How One NYC Company Built Out Its Employer Brand to Fuel Hypergrowth

September 8, 2015

When Susan Hailey joined Medidata Solutions in November of 2013 to lead their talent acquisition team, she was faced with a challenge.

The New York City-based company, which builds software to facilitate pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials, was looking to growing from 900 to around 1,500 employees by the end of 2016, along with dealing with normal attrition. Half of those positions would be software engineers, a particularly hard role to fill in New York City, considering the relatively small talent pool and the overwhelming demand.

Medidata also wanted to start recruiting college students, although they had little experience doing that. Before Hailey started, most of Medidata’s hires came from referrals from their seasoned workforce (the average age was 39), meaning the referrals tended to skew older, or from recruitment agencies.

And even that paled in comparison to their biggest challenge, which was a complete lack of any sort of employer brand outside their exceptionally niche industry.

“Our company wasn’t very well known outside our narrow – and I mean narrow – industry,” Hailey said. “Most of the time, when we called passive candidates, it was Medi-who, Medi-what, what do you guys do?”

And yet, two years later, it looks like the mission is on track. Medidata has drastically cut down on its use of agency recruiters (saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process), created a university program, began establishing itself outside its domain industry, vastly improved its candidate experience and, most importantly of all, successfully recruited hundreds of people to the company, while improving their overall quality of hire.

How did Medidata do it? Well, here’s their strategy, step-by-step.

1. First, they nailed down their EVP (employee value proposition)

The first project Hailey undertook when she began at Medidata was determining its EVP, aka the story recruiters tell candidates to inspire them to join their company. What she came up with was a mission-based narrative that changed slightly depending on the person she was talking to.

First off, she emphasized how Medidata – again, a company that helps pharmaceutical companies complete clinical trials – legitimately makes the world a better place. Their software products allow life-saving drugs get to the market faster and stop trials of ineffective drugs quicker, which ultimately saves lives.

“That’s where we start with all of our recruiting material and all of our conversations,” Hailey said. “Especially with millennials, a company with a compelling mission resonates.”

From there, her recruiters emphasize different strengths of Medidata, depending on the audience. For example, for a person in the middle of their career with a family, recruiters will talk about how well funded and stable the company is. For engineering candidates, the recruiter will discuss the great tools and technology the company offers, Hailey said.

To further push that narrative, when each candidate comes in for an interview at Medidata, they given a presentation on an iPad that tells the story of the company. Hailey likes to get candidates in a few minutes early for interviews, solely so they can review that story on the iPad, she said.

2. Medidata started building a top-flight recruiting team

Naturally, Hailey couldn’t recruit everyone herself. When she joined Medidata two years ago, there were five people in recruiting, and none in the company’s Tokyo and UK locations. Now, she has 14, including staff in both Tokyo and the UK.

Hailey’s biggest hire was the top technical recruiter at her previous company, eBay. Once she got him on board, Medidata went from almost 100 percent of engineering candidates coming from agency recruiters to 0 percent in just three months (more on that in the next point). Getting candidates with an internal team was both less expensive and produced better, more consistent talent, Hailey said.

“A recruiting agency can’t tell the story like your own employees can,” she said. “I think it’s really important to have an internal team who are ambassadors of the company and its brand.”

3. That really cared how they treated candidates

So how did Medidata go from sourcing 100 percent of its engineering hires via external agency to almost 0 in three months? Really, it came down to two words: candidate experience.

Hailey and her team began coaching all of Medidata’s employees on the importance of providing a great candidate experience. That meant:

  • Getting back to candidates immediately.
  • Hiring more recruiting coordinators to ensure the hiring process went smoothly.
  • Working with hiring managers to make interviews less of an interrogation and more of a conversation.
  • Surveying candidates about the interview experience and using that to improve it. For example, one candidate suggested giving people a tour of Medidata’s impressive New York office when they come in for an interview, so now every candidate gets a tour of the office.

By just being more attentive to candidates and moving the process along quicker, Medidata vastly improved its ability to recruit and close passive candidates. And, as an extra benefit, while all these moves helped the company’s recruiting efforts, Hailey argued they’ve helped their marketing as well.

“The interview is going to shape how a candidate feels about your company,” she said. “If they have a bad experience, that’s not only going to hurt your employer brand, it’s going to hurt your marketing as well.”

4. Medidata changed the dynamic between recruiters and hiring managers

Just as importantly, Hailey wanted to change the way hiring managers and recruiters worked together at Medidata. Before she came, recruiters were more order-takers instead of talent partners, and that hurt the process.

“The recruiting process goes off the rails when recruiters are not strong enough or experienced enough to own the process with their hiring manager,” Hailey said.

Specifically, Hailey wanted all of her recruiters to meet with their hiring managers upfront to clearly set expectations for both sides and then ensure each side holds the other accountable to those expectations. By having the meeting upfront and going slower in the beginning, it makes for a faster process overall, she said.

“My expectation of recruiters is they need to partner with their hiring manager,” Hailey said. “They need the hiring manager to understand the steps in the process and why we are doing what we are doing and the parts they need to play in the process.”

5. Concurrently, Medidata started its first university program

During this hiring frenzy, Medidata also wanted to get young talent into the organization. To accomplish that, Hailey started Medidata’s first university program last summer.

The program offered a 10-week internship to software engineering, data science and business students. The first year, Medidata had 19 students enter the program, and the eight eligible for hire after the program ended (i.e. the eight seniors in the program who weren’t planning on going to graduate school) were offered full-time positions at the company.

All accepted.

This year, Medidata has 34 students in the program; 27 in the United States and seven in the UK. Ironically, Hailey said one of the biggest roadblocks to starting the university program was a belief by some of the Medidata that college students could not add value to important projects.

“Some people at our company had the view that a young person was going to be hard to manage, that they were going to have to spend more time with them,” Hailey said. “And we proved to them last summer that these are talented people, who can perform excellent work as long as they have a project plan and regular feedback to guide their progress.”

6. They promoted their university program with info sessions and data smart ups

Of course, just building a university program wasn’t enough. Medidata had to advertise it, which they did through a series of events and info sessions, coupled with traditional college recruiting.

Medidata’s founders already had relationships with some universities – namely, NYU, Carnegie Mellon and Columbia – so they encouraged Medidata to hold info sessions at these schools promoting their new internship program. NYU also asked Medidata to put on four “data smart up” events with other technology companies, which would be open to students (and the public in general).

So far, Medidata has done one of these events: they coupled with Facebook to give a talk about artificial intelligence and the importance of data. The next one is on mobile health and will be at Medidata’s offices

“It definitely raised our profile,” Hailey said. “All of these events help us get the word out about Medidata and our career opportunities.”

The results

So how has it all gone? Well, Medidata is on pace to more than double its size, has stopped using staffing agencies except to fill executive positions and has younger talent coming in through the university program. Additionally, both its university program and the data smart ups have raised the awareness of the company, particularly with younger talent.

Most importantly of all though, the quality-of-hire has improved, which Medidata tracks primarily through short-term retention. Before, short-term attrition was over 10 percent, in 2015 that number is trending as less than 1 percent.

Bigger picture, Medidata was able to go from a company with almost no employer brand to one with a clearly defined employer brand, in the span of two years. They made it happen by creating a compelling narrative, really caring about candidate experience, empowering their recruiters and starting some smart new initiatives as well, like the university program.

For the thousands of little-known companies out there with little defined employer brands as well, their strategy is one worth copying. And, frankly, many of their steps – empowering recruiters, treating candidates well, understanding their EVP – didn’t cost Medidata anything, but has vastly improved their ability to recruit great people.

You can learn more about the Medidata story of transformation at Talent Connect Anaheim in October.

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