Looking to Recruit the Best Consultants? Then Learn from a 1940s Psychologist

My Team of Happy Millenials

In an increasingly digital business world, the competition for talented ‘digital natives’ is hotter than ever. The best of that generation have very high expectations from their employer. They’ve all heard the great stories of working for Apple / Google / Buffer / Zappos, and that’s raised the bar for all of us.

Companies are also trying to out-perk each other – “I see your billiard table, will match it AND raise you an underground bowling alley”. But at the same time, just as companies don’t seem to be “loyal” to their employees, Millenials haven’t grown up with the concept of being “loyal” to their employers. They’ll expect to flit between jobs every year or two.

If you’re a digital agency or a technical or data consultancy, your competition is even harder. You really want to hire and retain the brightest stars – that’s what your clients pay you for. But you’re competing for them with other agencies and consultancies; with your clients who also see that this talent pool is key to their success; and with startups offering excitement, adrenalin, and the next billion dollar unicorn.

So how to compete? You could race to be the highest payer. But in companies like ours where salary is by far our biggest cost, that race quickly becomes one to the bottom for your profitability. And leap-frogging perks is a zero-sum game – whatever you do, your competitors will match you and raise the stakes.

Well, a 20th century psychologist had the answer in 1943. His name was Maslow, and you’ve likely come across his work. What he had to say in his most important work describes exactly what is happening in our workplace today. And if we want to recruit and retain the best, we need to apply the lessons of his most famous work to our companies.

But more of that later. But first of all, what’s all the fuss about Millenials being different anyway?

What’s the big deal with Millenials anyway?

Let’s pause a second and dig in to Generation Y (the other term for Millenials) and their “issues”.

First, though, bear in mind that we’re talking about several million people here. As a Guardian survey respondent quipped in a wonderfully NSFW way, “You want me to sum up the main issues facing an entire generation in an entire country? That sounds less scientific than a fucking horoscope, you mad bastards”.

I’m Sagittarius by the way. That makes me superficial. #JustSaying

It is a nonsense to try to stereotype an entire generation of millions into simple sound-bites. But there is a popular perception that Millenials have been spoilt by doting parents, and have become self-absorbed and cocky. And as a result, they come into the workplace lazy, and disrespectful, and carry an overblown sense of entitlement.

In addition, and this is crucial, there is also a popular perception that this generation has a higher expectation for their work to have meaning, and for their employers to be doing more for society than increasing the bottom line.

Although we don’t buy the bit about laziness and disrespect, we do think they want meaning from their work. But it’s not just them.

Everybody Now Wants Meaning at Work

We’re blaming and praising Millenials for something that extends far beyond their generation. Because the reality is that we are all living in times where work is increasingly meeting our basic needs, and as a result, we’re all asking for more.

It’s not that all the other stuff about good pay, interesting work and recognition has gone away. It’s simply that the bar has gone up, and pay, interesting work and recognition alone are no longer enough.

There is a general expectation amongst a lot of people for their work and their employers to be “making a difference”. And that difference isn’t just to the bottom line – it’s to society, the environment, equality, education, or a myriad of causes bigger than themselves.

This is something that we’re seeing in pretty much all the workforce in developed countries, and across all generations. We “blame” it on Millenials simply because they’ve never known it any other way, and so it seems to be a baseline in their expectations. What it means for you is pretty straightforward…

If you want to compete for the best talent, your company will be much more appealing if you have a coherent and credible strategy for contribution.

Join our webinar on Weds July 12th at 3:00pm for a look at how to scale your business for growth while leading with your values. This webinar is based on our founder’s experience in growing a tech consultancy / full services agency to over £40m. Register here.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

That interpretation is consistent with Maslow’s popular hierarchy of needs. You’re no doubt familiar with it, but as a refresher, below is Maslow’s first iteration.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

(Read more about it and its evolution at McLeod, S. A. (2014), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

Essentially, this says that you need to meet your needs lower down the hierarchy before you care too much about the ones higher up. For instance, go to someone who is starving and has no roof over their family’s heads, and start talking to them about how to make sure their life has meaning, and you’ll probably get short shrift.

Maslow defined a number of levels between hunger and the grandly named “self-actualisation”. Specifically:

  • Physiological refers mostly to being fed and having your basic physical needs met. If you’re hungry and there’s no prospect of food, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
  • Once your basic physical needs are satisfied, you then look to your safety. Whether that’s from tigers, or today’s equivalent, chuggers.
  • Humans are mostly social animals. And if you’re fed and safe, your mind then turns to belonging. Being a part of a community, a family.
  • Esteem then raises its head. Your need for acceptance and recognition from society. Being respected.
  • And finally, above that, self-actualisation refers to a knowledge that your life has meaning. That most often translates to giving, or engaging in activities that are bigger than you.

This was Maslow’s insight, formalised in the mid 1940s, which sought to explain the underlying motivation of nearly all of us.

Why is the Hierarchy of Needs Relevant to Your Workplace?

By now, you’ve probably seen the parallels. But let’s spell it out, because it’s not just about Millenials. The common perspective that belittles and ridicules them are patronising and insulting. There is something much broader happening, and that generation is merely one of many participants.

And the impact on your consultancy or agency if you’re looking for the best is significant.

We all want meaningful work

Millenials Meet the Hierarchy

Maslow’s hierarchy is in line with the common observation of Generation Y. Their more basic needs are pretty-much met, and so they are focussing harder on the higher levels. Specifically:

  • Food poverty, thankfully, is unlikely to be a real concern to most in the developed world. Obesity is a bigger concern.
  • Likewise, real danger and insecurity (despite the hype in the media over attacks and knife crime) in reality is in recession.
  • So they’ve been brought up with the lower echelons of their hierarchy of needs largely met, and find themselves entering the workplace seeking new validation for their self-esteem.
  • Enter Social media and Web 2.0. Digital natives have opportunity aplenty to seek out and achieve a level of self esteem. This fuels the seemingly relentless search for likes on your posts, be they Facebook, Instagram or whatever flavour of social media is in vogue by the time you read this.
  • But as all those needs are satisfied, they now find themselves increasingly seeking the next step up the hierarchy of needs. That next step is self-actualisation, the feeling that their life has meaning and purpose.

And there’s the challenge and the opportunity for all of us who run consultancies, agencies, or in reality any type of company. It is to ensure that we provide the opportunity for their job go have more meaning than simply increasing someone’s bottom line.

But Everyone Needs Meaning

But it really isn’t only that generation. The search for meaning at work has been gathering pace across all generations. In the so-called developed world, with the occasional hiccup (primarily recessions), we’ve been fairly steadily moving up Maslow’s hierarchy over the last 60 or 70 years. What was a pre-occupation for philosophers has become a question for all of us.

My parents’ generation generally sought out work to make sure they had shelter and could feed the kids. Some level of assurance that you wouldn’t get killed at work and a fair wage were pretty much the main (arguably only) requirements. (aaah – simpler times!)

My generation didn’t face those same issues as much. We started to look at climbing the career ladder more aggressively. By the dawn of the millennium, technology helped as we spawned a fairly self-promotional approach to work. This was fed by Web 2.0 where we could all blag blog our way to fame.

Looks a lot like a search for self-esteem.

Fast forward a little, and now we’re increasingly hearing about the need to add meaning at work not just for Millenials – I also see it in my generation, so-called “Generation X”. For many of us, it took us to middle-age to get to positions of responsibility (and esteem). But at the same time as that happened, wealth has been (mostly) on the increase, and Western society in the main, or at least in the professional ranks that we occupy, has had less concerns about the bottom rungs of Maslow. So having taken the first half of our careers getting here, we’re now trying to inject more meaning with an increased desire to contribute, and to do it through work.

Sounds a lot like a search for self-actualisation.

This is Maslow’s hierarchy at work, in work. The bar in terms of what we demand from work has simply moved up a level over time.

Meaning Matters at Your Company

Compared to the population at large, Generation Y doesn’t have a special or unique predisposition to want to do good. It is also not especially self-absorbed.

It’s also not worthy of special adulation given to it by the likes of Jack Welch. They are a generation, like any other generation, with some good folk, some bad folk, and mostly a bunch of ordinary folk with some good and some bad about them.

But the context we now all live in is further up the hierarchy of needs than what went before; our environment is more open; and tools today are more powerful and so accentuate all trends.

So all of us across the generations have our narcissists and our altruists, because we’re all living in the same environment, context, and with the same tools. We’re all becoming self-absorbed narcissists craving recognition, and with an entirely consistent increased desire to add more to society. It’s the result of our collective upward shift in living standards. It’s not a generational thing – it’s a societal one over time.

And that’s of real relevance for us building businesses. Because if we don’t cater for the full hierarchy of needs, then the best staff will move to where their motivations are better satisfied.

Make of that what you will, but if you’re looking for the best talent, and not just from Generation Y, you’re going to need to ensure that your employees feel that they are contributing to something bigger than just your bottom line with their work.

This is why we’ve embedded values into the heart of our approach to build agencies and consultancies. It is based on real-world experience. In Conchango, the consultancy / full services agency which our founder was on the board of, and which was sold for £42m, we worked to ensure that all levels of the hierarchy of needs were addressed.

Because meeting them not only meant we were mostly more fulfilled – it meant that we also became more successful, more profitable, and grew more strongly. (Shameless plug – if you’d like to join our programme to find your own consultancy or agency’s path to values-led profitable growth, check out the programme here).

How to use the Hierarchy of Needs to Create an Effective Talent Acquisition and Retention Strategy at Your Consultancy

What does that mean practically? It means looking explicitly at each level of human need, and evaluating the best way for you to fulfil those needs within a work environment. Or, in my preferred model, evaluating whether you’re providing the opportunity within your organisation for your staff to find and create their own way to fulfil those needs. That way, you not only enable them to do it themselves, which is more satisfying for them, but you don’t allow them to abrogate responsibility for their careers to you.

To help visualise this, I’ve mapped each level of Maslow’s traditional hierarchy to its workplace equivalent below. Specifically:

  • physiological to pay;
  • safety to job security;
  • love and belonging to community;
  • esteem to platform;
  • self-actualisation to meaningful work.

Talent Acquisition and Retention using Maslow Hierarchy for Needs

Physiology <=> Pay

The need for food and physical needs translates at work to working in a safe environment and being paid to do your work. Pay at least fairly, or well if you can. And provide a safe workplace. These most basic needs are actually not where you should be competing – competing to always be the best payer, unless you’re equally successful at consistently being the highest charger for your services, is a tried and failed strategy. Also, remember that actually most people (and I mean most, not all) once paid well, will derive more value from other aspects of their work than simply more pay.

Safety <=> Job Security

Safety in Maslow’s hierarchy translates at work to job security. Your staff shouldn’t be worrying whether they will still have a job tomorrow. This means a few things:

  1. Make sure you can afford them (cash flow);
  2. If your cash flow isn’t yet strong enough, but you’re recruiting for growth based on anticipated future business, let them know that too – they may be able to help you succeed;
  3. Be clear with your team what your expectations of them are, including your tolerance for the right level of risk and error that you’re happy for them to take without jeopardising their roles.

Love and Belonging <=> Work-based Community

Belonging at work is about creating a workplace community. The question to ask yourself is how much of a feeling of belonging do your employees have to your organisation and to each other?

In my previous role this was a real issue. I led a team of consultants (up to 500), who by virtue of job requirements, were more often on client sites than in our own office. Many of them, especially those on long-term assignment, naturally felt like they ‘belonged’ more to the client with whom they worked on a daily basis than to our consultancy. This led in many instances to what we commonly call “going native” – the phenomenon where the consultant behaves more like an employee of the client than a consultant who is paid handsomely in order to provide disproportionate value.

To combat this, every 6 weeks or so, we pulled them off client work and into our community days, where they took part in self-organising sessions for sharing knowledge. But this was also very explicitly about refreshing the links and reinforcing our feeling of belonging with each other.

In fact, so strong were the bonds we built, that several years on when most have gone to different places to work, our reunions still have a ridiculous number of us turning out for a drink together.

Esteem <=> Platform

Moving again up the hierarchy to Esteem, my question is do you provide your employees with a platform for growth, including exposure internally or externally if they want it?

In our consultancy, we got in early on blogging, before it was a ‘thing’. More than almost anything else we did, it created a platform for our excellent and talented consultants to demonstrate their experience and expertise to the world.

It was so successful, I’d have people coming to join us specifically to work with Jamie, or Howard, or Simon. And I always made sure that Jamie, Howard and Simon (and the many others) knew of the impact they were having.

Blogging and intentional exposure formed a small part of the platform provided by our full career development plans. We integrated these plans into our consultants’ daily work by moving their creation and oversight into our operations team. By placing it within our scheduling team rather than HR, it meant that the team that scheduled daily work for our consultants had full visibility and use of career plans.

This made career development far more realistic than if it were a mere annual or semi-annual wish-list.

Self-Actualisation <=> Meaningful Work

Finally, at the top of the hierarchy, does your work provide your employees with meaning?

With one of my clients, we have developed a model where we further their team’s skills, engage in R&D, and give up and coming team members leadership opportunities while simultaneously delivering projects to small charities in a way that is far more valuable than any donation.

One of that consultancy’s key values is “giving”. So we’ve embedded this value into their R&D and development plans, making it an exercise that will also give them a financial benefit as they can utilise the skills and intellectual capital created on fee-earning engagements.

And along the way, we’ve created the opportunity for their consultants to use their skills in a way that allows them to contribute to society while still helping the consultancy turn its profit.

If you want to attract and retain the best talent, and not just Millenials, then you need to find a way to cater for all levels of their hierarchy of needs. This is the model that we’re engaging in with our clients at Inspired Indie. How to embed the full hierarchy of today’s enlightened employee’s needs into the organisation in such a way that it

  • provides fulfilment;
  • is enjoyable;
  • improves the company’s long-term financial performance, and;
  • contributes positively to its community and causes that the company and its employees feel strongly about.

And in doing that, we’ll create companies that are more profitable, more fun, and make the world a better place.


Get a job with purpose

As I was finishing off writing this in the highly professional environment of the Sun Inn pub in Richmond, a young couple came and sat next to me. “What are you doing?” asked the young man, probably mid twenties. His accent and approach showed he was American. The clue was that he preferred to strike up conversation with a complete stranger rather than the more accepted local approach of awkwardly sitting nearby in determined and rigid isolation (have I just given away my views on Brexit?).

I resisted my British inclination to give a closed two word answer to curtail the conversation, and actually told him what I was writing about.

It turns out that this Gen Y man was just talking about this very thing with his Gen Y girlfriend – the lack of meaning in his work. I asked what he did.

He works at Tesla. The company which makes beautiful and powerful cars which also happen to be electric. A company that makes arguably the least environmentally harmful product in the midst of an industry which is clogging up our planet.

Yet the company that has found a way to make doing good a core part of how it makes money had clearly not connected viscerally to this employee. You’d have thought there would be a fairly easy way for Tesla to cover all bases here.

I’d have loved to chat more with him and find out whether Tesla failed to connect to him, or whether the company had provided opportunities which for whatever reason he’d failed to pick up. But we were unceremoniously turfed out by the bar staff as the pub closed.

Maybe one day I’ll talk to Tesla about it. If they give away cars for conversations.

We’re publishing articles like these in response to the key challenges faced by Value/s Led Consultancies and Agencies today. Please share your biggest challenge, and we’ll add it to our list of questions for review.

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