. We’ve established reverse mentoring and promote it whenever and wherever possible. It not only refers to age and career experience, but also the position at the company. For us, reverse mentoring is also an interdisciplinary and nonhierarchical knowledge exchange. All of that brings a breath of fresh air to the company, particularly for employees who have been with us for a long time. We hired 60 new employees in 2018 alone. Of course, they bring new ideas and knowledge with them to the company and we encourage them to actively contribute these as well. Ideally, this means that a partner who has been with T.A. Cook for 15 years and has 20 years of experience can learn from an employee who is just beginning their career as an engineer.
T.A. Cook invests a lot in employee retention. But at some point, even the most loyal employee retires or changes jobs for personal reasons. In both cases, a replacement is essential. How do you acquire staff that has the necessary qualifications and identifies with the corporate culture in an already sparsely populated specialist market?
Our aim is to advise customers with our expertise to the best of our ability. This is most effective when our employees work with the customers over the long term and have a detailed understanding of their needs, strategies, and objectives. By consciously communicating the fact that we’re looking for a very
specific kind of collaboration and that communication is usually our focus. As a medium-sized company, we tend to receive fewer unsolicited applications and are not that well-known in the general public, as we occupy a niche with specialized knowledge. For us, that means when an applicant is made aware of us and then goes to our career page, they ideally need to say without hesitation: “T.A. Cook is the company with these values and attributes. That appeals to me and sounds exciting. I want to apply here.” The employees are our priority, as is the question of how they can best develop with us. Of course, this will ideally culminate in a long-term relationship. At the same time, the applicant should be able to understand as quickly as possible what we do, because we require very specific qualifications in our niche.
But this strategy also means that you don’t attempt to address all applicants, but rather limit your target group.
Yes, you could say that. We’re not interested in every potential employee, but that’s a conscious decision. We’re looking for applicants that are a good match for us, our company, and our values. The cultural fit is very important to us and ultimately the secret to our success: the better we’re able to select an employee that’s a good fit for T.A. Cook, the more likely it is that they will stay with the company for longer. Limiting the target group in advance is virtually unavoidable.
In that case, does it also mean that a future employee has to be a good fit for T.A. Cook’s corporate culture in particular, while the qualification takes second place?
I would express it differently. The qualification is, of course, important particularly for us. The keyword is expertise. But even if someone has the best references, they’ll be gone again before you know it if their value culture and structure don’t conform with ours, which isn’t helpful for either side. That’s why it’s so important to us as a company that prefers long-term working relationships to find out if the applicant is a good fit for us. Humanity is therefore just as important as the specialized qualification.
And how do you communicate the values of T.A. Cook to applicants and new employees?
Through personality. That’s exactly the aspect that allows us to distinguish ourselves and that sets us apart. Our employees and their wishes, aims, and further development are important to us. Of course, that begins internally, but from there has impact on the recruiting process. We’re very successful, for example, with the concept of “employees recruiting employees,” meaning our employees function as brand ambassadors. And even when interacting with interested applicants, we try to connect with them as soon and directly as possible, beginning with the career page: when an applicant arrives there, they first see employee statements and interviews as well as personalities – long before any job ads.
Apparently, your investments and efforts have paid off: T.A. Cook has officially been a “Great Place to Work” for weeks now, making it one of the best 100 employers in Germany. What was your first reaction when you heard about this honor?
I was unbelievably proud. On the one hand, because I’m part of a wonderful company and, on the other, because I can do my part every day to help make T.A. Cook a popular employer.