The 3 Strategies X, the Moonshot Factory Uses to Find Candidates Who Will Change the World

December 12, 2019

Photo of man working on drone at Google X

When Rachel Williams joined X, the Moonshot Factory (formerly Google X) earlier this year as the head of equity, inclusion, and diversity talent acquisition, she quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be like anything she’d done before. She’d spent more than a decade in the talent space, but the corporate environments she’d previously worked in were nothing like this so-called “moonshot factory,” a place where scientists, researchers, and visionaries come together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

“I had never been in an environment where asking questions was a regular part of business,” Rachel reflects. “Now I realize that questions actually get you to radical and innovative solutions. And so I've started to think that way when it comes to talent acquisition. I'm asking questions, I allow people to ask me questions — and it's allowing us to come up with some really, really cool experiments.”

This approach has helped X’s talent acquisition team find the kind of candidates who can change the world (literally). And in the latest episode of Talent on Tap, Brendan Browne, LinkedIn’s global head of talent acquisition, caught up with Rachel at AfroTech 2019 to find out more about what her team’s experiments have revealed:

To help your talent acquisition team work more innovatively and boost your impact tenfold, here are three strategies that Rachel recommends:

1. Take your employee referral program to the next level by training employees to be talent spotters

At X, employees focus on solving issues like world hunger and water insecurity. They’re deeply passionate and enthusiastic about what they do — which might explain why the employee referral program is widely used. 

This was already happening before Rachel joined the team. She just decided to take it to the next level. 

“I discovered that this was happening,” she says, “and I just decided… not to shy away from it, but to really lean in and lean in hard.”

To turn employees into elite “talent spotters,” Rachel’s team provided training on how to identify great candidates, including what kinds of hard and soft skills to look for. And to take things a step further, the team then began encouraging employees to take potential referrals out for a coffee. It’s in this more casual setting that they have the initial screening conversation that recruiters would normally do on the phone, culminating in sending over some notes which the talent acquisition team can review to decide whether or not to move forward. 

By empowering employees to not only identify potential candidates but to also help screen them, X puts countless hours back into the recruiting team’s week. And while some of the referred candidates might not be a good match for the company’s current hiring needs, Rachel has started viewing the referral program through a long-term lens — using it to spot the talent X will need five years from now.

“When you start thinking that way about talent acquisition versus just how are we going to get through 2020,” Rachel says, “then you can really start to put into place programs that are sustainable.”

Rachel believes that more companies could be using a strategy like this, but recruiting teams may be nervous about making themselves appear inessential. In actuality, when employees are pitching in with some day-to-day recruiting tasks, you can spend more time innovating and solving complex challenges like finding more diverse talent, which is what will really make you indispensable to the business. 

“Imagine that you unleashed 100,000 employees to know exactly how to find talent for you,” Rachel says. “It’s a wonderful… thing because now the talent acquisition team is freed up to think bigger about how we find the diverse talent that's out there. How do we reach folks that are in other countries that we may want to tap into?” 

2. Invite other people throughout the business to share their perspectives on your projects — and your function as a whole

When Rachel first started working at X, she was a little offended by how often people questioned her or tried to weigh in on her area of expertise. Before long, though, she realized this was just a hallmark of the inquisitive culture at X — and a powerful way to tap into insights from beyond her team. 

“Initially… I definitely wanted to tell people to go mind their business,” she jokes. “[But] trying to find the best and the brightest around the world to come and work here is a big lift for anybody. And so I’m going to need some help.” 


Related: How You Can Develop a Curious Workforce — and Reap the Benefits


Today, Rachel actively seeks out advice from other people across the organization. As she points out, everyone on her team has been trained in similar ways, so their perspectives will only vary so much. By tapping someone from another department to weigh in on a problem, she’s likely to get a totally different viewpoint. 

This is especially useful when trying to hire hard-to-find candidates. If the recruiting team needed to hire an engineer, for example, the engineering team could probably provide some handy insights about where to look for them. 

“I would encourage everybody to get over your fear of someone else ‘getting in your business,’” Rachel says, “and embrace that, and allow them to come in and collaborate.” 

Rachel has found this strategy so effective that she plans to take it up a notch — she wants to crowdsource advice to help her redesign X’s talent acquisition function. 

“[I thought] why don't I hold focus groups of people all across the building and say, ‘If you had an opportunity to design talent acquisition, how would you do it?’” Rachel explains. “‘What was your experience? What would you do differently?’” 

This doesn’t mean Rachel will implement every idea she hears — but it does increase the chances that she’ll hear a brilliant idea she wouldn’t have thought of herself. It’s a scary yet exhilarating idea, and she’s looking forward to those challenging conversations. 

“I'm not talking about surveys,” she clarifies. “I'm talking about getting in… a room with people [and] let’s do a design thinking session. Let's hammer it out.” 

To anyone concerned that this approach might make employees think your team isn’t effective, Rachel says it should do the opposite — letting them know that you’re open to new ideas because you want to remain innovative. 

“If you claim to be an innovative company or an innovative team,” she says, “then you need to invite in very disparate and differing perspectives.” 

3. Encourage your team to come to you with big questions, rather than easy answers

When she was in school, Rachel was taught the Socratic method, which involves constantly asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking. This turned out to be useful training for working at X. 

“It’s not the answer that you’re rewarded for at X — it’s the questions that you ask,” she says. “Because if you already have the answer, then you’re probably not thinking big enough. That means someone’s probably already done it… And so the question-asking is to build that muscle to get to a really, really big solution.” 

Rachel encourages every talent acquisition team to start building this muscle. It might take a little work, since it goes against the traditional bring-me-solutions-not-problems approach, but keep at it. Only by promoting curiosity and encouraging lots of open-ended questions can you become truly innovative. 

“You constantly need to question why are we doing a process, why aren't we doing a process?” Rachel says. “What could we be doing better? That critical [mindset]... is foundational.” 

Collaborate, ask questions, and don’t be afraid of the unknown 

While most people expect to find more answers the further they progress in their career, it’s the answers you don’t have that can take your team — and your company — to exciting new heights. Don’t hesitate to come to the table with questions, or to look in unexpected places for unconventional answers. As Rachel can attest, this mindset can change everything. 

“It was just kind of an ‘aha’ moment [for us],” she says, “that helped to unlock what I think are some really cool experiments going on around talent.” 

Talent on Tap is a monthly series in which Brendan Browne breaks down the hottest topics, biggest challenges, and most enticing opportunities in the world of talent. Talent on Tap will also give you an opportunity to hear from other organizational leaders, subject matter experts, and thought leaders in the space. Stay tuned for the latest.

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* Photo from X