2018 is being regarded as the most contentious year for a lot of things, but particularly the so-called "war for talent". With one of the lowest unemployment rates since the Great Recession, many managers in the AEC business are struggling to hire and retain talent; especially marketing departments. Two approaches seem to emerge as the way to win this war - desperately hunt for talent or cultivate it.
Sometime last year I came across an article on LinkedIn that gave me pause for reflection and study. I wasn't at the best place in my career, and the title caught my attention. It was called "Where have all the AEC Marketing Coordinators Gone?" and in reading it, I came to the realization that as much as I was looking for the right firm to work at, some other firms were looking for the right employee; someone just like me. Several times this year I have received emails from my colleagues throughout our SMPS chapter asking if I know someone who would be interested in joining their firm, since they are looking for experienced coordinators. I came to another realization that the "war for talent" that I had read about in the article last year was more than just media hype. The front lines of that war were now officially at our shores.
I will be honest, this is a topic that has interested me since I first joined SMPS, when I quickly discovered that my InDesign skills were well valued in our industry, but I had a hard time finding a really great film example of it. Then a bit of a forgotten gem came across my Netflix menu, and it was written by young talent emerging in their own cutthroat industry at the time, that fortunately won them Academy Awards for their original script. With the inclusion of an award winning performance by the late and great Robin Williams, you have a perfect film example of the lengths that some professionals will go through to foster the next generation of talent.
The premise of this film is fairly simple, but it is the context, and nuanced complexity of the delivery, that really makes this a think piece for our industry. Will Hunting comes from a rough upbringing in South Boston, where he has spent his entire life, and in which he doesn't really thrive either. His routine consists of hanging out with friends, in particular his best friend Chuckie, scraping by on menial jobs, and reading lots and lots of books. While working as a janitor at MIT, he solves a nearly unsolvable math equation that a prestigious professor, Professor Lambeau, has posed to his class. Impressed by this mysterious and anonymous math genius, but thinking it a fluke, he posts a new equation, and happens to catch Will in the act of solving it. He sets out to hunt down this mysterious math genius, only to found out he is a down and out Southie on parole for violent offenses, and one law book away from being a locked up criminal.
Seeing great potential in Will, Lambeau negotiates with the judge to commute Will's sentence and release him to his custody under the condition that he works for him as a math assistant and attends therapy sessions for his anger issues. Will is okay with the math assignments, but contends with each therapist in a teenage-like fashion. Lambeau finally enlists the help of his former college roommate and psychology professor, Sean Maguire, to administer Will's therapy sessions. Lambeau presumes that since they are both from the same neighborhood they would find a common ground on which to build Will's trust of others and confidence in himself. Meanwhile, Will begins a relationship with Skylar, a British Harvard student in her last months of undergrad, and as much as he wants to continue this relationship, he is scared of abandonment and loss.
As Will progresses through his sessions with Sean and his mathematical work with Lambeau, he faces constant pressure from his friend, girlfriend, and those helping him to put his talents to good use, make something of his life, and leave Boston for better opportunities. He refutes all of their shows of support from his deep fear of failure. He is faced with the struggle of doing what comes naturally to him or continuing in the safest existence that he knows.
It's a great depiction of the early start of a career, an interesting study of motivation, and what really drives us to choose to excel. It also teaches us that for all the talent that we ever have, professionals still need a teacher, guide or a mentor to really succeed.
In the years to come, we will look back on the great talent war of 2018 as the economy's direct response to the unemployment rate that crippled the country during the Great Recession of 2008. With the best of the best in the AEC industry choosing their career paths and rising to the top, there are gaps to be filled throughout the marketing departments of the AEC world, and marketing managers struggling to bring in new talent.
In the aforementioned article, "Where have all the AEC Marketing Coordinators Gone?", the author mentions the never-ending search for the "Unicorn" marketing coordinator. Many of the firms searching for talent are seeking this laundry list of qualities and experience, and frowning with worry when few applicants appear on the horizon. The approach of Good Will Hunting as it applies to hiring in the AEC marketing field offers a rebuttal to this article. Maybe instead of a "Unicorn" you should really be looking for a "Diamond in the Rough". The drawback of this is that polishing said diamond requires work, trust, training, and faith.
Finding said "Diamond in the Rough" is easier said than done. Casting a wide enough net is a good place to start, but you still have to get lucky, and timing is everything. From my experience, a good place to start recruiting is college campuses, and although that works well enough for technical staff, I don't see a lot of marketing professionals taking this route. Recruiting from colleges can be beneficial in a number of ways: you create a sense of loyalty in those that you mentor, you can teach them the most effective methods that work for you, and you can also learn from what they have to offer. Don't be afraid to look at other industries as well, if a good potential candidate has experience marketing in a different field altogether, they may have experiences and insight that could improve your methods.
An open mind is the first step to casting a wide enough net to gain a large enough group of candidates to choose from. In one scene in the film, Professor Lambeau is afraid of losing Will's talent since he is not engaged enough in the math and therapy requirements. This comes from Lambeau's fear of missing out, as taught by history. He mentions that the world of science in our time was revolutionized not by a great scientist, but by "a 26 year old Swiss patent clerk doing physics in his spare time". In the case of Will, he feels the need to nurture the boy so that the world may share in what he can offer, but he also did not stop or hesitate when initially discovering that Will was cleaning floors because the job was assigned through his parole office. He takes a risk with Will, but reaps the rewards in the end. Consider the barriers and drawbacks of those you screen for candidacy, but do so with an open mind so that you don't miss out on greater opportunity.
Someone gave me a chance once, although I was a 30 year old college senior barely finishing my bachelor degree. When I first started in the industry, I came in to interview for a marketing assistant position, and like any loyal cat lady, got distracted by the pictures of cats on the manager's desk. We sidetracked into a conversation about our cats and their quirks for a moment, and then got back to the business at hand. I like to think that being a cat lady had something to do with me getting the job, but in hindsight what had really occurred was the discovery of commonalities. Commonalities give us a shared space to have a conversation, learn about each other, and learn how to work together. I feel like it gave me an idea of who I would be spending nine hours of my day with, and a sense of what to expect. If I was comfortable with that, I would be comfortable in my job.
This is an important place to start a relationship; if we look for commonalities in friends, colleagues, partners, then we should also look for them in work relationships - that includes the values of the firm we join. In the film, Sean is successful in treating Will because he establishes commonalities with him. This is even more important in Will's pivotal breakthrough "It's not your fault" scene (also a beautiful scene of self-forgiveness and show of support between men) where Sean confides in him that he was also beaten by his father. This scene was also foreshadowed in his introduction, since his lecture at the time talked about the importance of establishing trust with those that you treat. Common ground is where we learn to trust, and it is crucial in the hiring process that the hiring firm and hiring manager considers this while speaking with potential new hires.
When you find the right candidate, keep your word. In the film, Sean knows Will's potential and knows where he comes from, bridging the gap between his past and his future. But he also respects him as a Southie, as a gifted prodigy, and as a man. As Sean mentions the establishment of trust, the same is true with acquiring talent; trust works both ways. The new hire must trust that the employer will hold to their word, and the employer has to trust that the new hire can do the job. I explain to everyone that I work with that my lifelong career motto is "I don't work for you, I work with you." All relationships work both ways, and include trust, respect, and reward. These things should be mutual, and if you don't feel the same, you deserve neither a diamond nor a unicorn.
The film knows this also, and even though Sean and Lambeau argue about the methods, they both agree that his talent is unparalleled. Neither treats him as a subordinate or in a subjugated manner. They are concerned for his welfare, but never disrespect him. Lambeau offers him opportunity under fair conditions, and follows through with job offers and recommendations, while Sean makes every appointment for therapy that he has agreed to; in one scene, even sitting in silence waiting for Will to open up. The road goes both ways in both relationships, and it's something that all managers and employees should pay attention to in the film.
I can only speak from the perspective of the employee on this matter, but I have witnessed many highlights and pitfalls from management that I have worked with, so much that I feel confident while advising my fellow coordinators. How I feel about the subject is actually best summed up by Will's friend Chuckie, and how honestly he responds to Will's decision to stay in Boston and go nowhere with his life. The nuances of the scene are hard to summarize, but watch it for yourself and you'll see what I mean. It's a very R-rated but straight answer that, if you're lucky, you will get from one of your friends, colleagues, or loved ones.
To the potential marketing candidates out there, if opportunity comes your way, keep an open mind as well. I restarted my career at least three times before getting to this point, and I am only here because I answered the ad. Ask questions, consider the possibilities, weigh your options, and never be afraid to take risks. The only regret you'll ever have is the chance you didn't take, as beautifully explained by the late and great Robin Williams. AEC marketing is a great career field for those who are willing to take the chance to find out, and the more open minded we are, the better we will prosper for it. Robert Frost taught us this lesson long before Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote this script, and it has made all the difference.
For more lessons that your high school guidance counselor never taught you, check out this amazing scene featuring two Academy Award winners and make the best decision for you and your career.