Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Talent 2021 Special Report: People Hacks

Unemployment remains high, but talent is still in scarce supply for many companies. CEOs share their strategies for attracting the best and brightest.

While Covid-19 left CEOs unsure about many things, the pandemic’s verdict is already in regarding one crucial area: the demand for talent.

The shutdown of much of the U.S. economy crimped and even cratered many businesses, but it’s apparent that the sudden recession and nascent recovery still left most companies short of the people they need to grow as the economy gains traction again.

“Our need for talent now is as acute as it’s ever been—our hire-in need hasn’t changed dramatically,” says George Mathew, CEO of Kespry, a visual intelligence platform. “And we’re still hiring for resources across multiple capabilities.”

Meanwhile, government assistance may be comforting individual Americans, but it’s not helping the supply of workers. “Before the pandemic, I thought what could be worse than this labor squeeze, with 3.5-percent unemployment?” says Barry Zekelman, CEO of steel maker Zekelman Industries. “But now it’s actually worse. And part of that is some people are getting enough money from government coffers, being spoon-fed and probably working a job under the table.”

But the disruptions of 2020 did rewrite the talent equation in some significant ways. Making most white-collar work remote has reshaped entire industries. The acceleration of companies’ technological transformations has made digital talent more important than ever, as if that were even possible.

“Companies have to do even more with less after Covid-19,” says Rishon Blumberg, a tech-talent marketplace analyst. “So, they need the best of the best; they don’t have the luxury of just throwing bodies at things.”

And several hard-luck industries—including airlines, hotels and entertainment brands—have been bleeding talent from the open wounds created by governments’ responses to the virus. Most hotel owners had less than half of their typical pre-crisis staff currently working full-time, and about three-quarters said they’ll lay off more employees without further government aid, in a September survey of members by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

In fact, many CEOs now are seeing their companies not as “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to talent but as “needs” and “doesn’t-needs.” Tyler Read, founder of fitness consultant PTPioneer, says, “New talent is readily accessible and not difficult to find. We’re able to find incredible talent at fair prices.”

Here are ideas from 14 CEOs for dealing with today’s talent challenges and opportunities:

Adapt Hiring to Remote Times

David Su, CEO Atmosic Technologies / Campbell, California

We are still hiring through the pandemic, but the Covid-19 restrictions have put a big obstacle in front of us: hiring people without physically seeing or meeting them.

We are humans. When you bring in a candidate and have that person talk to a team of people during the day, you get to meet the whole person, read their body language, get to know a little bit about them. You can evaluate whether they’ll work well with others on an interpersonal level that you can’t get on a video interview.

Does this person have energy, and how do they relate to someone when the camera isn’t on? How is that person under stress? Are they fidgety? None of those visual cues are present on the camera.

So, background and reference checks become much more relevant. The hiring team reaches out to triangulate candidates more, find people who know the person and ask the right questions: What’s it like to work with that person, and will their personality be a fit with our culture?

Unfortunately, this makes it especially hard for new college graduates to be hired. We still haven’t cracked that.

Lean Into Controversy

Russ Thomas, CEO Availity / Jacksonville, Florida

We’ve had several all-associate meetings during the pandemic, and we’ve talked about the civil unrest. You can’t not talk about these things as a company. People want to know how you think and feel, so we’ve been very communicative about what this means.

People in our organization aren’t shy: We have highly trained and skilled developers, engineers, information analysts and data scientists. Their questions haven’t been so much, “Russ, what do you think?” but about what as an organization we think our social responsibility is to make this a better company. I said very clearly, without being political, that it’s clear something has to change in this country, and as an organization we can’t just sit back and do nothing.

So, we’ve also expanded our diversity and inclusion committee, with more than 100 people signing up. We have a diverse workforce, at least up through the director level, but we have some work to do for our senior leadership team.

Ease Customers’ Talent Challenges

Mike DeCata, CEO Lawson Products / Chicago

We have 1,000 representatives who sell maintenance and repair supplies. Our average piece price is 94 cents, but lacking a 94-cent part could shut down your half-million-dollar injection-molding machine or the preemie unit in your hospital. Our customers depend on us.

But our customers have a desperate, acute crisis in the availability of people like maintenance mechanics, welders and shop supervisors. They no longer have some in-house person running around and finding this stuff.

That’s where we come in. We are the talent for these customers. Our reps come in every 10 days and make sure that when some piece of equipment fails and our customer reaches in the drawer for a fastener or a hydraulic component, it’s there. That means we unpack boxes that we previously shipped to the customer, put stuff away, count everything that’s been consumed. Our customers save their problems for our guy or gal who’s going to show up and keep them ahead. So, our value proposition looks better and better.

Locate Near Legacy Knowledge

Kyle Nakatsuji, CEO Clearcover / Chicago

When we began building our online-only car-insurance company, we had a choice where to locate. We’re from the Midwest, but we could have gone anywhere to design our processes and software. So, we went through an analysis and tried to find the best overlap between a market where we could find world-class tech talent, great insurance talent and where we could raise a lot of capital.

It boiled down to Chicago and the coasts, and Chicago won on better access to all the insurance talent from Allstate, State Farm, Kemper, AON and other insurance companies that have made it a capital of the insurance business. Not to mention that elsewhere in the Midwest are great insurance companies, such as Progressive and Nationwide, in Ohio.

It worked. We’re doing well and we now employ 150 people in downtown Chicago. We’ve also committed to opening a second, “virtual” location in downtown Detroit and hiring up to 300 people in southeastern Michigan.

Give Them Pause

Peter Jackson, CEO Bluescape / San Carlos, California

Since the pandemic started, we’ve found that our employees can only push themselves so far before falling victim to burnout. Paradoxically, the best way to push ahead is by pausing.

So, we recently scrapped our traditional paid time off and moved to a model we call “responsible rest time.” Our employees can take time off when it best suits them, and are no longer limited to an arbitrary, finite number of rest days.

And to counter the fact that employees’ vacation requests dropped by almost half compared with a year ago, we’re requiring managers to regularly check in on employees and make sure they take time off when necessary. We’ve also made it a priority to schedule company-wide days off, such as by adding days off around holidays to extend natural breaks. That’s what we did with Labor Day.

Feed Them

Mike Wystrach, CEO Freshly / New York

Providing food in the office was a win-win: Employees liked it, and it created a more productive environment. So, a lot of businesses reached out during Covid-19 and asked us how we could provide lunch for employees at home. We have 10,000 employees around the country, so on a single platform we can service New York or a tiny suburb outside Des Moines.

These are meals that are fully or partly subsidized by the employer. Employers are assigning a number of meals, and how they get consumed—or who eats them—is really up to the employee. It’s just part of the new work-life balance with people working from home, and companies are going to work with employees to find benefits that help them.

Grow Your Own

Linda Hubbard, President and COO Carhartt / Dearborn, Michigan

We make uniforms and other occupational clothing for some tough conditions. We are innovating automation around some of the operations, but it’s still a very high-skill and labor-intensive thing to do the sewing and assembling of a garment. There’s a bit of artisanship and a long learning curve.

One problem is that Michigan hasn’t been historically an apparel-making center. So, we’re trying to bring more apparel manufacturing here through a relationship with the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center, a not-for-profit trying to provide skills training to teach people how to sew and reinvigorate an apparel industry in Detroit. We gave them space to create a training center on the third floor of our store in Midtown in Detroit.

Reduce Hiring Standards

Barry Zekelman, CEOZekelman Industries / Chicago

We’re an essential industry that only laid off a few people during the pandemic, and now we’re busier than ever and having a hard time finding people. We thought it would be easier by now, but it’s actually worse.

We try advertising, social media and in some cases putting flyers on cars. Our people ask others in shops, ask friends, ask family members. But that hasn’t been enough.

So, we have had to drop some requirements—we dropped our requirement for some post-secondary education, for example. We also dropped marijuana screening from our drug test. Legalization has screwed us there. We’re not going to hire a guy who tested positive for marijuana to drive a crane; but we’ve opened the book a bit more to take a look.

Make Code in America

Tim Bryan, CEO GalaxE.Solutions / Somerset, New Jersey

Our entire proposition is about helping our customers make the most of home-grown digital talent. The pandemic proved that labor-cost arbitrage for IT work outsourced overseas isn’t enough for American companies. They aren’t geared to work from home in many offshore countries, so companies have a major challenge from the standpoint of security infrastructure, electricity, privacy and political upheaval.

We have software that greatly reduces the number of human beings it takes to build a software application. So, we have been opening offices in the U.S.—most recently in Milwaukee, Detroit and Hartford, Connecticut—to help clients get outcomes and produce software cost effectively and, most important, with resilience. The fluidity of the workforce inside the borders of the U.S. cannot be matched offshore.

Create Diversity Pathways

Pamela Maynard, CEOAvanade / Seattle

We need to shine a light on social and racial injustice and those aspects of inclusion and diversity agendas. It’s a journey, and one of the challenges that leaders talk about is: Where do you start?

Where I start is making inclusion and diversity one of the top priorities for our organization, beginning with the executive committee. It’s important to lead from the front with intentionality and actionable goals, measurable KPIs, results that are visible —and with transparency. Quarterly, I report on these matters to the board, which helps keep my feet to the fire.

We encourage teams to take responsibility for educating themselves on anti-racism, privilege and just understanding. We held a company-wide day of reflection on the day of George Floyd’s funeral; the first time we’d ever done something like that. We also held listening forums with people of color to understand their experiences. Then we can make sure we’re putting the right actions in place to drive systemic change.

And we amplify our impact by working with partners, such as Microsoft, where we’re partnering to support five not-for-profits focused on African-American and black communities in the U.S., to help accelerate their digital transformation.

Harness Passion

George Sakellaris, CEOAmeresco / Framingham, Massachusetts

We help building owners power their facilities, emphasizing renewables, so climate change has become a great, great driver not only for our customers but for our organization. It’s become a great rallying point. It helps us attract great talent: If you are young and you want to do well for yourself down the road and also be involved with the changes in the environment, we’re the place to go.

But it’s not enough. Our people must have not only a passion for the environment but also for engineering. We’re looking for development engineers in solar, gas, wind, microgrids and battery storage. The key is to find people who want to learn and have a technical background and curiosity and want to move things forward, who are continuously evolving. We are a technology innovator, and so we must stay up with what’s going on, because things are moving fast.

Rethink the Conference Room

Ed Jennings, CEOQuick Base / Cambridge, Massachusetts

It’s hard for a company that creates low-code software to brainstorm in small groups remotely; you can’t take turns at the white board with markers to debate and collaborate. That’s been the hardest thing. So, we’ve been experimenting with outdoor meetings with small groups, and walking meetings.

And when we think about going back to work, the reason people want to get back to the office is for that collaboration, not to sit alone at a desk. It’s the cornerstone of innovative companies and the one thing people are craving. So, as we come back, we’re coming back differently, with far fewer open-seating individual spaces and far more collaborating spaces.

Also, as we’re prioritizing who comes back first, it’s likely going to be the young inside salespeople, because they benefit from being together, overhearing and supporting each other—and their competitiveness.

Hire Everywhere

George Mathew, CEOKespry / Menlo Park, California

We’ve started to shift to distribute our workforce, no longer centralizing in the San Francisco Bay area, because it’s so challenging to find the right level of technical and engineering leadership. So now, whenever we’re looking to hire a new person, we have many more options in terms of where the supply of great talent comes from. We’ll look around the country and even internationally.

That’s one of the key benefits of a distributed workforce: We don’t have to hire according to where the work is based. That means people can work without having to come into a centralized office. As we’ve been doing this, it’s even less and less of a concern to have to bring people to headquarters to interview.

But you’ve got to do some things to make this work. One thing is to make sure there’s a strong set of mentors for onboarding people. For our executives, both mentoring and communicating are key skills. Instead of having a hallway conversation, they’ve got to be able to elicit feedback via Slack and be able to convey their objectives via Zoom, instead of in person.

So now we actually have our leaders take training classes for bringing workforces online.

Rewire With Sensitivity

Tyler Read, OwnerPTPioneer / Marina del Rey, California

We don’t want to be too quick to jump at hiring someone for less than what they were used to being paid. If their new income doesn’t match their lifestyle, and they’re taking the job out of desperation, this stress will translate into their work and morale.

So, we aren’t afraid to pay more if we can. That increased investment could turn out to yield a better return in the long run, even if cheap talent acquisition is tempting. It’s a delicate balance.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.