What Uber is getting right that other startups aren’t

Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Uber is one of the most valuable startup in the world, and part of that success can be attributed to an aggressive strategy to acquire and retain talented people. Their most notable, and recent, tactic has been poaching Google’s top experts in mapping and geospatial solutions. Moves like this provide Uber with a significant competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace. Talented executives and engineers flocking to Uber believe the company has “world-changing” ambitions with a corporate culture that values team as much as the bottom line.

The opportunity to thrive, professionally, is grounded in the understanding that Uber is committed to their most valuable asset—people, even though it has received plenty of criticisms for the way it treats drivers by not offering them health insurance and other worker benefits. Investment in human capital is a functional practice that new startups often overlook. Critics will argue that initiatives focused on leadership and professional development are mere fluff and do not work. However, new research proves that it is one of the most important factors in building a world-class workforce that remains committed, engaged, and performing at the highest levels.

In Silicon Valley, startups spend months raising money to build a business. But, with Uber as a prime example, building a successful business is about more than raising money. After initial fundraising rounds, investor expectations are high and startups hit a very a delicate point in a company’s lifecycle – where talent means everything and investing in talent is critical for success.

In the current market context, there are four distinct areas of focus that start-ups must embrace to build an early competitive edge:

Understand the dynamics of the talent war: In the past, employees valued opportunity, compensation, and security. Today, millennials occupy a larger percentage of the work force and are overwhelmingly attracted to companies that are perceived as strongly invested in their personal overall growth and career development. They want to know that there will be the opportunity to develop a strong set of competencies and transferrable skills that can not only be useful now, but later on as well, as their careers develop. Further, preparing workers for new roles as the company expands is also necessary — internal mobility is a better alternative than losing key talent.

Create a culture with a passion for learning: Culture can be a barrier to integrating professional development into a company strategy, but it can also be the source of competitive advantage. A culture of excellence leverages continuous learning to create an environment where preparation, adaptability, and ongoing support to do a job are ever present. This is where out-of-the-box contributions emerge. Instead of just getting work done, the culture transforms a company into a place where employees feel motivated and empowered to develop new ideas, concepts, and recommendations that are actively advancing individual and collective innovation well beyond what’s normally expected. This allows companies to better monitor and evaluate employee progress and provides an opportunity for employees to be constantly aware of their performance while identifying areas where support exists to help master new skills.

Enhance effective management: Managers who operate in an environment that integrates learning develop a potent ability to influence, communicate and drive performance for subordinates and peers. In the past, startups or smaller managers could survive by responding reactively to market conditions. But reactive options fail to take advantage of professional development opportunities and forego the competitive advantage. When senior leaders use continuous learning to develop short-mid- and long-term growth strategies, the result is an aggressive and highly competitive operating model. With a clear strategy and plan for correlating talent development and efficient execution, communication with key stakeholders, like investors, are more productive.

Relentlessly promote the brand: Top talent who appreciate a continuous learning environment are more likely to be motivated to remain consistently engaged and can be groomed to become some of your best assets. These are your brand ambassadors, promoting the value of the company to new employees and even potential investors. They embody the brand, enhance the reputation across the industry, and are a direct reflection of the best the brand can offer.

Talent today is the newest form of currency for start-ups. Competitors can poach top talent over the weekend – effectively collapsing your edge in the market. While startups have a number of balls in the air at any one time, one of the most important is to recognize top talent as their most critical asset and deliberately and proactively develop strategies to protect it. It’s the strongest path to success.

Jason Wingard is a professor at Columbia University. He is also author of Learning to Succeed: Rethinking Corporate Education in a World of Unrelenting Change.

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