When you think of America’s tech hubs, the usual suspects come to mind: San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. Big cities sporting big names, like Facebook, Google and Amazon. While these cities certainly draw the lion’s share of venture capital, there are plenty of successful startups in smaller cities across the country.
My company is one example of this. We are the worldwide leader in cloud banking and are headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina, a coastal city with a population of just under 120,000. This model has worked so well that we recently expanded to Salt Lake City, which boasts a population of just over 200,000. Despite its relatively small size, Salt Lake City is quickly becoming known as an up-and-coming technology hub, thanks to other local companies such as Finicty, MX, Qualtrics and Galileo, as well as forward-thinking financial institutions like Zions Bank and Goldman Sachs.
The qualities that draw companies and institutions to places like Wilmington and Salt Lake City tend to be the same things that attract all of us: a lower cost of living, a slower pace of life, less traffic and plenty of unique attractions, such as beautiful beaches (Wilmington) and incredible mountains (Salt Lake). And now, with more opportunities for good jobs and the potential for growth at exciting companies, it should be easy to find and lure talent to these smaller cities. Right?
As a chief product officer leading a large team of software engineers, I know firsthand how hard it can be to recruit the right people to our company. We look not just for the skills to create amazing products, but the personalities and perspectives that can add to and enhance our culture.
While companies in larger, flashier cities might find it easier to hire, they often struggle with retention. In the Bay Area, for example, there are always dozens of other companies ready and willing to lure talent away, and young tech workers are prone to jumping from one opportunity to the next. In order to create a committed, passionate workforce that is excited to grow with your company, culture and quality of life matter far more than mere geography.
I recently spoke about this topic at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, a globally recognized two-day conference in Salt Lake City that bills itself as the “Tech Event of the Year.” With 20,000 attendees, 95 speakers and six tracks focused on creators, marketing, product, leadership and blockchain, it offered an impressive cross-section of the tech community.
During my talk, I shared how companies like mine leverage their culture to attract and retain talent, and how this strategy is changing the landscape of traditional “technology hubs.” No matter where in the world you’re located, the following three tips can help your company succeed.
1. Celebrate diversity.
It’s a well-documented fact that diversity — of thought, experience and demographics — is a key driver of innovation. But building a diverse workforce also means you must create a culture that respects and appreciates diverse perspectives. A key to winning the war on talent and creating the best product is fostering a culture that makes room for all voices and perspectives.
Ensure you promote this kind of culture during the hiring process, when you are considering adding a new person to your team. Rather than look for a “culture fit,” look for a “culture add.” While finding folks who fit into your existing team is nice, what you really need is people who can bring a fresh perspective and a different point of view.
2. Lead with values.
When I talk about my company’s culture, I’m not talking about our Nerf wars, pingpong tables and flip flops. I’m talking about our shared expectations for how each person treats each other and our customers. We live by six core values, which include things like “Respect each other” and “Bring your A-game.” These are so ingrained in our culture that #LiveTheSix is a hashtag often used on employees’ LinkedIn accounts and Slack messages, and interviews include questions like “Tell us about a time you chose to make someone’s day, or do the right thing.”
As a leader, you have an important opportunity and responsibility to walk the walk when it comes to values. If respect is one of your values, show your employees you respect them by trusting them to do the right thing and make the best choices for your customers, providing flexibility as needed and offering a clear path to promotion. If “Have fun” is a value, make sure you take time to celebrate work anniversaries and special events.
3. Create psychological safety.
In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative called Project Aristotle, in order to figure out why some teams at the company met their goals and others failed. Of all the things they studied, only one quality was shared across all the successful teams: psychological safety. This is a group culture defined as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
As a leader, you can provide psychological safety by treating your employees as individuals and getting to know their personal preferences and how they like to be recognized, rewarded and challenged. At the same time, create a culture where failure and conflict are not viewed as negative things, but as progress toward your ultimate goal. Finally, approach differences in thought, opinion and perspective with curiosity, interest and acceptance so that people feel comfortable expressing and being themselves. This removes the burden of emotional labor and makes your employees more comfortable with experimenting, taking risks and thinking creatively without fear of judgment or retribution.
When talented people are considering their options for employment, geography is only one factor. By creating a company culture that celebrates diversity, upholds its values and provides psychological safety, you will attract and retain the talent you need, no matter where you are.