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Building an employer brand, Concept of Talent Destination, and Designing candidate first experiences


SecureVision CEO James Mackey recently sat down with Megan Bowen, Chief Operating Officer at Refine Labs, to discuss building an employer brand, the concept of talent destination, and designing candidate first experiences.

To listen to this conversation as an audio podcast, please click play below:

James Mackey: Today I'm here with Meghan Bowen. COO of Refine Labs.

Megan Bowen: Thanks for having me, James, excited to be here and jump into the conversation today.

James Mackey: Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Megan Bowen: I was born and raised in Southern California, but I've lived in New York since I was 19. I grew up in the New York City startup scene, came up in account management and customer success, and ended up building out teams at a couple of cool companies like ZocDoc, Grubhub, and Seamless.

I eventually expanded my scope and became COO at a company Managed By Q. We were acquired by WeWork, and then I took a different job at another food tech company Platters.

When the pandemic hit, I was negatively impacted. But I made my way to teaming up with Chris Walker to build Refine Labs and that's where I've been ever since. We are a demand acceleration firm partnering with B2B companies.

We have been able to bootstrap and grow a business pretty quickly. We teamed up in the summer of 2020 and there were six of us. Now we're almost at 100 People with a plan to hire 100 more this year. All things talent related has been a huge focus of mine since the summer of 2020.

And it's interesting with everything else going on in the world, with the transition to remote work and the great resignation and all of these external factors at play, I have been rethinking how to attract talent, how to retain talent, how to create what I call a talent destination, instead of a place to work. These are all things that have been really top of mind for me for the last couple of years as I've been on this journey.

James Mackey: That's really cool. Just to speak to something before we jump into it, we've actually worked with a lot of the same companies but we've never actually had the chance to interact directly. Our first client at SecureVision was GrubHub. Do you know Jen Lupton?

Megan Bowen: Yes! She was the head of sales and I was the head of account management for the division. So we worked very closely for four years. I think she's the head of sales at Signal AI now. She's awesome! Her and I built out the corporate team there.

James Mackey: Back to 2016 Jen was one of my first clients and Grubhub was our first customer. And we worked out an exclusive contract with them to be their sole vendor for B2B SaaS sales hiring. We did that for a year or two and then when Nick left and went to WeWork, he pulled us along with him there too. And so WeWork was our second client. And we did a ton of hiring for them all through North America. And I had a great experience working with that team. And it's a shame we didn't have a chance to officially work together. But I'm glad we have a chance to talk now.

Megan Bowen: Small world. Nick, he's literally my favorite boss that I ever had. He is incredible to work with.

Creating Employer Brands

James Mackey: One of the first things we have to talk about today is creating really powerful employer brands. I'd love to get your thoughts on that, specifically for growth-stage SaaS companies that want to do more with their brand, but don't know exactly where to start. What are some actionable tips that you have for them in terms of how they can really start to build a strong employer brand?

Megan Bowen: When I first started posting content on LinkedIn, it was early 2019. I was at Managed by Q and my CEO was giving me a hard time because I was having challenges recruiting people fast enough for our fast growing SaaS company. So I thought, let me get creative here and start leveraging LinkedIn to try to get in front of the people.

I needed to hire and achieve my recruiting targets and goals that I have and that was the first time a lot of the traditional recruiting practices just weren't really working. I was trying to get creative and think, “what else could I do?”. And so at the beginning, I just started connecting with people and putting out content that expresses my point of view about leadership challenges.

I just need to start building a reputation and talking about the things that I'm doing so that I can attract people that are interested in solving the problems that I'm solving or that have a similar way of thinking about it. So that was really the first part: start to connect with people and leverage different social media platforms and start to communicate and build a reputation and messages that are going to attract the type of people that you want to work with. That was really the first attempt at doing it.

And frankly, that's really the simplest place to start, right? And when you think about building an employer brand, it's really all about how you can create and curate content that represents what you're like to work with and what your company is like, the types of roles, etc. Then how can you start distributing that content where potential people that you want to hire spend their time. So it can be that simple, right? There are ways to connect with people, whether it's text content or video content, you can start to get really creative, but you can break it down and keep it really simple. Go to where the people that you want to hire spend their time and start investing in content creation and distribution. Distribution of relevant content to start building awareness.

James Mackey: Yeah, that's something that we're seeing as well. And we're also in a growth phase here at SecureVision, we've actually grown about 100% over the past three months. So it's moving pretty fast for us. And we're forecasting about five hires a month from now to the end of the year. And these are internal hires, for our own team. And right now, about half the hires we're doing are from individuals that are engaging with my content on LinkedIn. So that's been an incredible source. I have been posting a lot of content on social media, but I'm also monitoring who's engaging with it, and who's viewing my profile. And whenever we have somebody that could be relevant for one of our open roles engaged with my content, I am shooting them a message saying, “Hey, just wanted to see if you'd be interested in the open role”.

Creating Assets for Candidates For Your Careers Page and Beyond

James Mackey: At that point, they're already pretty familiar with me and how I operate and my philosophy on business. And they might do a little bit more digging on our careers page, or check us out on Glassdoor. And then usually they'll follow up. And we usually have a very high hit rate, with interviews from this model. I mean, it's well over half the people I ping. I can only think of a few times that somebody didn't get back to me when I reached out to them. The vast majority of them will end up interviewing with our team. And the conversion there is incredibly high. If we get somebody in our funnel and they're great at what they do and we can help them grow professionally, it's a good fit for everyone involved, we usually can kick the hire across. So it's been an incredible source of talent acquisition, specifically, in real hiring outcomes. It's been a huge source of hires for us thus far.

Megan Bowen: Yeah, that's incredible. Congratulations on the growth. You made a point that's worth reinforcing, which is, your outbound messages are working because people are already familiar with you and your content and what you stand for. That's key to really getting a strong response rate and conversion rate as a result.

Another initiative we did that took it to the next level was partnering with a company called Before You Apply. We worked with them to create a page for a very particular type of role at the company that we're always recruiting for. They interviewed people on our team that were in the role and doing the job, and partnered with us to create a pretty robust landing page with videos and information and resources and links. It has acted almost like a repository of really important key content and information that people want to know. So we send prospective candidates there before they even engage in the interview process and it really allows them to decide if they want to go through the interview process.

We lay everything out on the table from salary to having people in the role explain what the day to day is like, they talk about the challenges, the good parts, the bad, and the ugly. That's another way you can kind of level up the content creation. Give them all the information before they apply so that when they are entering an interview process, they already know a lot of information. They've self qualified in many ways and you have a pretty good likelihood at that point whether or not it’s going to be a good fit.

Today is a candidate's market and that's what people want. People want to know what they're getting into before they're going to commit to an entire interview process and giving people all of that upfront has been very effective for us.

James Mackey: That's very similar to what we do as well as SecureVision. We have 20+ videos on our website and it's something that we recommend. We give a playbook to all of our clients on how we want them to build out their careers page and make sure they understand that it's a live page that constantly needs to be worked on. The careers page shouldn't just sit there, you have to push it out, and make sure that people are actually viewing it and engaging with it, and iterate on it from that point forward.

One of the biggest missed opportunities on the market right now is producing assets for candidates. I see the careers page as a central hub, and all of the content that's produced for the careers page is also dropped into a Google Drive folder that everybody in the company has access to so they can pull from and post on social media.

If you just have the content on the careers page, or a landing page, people may not find it or know where to go. We try to get our clients to push out that information on other channels and drop any landing page links in outbound sourcing messages that are sent to candidates, put them on job descriptions, etc. Just do everything you can to get that content out there.

Peer Generated Content vs. Executive Content

James Mackey: Video content is so critical and the other mistake some companies make is putting too much of an emphasis on content produced by executives on the careers page. At the end of the day, candidates considering your businesses want to hear from future peers and understand the specific challenges of the role and what onboarding is like and what to expect in the first 30 days. For example: what does growth potential look like? And how is success measured?

I'm curious to get your thoughts on the emphasis on peer generated content versus executive content.

Megan Bowen: Both are critical. People are looking to get different types of information from those different types of people. When you think about executive, or leadership roles, the focus of that content needs to be a little bit more aspirational. Here's the vision, this is why we're doing what we're doing. Here's the mission, getting people jazzed and pumped and excited about the future.

When you think about the potential peer, someone who's doing the role day to day, for that audience, they want to know what to expect, "what if I actually get this job?”. That content is a little bit more tactical and practical so that they feel like they're not going to get the bait and switch, and they have a good sense of what they might be getting into.

Both types of content are key and they're achieving different goals. The reality is, when a candidate is assessing whether a role and company is a good fit, they want both of those things, right? They want a vision and a mission that they can get excited about and that they can get behind. But they also want to make sure that the practicalities of the day to day job is going to fit with their goals and their needs.

Hiring a Director of Employer Branding

Megan Bowen: We just brought on a Director of Employer Branding. Up until this point, myself, Chris, and other people at our company have invested time in building the employer brand. But this hire is another tactic that I wish we did earlier.

More and more companies should be investing in a dedicated role for this effort. I'm so excited to have Jason Jones with us now. He's done employer branding at great companies in the past and his whole focus is to completely revamp our careers page and create more content with the team and find new and innovative and creative ways to get that content out to people. More senior level employer branding roles should be on your roadmap if you need to hire a lot of people to support your company.

James Mackey: A lot of companies completely miss the mark on employer branding. Companies underestimate the importance of branding and looking professional online. For example, making sure that the website looks really good. The importance of branding and having specialists on their team to do these things can’t be understated. That's incredible that your team is already doing that while scaling. There are a lot of companies that are twice, three times the size of Refine Labs that don't have this function built out yet. So that's pretty incredible.

Megan Bowen: I'm excited to see where we're able to go with it. It's never too late to get started!

The Concept of a Talent Destination

James Mackey: The other thing that we wanted to talk about was the concept of a talent destination, I was hoping you could share a little bit of insight there?

Megan Bowen: Everything that has gone on in the world in the last few years has forced pretty significant changes to what work used to be like. We went from this in person-world to this remote-world and it has created a sense of people wanting to reevaluate what they want in their current job. Is the job serving their needs and goals and making them happy and getting them to where they want to go, or is it a source of toxicity in their life.

Everything about work is really changing right before our eyes and as I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and building Refine Labs, I wanted my goal in helping to build this company to be a company that I want to work at. I wanted to build a company that high performing, ambitious people want to work at, so that I can help create the conditions for people to do the best work of their life.

Talent destination just came up one day. When you think about it, there are key ingredients that are required. It's rethinking a lot of the outdated notions of what a building a company is like. And it's embracing what the future could be. A talent destination is a place where you can show up as your true self and be accepted for who you are. Psychological safety, it's a place where you can express your true opinion and engage in respectful disagreement. It's a place that prioritizes well being and flexibility, and when and how I work, it doesn't matter that much anymore. It's a place that has a vision for the future. That's different, unique, compelling, important, exciting, a long term mindset, an unwillingness to sacrifice integrity, or honesty to get ahead. A place where people are given time and space, to be creative, to try new things, to experiment, and to learn.

A place where they get feedback. And expectations are clear, and they're held accountable. And they're being challenged to grow. These are all things that people crave. They also want a place where they're surrounded by diverse, supremely talented, intelligent, driven people that they can learn from. If you ask people, “what did you love about the best place you’ve worked at?”, everyone will say the people. People want to be surrounded by great talent, a place where appreciation and recognition is common.

The most underutilized phrase in business is “thank you”. A genuine “thank you” goes such a long way and not enough people say that. And in a place that ultimately knowing if I join this talent destination, I'm going to have an experience for however long it is where I do the best work of my life and I become a better person, a better leader, or a better practitioner, in my area of expertise, etc. Don't just think about building a company, if you want to attract top talent, you have to build a talent destination.

Employee Feedback is Key for Better Experiences

James Mackey: It's interesting because a lot of times leaders will ask, “how do we figure out what to focus on or what matters?” yet they don’t ask their employees that direct question. If you just ask them, they'll tell you, they have plenty of feedback, I guarantee it. And that's something that we do quite often. We ask candidates and employees for their feedback.

We send out surveys during meetings and one-on-ones. We're constantly asking how we can optimize the employee experience to get the most out of life professionally and personally. Your people will tell you exactly what they need and what they want if you cultivate an environment where they understand that it matters to you as a leadership team.

You have to have that trust in place. Companies need to do a better job optimizing toward employee experiences by asking them questions directly. I spend all day every day focused on how I can create incredible experiences for employees and customers. Companies have to do a better job optimizing toward that. Companies are very focused on revenue, product, and engineering motions while the people and talent functions kind of fall by the wayside. Then they hit this point where those functions are in complete atrophy and they're trying to play catch up and figure out what to do,

The best place to start is just to talk to your employee, sit down and try to make sure you have that trust in a place where they can share feedback. Then you have to work really hard on implementing. It's a lot easier to ask and collect feedback than it is to implement. Sometimes you need structural changes. For instance, if one of your values is to have a really good work life balance, or for people to not have to work over 40-45 hours a week, then you need to make sure that you have the right structure in place at scale to ensure that people have the capacity to not work too long hours too often.

For most companies, there needs to be a much better feedback loop and implementation loop from leadership to employees to ensure that great experiences are being created. This is something I'm seeing on my side at SecureVision, not only internally, it's something that we prioritize, but something we are constantly pushing for our clients to do more of it almost doesn't matter how much they're doing, we're always pushing them to do this more, because we know it's going to have a positive impact on business.

Megan Bowen: Yeah, absolutely. And it's really interesting if you focus first on creating the right conditions for your team, such as employee experience, and then prioritize how you're going to make your customer successful by delivering those outcomes.

The revenue, the retention, the growth, all of those are simply byproducts of doing those things correctly. And unfortunately most people are hyper focused on revenue, growth, or product development at the expense of those other things. They think the focus on that is going to be what gets them to that outcome, but it almost has the reverse effect. I have this equation that is people's success is what equals customer’s success is what equals company's success. And as you think about decision making, if you use that lens, you'll make different decisions than if revenue or growth is your first priority.

James Mackey: I couldn't agree more and that is spot on. That's how we operate the business as well. If you just take care of your people and you create great experiences for them, then they're going to take care of the customers. And a natural symptom of that is going to be growth. And you can never lose sight of that. Sometimes companies are so focused on revenue growth that they miss out on a lot of the growth that they're after, because they're not investing and attracting and retaining the top talent for their own team that's going to impact every function, it's going to impact revenue and product and engineering, because they're not able to get the best fit people to drive those functions and ultimately take advantage of potential scale.

Megan Bowen: Yeah, absolutely. The root cause of this is a short-term mindset. People get months and quarters. I empathize with founders, especially if they've raised money, and they have certain goals to hit by a certain date and it's a tough position to be in. That's really the root cause; not enough people are willing to embrace a longer-term mindset and do things the right way from the beginning. And so hopefully, we'll start to see a shift there, especially with everything going on in the world. But we have a little bit of a way to go.

James Mackey: The most successful companies this year are going to be the companies that do have that people-first culture that emphasize people experiences that listen to feedback, that implemented it, and optimize the business and are really willing to invest some cash and making sure that you're you're building out the right functions to support people.

The companies that are going to scale the most this year are going to really embody that mentality. And I think it's kind of proof that your team is doing so well and scaling so rapidly. This has a big, big part of it, a big part to do with it.

Megan Bowen: Unfortunately, pretty much every company says their people-first, right? Who says that they aren't? People and companies are recognizing that that's becoming important. I'll speak with people and they say, “well, everything sounds really good. But is it really like that internally?” A lot of people unfortunately have been burned and when they are on the outside, it can appear as if things are a certain way. But then when they get somewhere, they're not.

The execution piece is critical and you need to be savvy in your interview process to really uncover any red or yellow flags that may exist. Frankly, we're not perfect, either. To your point, you know, we do quarterly engagement surveys. And last year, one quarter, we got a lot of feedback, the team was feeling really overworked and that was a signal for us. We looked into things and realized we needed to segment our customers and reallocate clients across the team based on the customer segment that they fell in, because not every customer is the same and we were treating them as such.

That feedback ended up inspiring pretty significant structural changes in how we segmented customers and how we assigned our accounts, how we load balanced capacity, etc. It took about three months for us to fix all those things. That stuff is hard and doesn't happen overnight. But when we're able to take the feedback and transparently share that feedback and tell them we heard them, here's the action plan, we plan to execute on it, keep people updated each month, even when there was a period of time where people were really busy, they say, “OK this is being fixed.”. There's the light at the end of the tunnel. And so even when you have all the intentions to do things you can get in a position where things need attention or need to be fixed. And the key is to just recognize it, and communicate and take action.

James Mackey: Yeah, 100%, I mean, because when you scale, you're ultimately any process that you build is going to hit a breaking point at scale. And you're going to have to rebuild. And the great thing about what you just said, too, is that when you allow the team to be part of the solution, that's something that they can really take pride and be proud of. They can really be proud of being part of so I love that. And you're right, it's hard work. It's it's, it can be brutally hard when you're scaling, and you're in hyper growth, and you need to make these changes, but it's so worth it. Right. It's so worth it. And it just positions the company and the team for the next phase of growth. So it's, it's, in my opinion necessary to get the best results for it.

Megan Bowen: The other piece that is worth calling out is we created an environment where people felt comfortable saying, “I might get a little burnt out”, or “I'm feeling overworked, I'm not able to handle everything on my plate”. How we chose to respond to that is what reinforced the culture of it being okay to bring that up.

When's the last time that anyone on your team shared constructive feedback about the work environment? You might be doing surveys, but people might not be telling you that something's wrong. And it doesn't necessarily mean everything's okay. When people give me feedback the first thing out of my mouth is, “thank you for telling me” The feedback is probably hard for me to hear, and you're probably nervous or not thrilled that you have to share this feedback with me, but I want to immediately express appreciation. Then continue the dialogue to help truly understand what's wrong and what needs to change. If you're not creating that environment for people to be honest, you might not even know that you have a problem.

James Mackey: Every executive and hiring manager needs to hear that. There are points in the early days of running SecureVision where I made that mistake. I assumed if there's a problem, somebody will bring it to me. And you have to earn that type of culture and environment to cultivate that level of trust. That's something that I have learned over the years and now we have and I really value it, but it's not something that you can just assume is going to be the case. You have to build a culture where people feel like they can trust you and can come to you about these things.

Also, you have to dig in and look at people's calendars and look at their day to day and look at their capacity planning and try to get a pulse on how much they're really taking on. You have to dig sometimes just to be sure that people are in fact, okay and show them that you really care.

The last point that we want to talk about today is designing candidate-first interviews, pre onboarding experiences and onboarding experiences; specifically how to do that for growth stage organizations. You have to have the process down because you're moving so fast that if you don't have a scalable, repeatable process, things can really start to slip.

Megan Bowen: A big part of my background is customer success. I've spent a lot of time across many different companies defining a customer journey that truly defines the touch points. You design your systems, your process, your team, to cultivate that journey that you want your customer to go on. I took all those principles and applied it to the employee experience.

You should map out your employee journey, everything from before they apply to the application and interview process to right before they start and when they start. So many times people casually think, “we need to interview people, let's design an interview process, so that we know we vetted everything that we need without thinking about what the experience will be like for them” Or, “we just need to get them started. Get them all their stuff, overwhelm them with information so they can be immediately productive”, and not thinking about, what is this person's experience going to be like joining a company remotely? And what is their first week going to be like? And how are you going to integrate them in the team and make them feel like they belong.

We’re at the point where people acknowledge that they need to be more customer centric, and think about the customer journey. It’s taking all those same principles, and applying them to the employee journey.

The other piece of it is, unfortunately, a lot of companies optimize for what they want, and what they need and don't think about what the prospective employee wants or needs, or what experience is going to matter for them. It's shifting that mindset and using some of those tools that are so popular in customer success and leveraging them within this new context.

Nothing that we do is sophisticated or that crazy. But we just do the basic things really well. We design a transparent candidate-first interview process. Anytime someone accepts an offer, we start to send them fun things like our Spotify company playlist and our culture playbook so they can start to get excited about joining the company. We send them a welcome kit and a computer and give them some money to spruce up their home office. The first week is really optimized, not for how quickly can I make them productive? But, how can I make them feel so that by the end of the first week, they're feeling like they made the right choice.

James Mackey: Companies get too focused on short-term outcomes. When we really started to get better at employee experience, and hone in and optimize toward it, we started asking the question a lot, what would happen to our business if we believe that experience mattered just as much as the outcomes we produce?

And we just started optimizing toward experience opposed to optimizing toward outcomes because ultimately, experiences are going to lead to the outcome? Right, but just putting that emphasis on experience and obsessing on that, and how do we create great experiences at every stage for candidates and employees?

When we really started to optimize toward candidate experience at the top of the funnel, right when people are interviewing with us, and moving toward the offer stage, we were getting the feedback that this has been a really great candidate experience and this has been different and I'm really excited. Candidates will proactively offer up that feedback when it's the case. So my advice to leaders in companies is if you're not hearing that feedback from candidates, keep pushing, and keep working on optimizing that process, because the reality is that most companies do not put an emphasis on candidate experience. And so that if you do you will stand out. And you're gonna hear about it. I'm sure that has been your experience? Have you heard that from candidates?

Megan Bowen: We hear that from most of our candidates, and what makes me the most proud actually is we hear it from candidates who don't make it through to the offer stage either. Even though they didn't get that far, they say that it was a good experience, we do our best in as many cases as possible to provide feedback on why the decision was the way that it was. But for me, if a candidate is not given an offer, and they still give that feedback, it really validates to me that me and the team are on the right track.

James Mackey: When do you think a growth stage company should bring on an ops leader? Companies underestimate how important ops can be early in the process of scale. We brought on a VP of ops when we were probably 15-20 employees. We wanted to create great experiences across the board and make sure we had the right process in place to scale. So I'm curious if that's along the lines of when you would say go for it, if it'd be around 30 employees, or what when would you say is the right time to bring an ops leader to help create these experiences?

Megan Bowen: I mean, I got to give it to Chris Walker, because he brought me in when there were six of us; he knew it was going to be critical for success. We prioritized that from the beginning, we were able to start thinking about these things in this way. I think that it's contributed to how quickly we've been able to grow. I would say as soon as possible. Once we were at a point where we could invest in more executive leadership, we then focused on the people team. And so I think it was a strategy now that we've done that we're now continuing to build out a lot of customer enablement, functions and bring in more leadership for customer success and customer operations. But it follows that formula, right people and customers and company.

James Mackey: The issue is if you don't bring an ops and people functions on early enough in scale, then you can ultimately hit a ceiling where you have to pause, hit the brakes, and then retroactively figure it out. And then you really miss an opportunity to continue to grow and add more value to more people.


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