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Hiring Managers: Stop Trying to Grow Pineapples in Alaska

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Don't try growing these near Fairbanks or Wasilla. Don't try growing these near Fairbanks or Wasilla. PhotoXpress

Government agencies and the people who lead and work within them have a fundamental responsibility to be good stewards of the public trust and taxpayer dollars. For many, if not most, agencies the largest budget item is compensating the employees who work within those organizations. They are mission-critical assets. Without them the mission doesn’t get done. But how many federal leaders see their job as chief recruiter, ensuring those precious resources are spent on mission-critical assets that will sustain the organization and move it forward?

Agencies certainly have human capital offices, human resources professionals and other types of support personnel who are key partners. That said, as a leader, the buck stops with you. Shouldn’t it be your single biggest priority to make sure you have the right resources to get the job done? Often the gap between people who seem qualified and people that fit well comes down to the culture and mission of the organization.

The best organizations have a really good sense of what their mission requires. It’s not only what the formal mission statement says, but also what the unofficial mission is that fundamentally shapes the organizational culture. If someone isn’t a cultural fit, then he or she will never thrive. It’s like trying to grow a pineapple in Alaska. Sounds like a pretty stupid idea, right? Hiring smart people who aren’t a cultural fit is a pretty stupid thing to do as well.

So, what can you do? Don’t wait until after you’ve hired someone to think about how to set him or her up for success. Here are a few steps you can take to get ahead of the game:

  • Mission in 10 words or less. Without using any words from your organization’s formal mission statement, write down what your agency really does—in plain language that an eighth grader could understand.
  • A peek behind the curtain. Identify and write down the top three most challenging things about working at your agency. Another way to look at this is to specify the top three things people most often complain about. If you name it, you can claim it. Be as specific as possible and don’t hold back (but be constructive).
  • Who can thrive here? Given what you really do and given the real challenges people face at your agency, what does it take to be successful and thrive?

After you take these steps, work with your HR office and other partners to make sure these elements are incorporated into your recruiting and onboarding strategy. Getting the right people for your mission and culture is the best possible retention strategy.  Acquire the right assets and then leverage those assets to get the right stuff done in the right way. Don’t waste precious time or resources trying to grow pineapples in Alaska.

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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