Don’t Hire Staff – Rent Them

The toughest part of running Cerebra has been finding, hiring, losing and firing employees.

While client wins and losses and the ups and downs in between are emotional rollercoasters in their own right, nothing affects me as deeply as the highs and lows of staff relationships.

It’s one thing I haven’t come close to getting right yet. It’s partly a personality trait, partly the brand we’re trying to build and partly the types of people we hire but I am deeply concerned with the wellbeing of our team. As a result I often overcompensate, trying too hard to ensure that they’re comfortable, happy and healthy, and land up coming across as an awkward overbearing parent.

We’ve designed Cerebra to be a symbiotic environment. I know we can’t survive without truly great people, but I also know we facilitate unparalleled opportunities for learning and growth. Staff that seek those out benefit hugely, going on to achieve incredible things in their own right. Staff that don’t stick around and do their bit until something better comes along.

And when you’re a company like Cerebra, something better eventually does. Cerebrans are targets – being the undisputed leaders in our field, everybody wants our staff. Competitors want them. Clients want them. Startups want them. While that would piss some business owners off, I flipping love it.

What kind of company would I be creating if my staff weren’t desirable resources?

When a Cerebran gets to the point where they’ve weighed their options and decided to make a move, I’m genuinely chuffed for them. That kind of decision takes courage, and courage should always be recognised and rewarded. Not once in our nine years have I ever counter-offered in the hope of retaining someone who wants to leave. I mean, if staff leave and go on to something better, that’s great. If they go on to something mediocre or even terrible, that’s also great (I’m not completely immune from a smidgen of schadenfreude.)

How much of an insult is it to someone to only offer them more money when they have already decided to go? And how kak is that individual if their only reason for resigning is hedging their bets against a counter-offer?

I hear pitiful stories about companies trying desperately to retain employees that have decided to leave through manipulation and guilt. That’s not a company – that’s a factory.

The archaic ideal of staff sticking it out for ten or twenty years – no wait screw that, for FIVE years – is just not feasible anymore. In my mind the solution is to see employee contracts as rental agreements. Stop trying to OWN humans – they don’t want to be owned. Don’t judge an employee’s tenure by how long they stay at your company, but rather by how much value they add, and value they gain, while they’re there. Career planning should start with “ok, you’re leaving in three year’s time – how are you going to make us more valuable, and how are we going to make you more hireable, in only 36 months?”

If employers are going to remain competitive we have to think of better ways to create mutual, shared value between shareholders and employees. And employees need to realise that the better we get at that, the harder it will be to get in.

Great 21st century companies won’t be regarded as such because people built 30-year careers there. Great 21st companies will be remembered because they created a platform for talented individuals to enrich and disrupt entire industries because of what they learned in an environment that didn’t debilitate and dehumanise them.

  • Can I come and work for you?

  • Confession: I identify as a shitty employee (hence, am freelancer). As in, I know I suck at being one, because – in my experience as one – I have usually ended up sucking at some end of it, either due to circumstance or situation. But I would consider, deeply, working for you, simply because this is how you put employment forward. It’s not about “how much you can get out of a person before they collapse”, but rather “how can we work together to make great things and be good humans”

    And that’s what’s broken in the world of ’employment’ right now. 99% of the time it’s a “how much of yourself will you sacrifice for us? how long will you do that for? we value your input, but we don’t really want it” situation. Thank you for being the difference!

  • Cobus Bernard

    Nice article, echo’s the sentiment of having alumni instead of ex-employees. The current undersupply of (good) developers will hopefully drive more companies to realise this and adapt.

  • Marvelous piece! I related to and enjoyed every minute of reading that. You, my man, are a legend

    • Mike

      Thanks boss man – high praise ;)

  • Great blog post Mike, as a digital agency owner whose biggest challenge is attracting and retaining great people, I fully resonate with what you’ve written.

    • Mike

      Thanks for the feedback Michael.

  • Tom

    most companies take it so personally when an employee leaves, as far as not speaking to them until they go. They take it so personally rather than looking at the whole relationship as a value exchange. Good point of view

  • Hi Mike, thanks for the article. I have a question though.

    Whats your take on outsourcing your social media positions to smaller agencies, who can then manage their community managers.Surely you could get away with 1) a smaller incentive package 2)No employee benefits 3) No CCMA issues 4)And more experience, for less…

    Would’nt it be a great to have 1 point of contact. In that way promoting Entrepreneurship and Development as well. Getting a job is easy, starting a business takes a special kind of person?…

    Would love to know your thoughts.
    Rush Bhana
    The Trump Card

    • Mike

      Hi Rush

      I agree on all points except the last one. Cerebra’s IP and training, especially in respect of community management, is far superior to what we’ve experienced either through outsourcing or partnership. There are many other tasks and roles we outsource with great success and ED is central to our strategy, but community management is one we’ve battled to see the return on without the risk.

  • Barry

    Nice one bud! Reminds of a quote that’s stuck with me, unfortunately can’t remember who said it. someone asked the CEO “What happens if we spend our time and money developing our staff and then they leave?” He replied “What if we don’t and they stay?”

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