On a seemingly daily basis, I read headlines that highlight “Uber poaching from Goldman Sachs…Twitter poaching from Google…Juniper Networks poaching from Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and Alcatel-Lucent.” Admittedly, you’ll never see a Bloomberg news article entitled “talent poaching revs up amongst leather firms” akin to the hyper-competitive raids staged by companies on their rivals’ stars within the tech industry.
While the leather craftsmanship and monogramming trade may not seem like the most glamorous market for human capital, given the high degree of profitability of engraving jobs coupled with the microscopic supply of master engravers, we are not immune to our competitors trying to poach our top employees. In a time of an especially tight labor market and the insurmountable training necessary to teach engraving, the idea of losing one of our stampers is a very expensive one. Moreover, all the years of practical experience and education we instilled in them they would be taking to our competitors. Subsequently, this would have a significantly damaging effect on our leadership position in the monogramming market.
Six years ago, we hired “Juan”, who was a highly accomplished engraver, after outbidding two other New York City monogramming service providers for his expertise. We thought we landed the prized prospect and gave ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back for emerging as the victor of our first skirmish in the labor market talent war.
Or so we thought.
Countless ultimatums over raises and bonuses, polarizing tantrums and narcissist outbursts later, we fired Juan. As we reflect in hindsight, the concept of fighting with other companies over a few key people is ludicrous. After our experience with Juan, we realized that if someone of such clout becomes available, we deliberately avoid making a job offer. Choosing not to reach out to them should not be confused as saying we could not garner that person. Rather, it is our determination that they are simply not worth the effort and the potential disruption to our family-centric company culture that prides itself on humility, inclusiveness and for-the-common-good utilitarianism.
After all, even if they accept our job offer, there is no guarantee they will stay. In fact, being cognizant of how in-demand they are, they are inevitably likely to either become impatient, looking for their next big score or, even worse, flex their star power as a means of harnessing influence within the company. We saw that firsthand with Juan, who would take another 20 minutes at lunch, pick and choose the projects he wanted to work on, come late, leave early, expect additional perks like paying for his commute and a plethora of other unjustifiable actions.
Furthermore, as we witnessed with Carmen, who my father pulled out of the Spanish Harlem projects and grew her from a mere warehouse clerk into our lead engraver for over two decades, we strongly believe that great talent is simply waiting to be discovered and put in the right opportunity to manifest it. We love the challenge of taking seasonal workers we find through Craigslist or the Hudson County Employment Board and pushing them to see their potential in an environment that feels more like a career, less like a perfunctory, paycheck-to-paycheck job.
My absolute favorite memory of discovering talent was when I met George through a community service program. He was working a minimum wage job in which he felt cramped and unappreciated. Circumstances beyond his control precluded him from realizing how good he was good with his hands. His accuracy, attention to detail and endurance are incredible and he is now becoming my “Carmen.”
George has reaffirmed my parent’s lesson that fostering untapped potential is vastly more exciting than hiring talent that have already hit their apex. Historically, we hired most of our people not on the basis of who they were, but instead, on who they would become. Admittedly, I lost sight of that with Juan, but I am thankful for George who has recalibrated my company’s hiring practices.