I’m part of an agency owners community and their monthly email had an article titled, “It’s Poaching Season” along with a picture of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The title resonated with me and in a few of my cohorts we've been discussing this practice.
It seemed like a topic worth writing about because if you haven’t had anyone poached, it's just a matter of time.
This always seems like someone else’s problem until it becomes yours. What’s worse is that when someone leaves, there is a good chance other people will leave too. Turning over team members and especially losing client-facing people is one of the fastest ways to lose clients and revenue.
Protecting your team from poaching might be the smartest thing you do this year.
Here are a couple of tactics to consider if you’re worried about poachers or if you just want to make sure you’ve done everything possible to keep your people under your roof.
Culture Is Critically Important
We’re going to talk about how you can prevent people from poaching your team members but in reality, you want to build a culture that repels poachers. What I mean by that is, you want people to tell the poachers they’re not interested.
After a few of those conversations, the people trying to poach your team will get the idea that they’re not looking and not interested in leaving. This should get them to move onto the next target, leaving your team alone.
One of the best ways to build your culture to the point where it repels poachers is going to take a concerted effort, especially today when many of your people are working remotely.
This means leaning into your team and your culture. It means making sure your culture and core values are actively alive within your company. It means the relationships with your people are deep and intimate in a professional way.
They have to feel like you care about them. They have to feel a connection to the company that they wouldn’t want to sever or that might be difficult to replicate at a new firm.
There have to be multiple touches between multiple people. Simply interacting with their direct leader might not be enough. They should have contact with the owner and an ability to talk to anyone regardless of role or hierarchy.
Spouses and partners are hugely important people that your culture needs to consider. When your people get contacted by a recruiter and they share that news with their partner, you want the partners to say, “Are you kidding, Square 2 has been amazing to you. Now you want to leave?”
This means establishing programs that touch your team’s partners and families. Sending gifts, engaging with team members in their homes, scheduling activities for the entire family are all important.
You have to make sure your culture is alive and thriving in the minds of your team members and their families.
Who You Hire Is Everything
One of the ways we’ve dealt with poaching is by hiring older and more senior people. These people know the grass isn’t always greener. They value the commitment we’ve made to them and have made commitments to us. They appreciate the work-life balance and the culture they’ve worked to nurture here. They value the relationships they have with their fellow team members.
Younger people put less value in all of the above. For them, it's more about money, a title, and career trajectory. They are quick to leave at the first sign of interest.
Over the past two years, we’ve had only one team member leave on their own and they were from this younger group. They did leave on their own and shortly thereafter went to work for a competitive agency. Poached? Probably.
I would be much more willing to hire more senior people, pay them more, and know that they’ll be with us for a longer tenure. They’ll appreciate what we do for them from a cultural perspective and lean on them to dig in and help us make this place better. This is instead of thinking about their next job in 12 to 18 months.
Another option agency owners often take is the non-compete language in your employment contract or team member handbook.
First, I’m not an attorney and this isn’t legal advice. Also, every state and country looks at non-compete language a little differently. If you are considering this approach, then consult with an employment attorney in your local area.
This is an excellent article on the details associated with non-competes. Specifically, it talks about how most non-competes are not enforceable because the employee wasn’t given anything in “consideration” for them signing a non-compete.
In addition, non-competes can’t be so restrictive that people are unable to practice their craft or work in their field. When you see a non-compete that prevents an employee from doing anything in marketing, in any type of company, across the entire world, for the next 10 years, I think you get the point. This type of language would be far too restrictive to be enforceable.
However, not having one is way worse than having one that is difficult to enforce. You should absolutely have something in place and you should be reminding your team members about it. In many cases, just having something like this (enforceable or not) will slow down team members who are thinking about joining a competitor.
There are also considerations around your proprietary practices. In all honesty, I’m usually much more concerned about ex-team members sharing what we do, as opposed to them leaving for the competition.
These parts of your non-compete are VERY enforceable and if you found a company doing exactly what you were or are doing, you would have a very good cause, if you had a non-compete in place.
The idea of protecting your own agency, your team, and your assets comes down to do you want to go on the offense or do you want to play defense? Do you want to proactively work to put protections in place, invest in keeping your people happy so they stay, and keep them engaged with compensation and professional development? Or, do you want to be waving your non-compete in their faces as they’re walking out the door?
I prefer to play offense. I know there will always be people who want to leave and see what it's like at the competition. The grass is greener is always a perspective that is especially prevalent with younger team members.
Over the past three to five years, we’ve been moving away from younger team members to more senior team members and have seen a dramatic decrease in our team member attrition rate. Today, we’ve lost just one person in the past 24 months.
This stability is incredibly beneficial to the client retention rate, the quality of our work, and the profitability of the agency. This year, we are continuing to lean into our senior team and pay them appropriately, bonus them based on the profitability of the agency and give them the professional development opportunities they desire.
I know people will approach them. I hope their response would be, “Thank you, but I’m very happy at Square 2 and not interested in leaving.” We’ll do everything we can to produce that sentiment.
Consider Your Own Approach to Hiring
Are you poaching people from other agencies? If the answer is yes, you can’t really be upset if people poach from you. If you’ve decided that you don’t want to poach, then you can only hope other agencies will respect that. However, in my experience, it rarely works like that.
I do think that owners who actively poach team members are likely to eventually feel the pain of being poached. I recently noticed that a big group of people who left Square 2 to go to work at another agency, now left that agency to join a different firm.
I’ll also add that I don’t always look for people with agency experience to fill even basic agency roles.
In many cases and many roles, we prefer people with in-house experience over agency experience. I think in-house marketers are more comfortable with the pressure to produce results, they empathize with our clients, and are more well-rounded marketers.
People from other agencies sometimes have habits that need to be broken, practices that need to be reoriented, and even approaches to working with clients that need retraining.
Regardless of your approach, my last comment is to make hiring something you do every day. I view hiring as a continual process. We have a recruiting huddle every week. We set recruiting goals that we review weekly and monthly. We have a recruiting budget and while the roles might change, our quest to find great people who are excited to join our team never stops.
This has allowed us to respond quickly when and if people leave. It has allowed us to upgrade our team over time. It has helped us pivot from a mixed team of junior and senior people to a predominantly senior team. It has allowed us to always be in a position to let people who are not culturally aligned to leave, without putting clients or the company in jeopardy.
People are always going to leave your agency. That is only partially under your control. If you’ve done everything in your power to keep the good ones, then all you can do is be prepared to replace them with even better people and move forward.
I prefer to focus on this, as opposed to enforcing non-competes
Start Today Tip – Take a hard look at your current team and the experience you’re giving them. If they’re working with 12 clients at a time, there’s a very good chance they won’t be around long. If you want to build a great company, you need great people and you need to invest in them. If you’re doing everything you can to keep your people and they’re still getting poached, then there’s something missing from your efforts, try to find out what. We always do exit interviews and sometimes people are honest with us. Your agency isn’t going to be a fit for everyone, all the time. Make sure you have the right processes in place to deal proactively when people leave and the idea of poaching might not be so troublesome going forward.
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