Hillary Clinton's Director of Talent Acquisition & Development Nathaniel Koloc

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Director of Talent Acquisition & Development for the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign, Nathaniel Koloc, joins Entelo CEO Jon Bischke to discuss how he hired 4300 people in a matter of months, how to match talent goals to hiring manager goals, and how to hire people for roles they've never done before.

 
 

Full Transcript

00:00 Jon Bischke: Hey, everyone. This is Jon Bischke, the founder and CEO of Entelo. And I'm here today with a special edition of Hiring On All Cylinders. I'm actually sitting in a studio, recording studio in New York City, and today I'm going to be talking with Nathaniel Koloc. And Nathaniel has a really interesting background, most notably, most recently, ran recruiting for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. And so, I'm really excited today to dive more deeply with Nathaniel into this, into how he looks at recruiting and tackle some really interesting topics. So, Nathaniel, first of all, welcome and thanks for doing the show.

00:39 Nathaniel Koloc: It's great to be here. Thank you, Jon.

00:41 JB: What I love to do, is to start out with your background, just a little bio on yourself. What did you do in the early stages of your career leading up to the role you had in last year's campaign? 

00:52 NK: Sure. I'm from Pittsburgh, and born and raised, and went to school in Vermont, where I studied ecology and economics. And I got really into climate environmental issues, graduated in 2008. And I bounced around a lot relative to what my peers were doing, a lot of different projects. I worked for many different organizations in just a short period of time and I got really into the idea of meaningful work. So when I was 24, I believe, started a recruiting firm called ReWork with a couple of friends. The whole premise of it was helping smart, earnest people get jobs at mission-driven companies that were specifically making the world a better place, so non-profits, foundations, things like this. I ran ReWork for about five years and I was CEO at ReWork when the campaign got in touch... They got in touch with me before it was a publicly announced campaign. It was in the run-up to it, when they were sourcing their initial teams, which is a funny story about how that actually happened.

01:55 JB: Yeah. I'd love to hear that story. Obviously, there aren't that many people who can say, "I've been a head of recruiting for a presidential campaign." How does one end up in that position? 

02:03 NK: How do you get recruited for that? Oh, yeah.

[chuckle]

02:05 NK: A couple years ago, I was actually sitting with a friend of mine from Pittsburgh. This is back in 2013 or something. And I was trying to explain to him why Twitter is good for your career. And I was saying, "Look, you can get in touch with people who you otherwise have no business getting in touch with or you don't know them." And I thought to myself... He's in the world of politics at the time, I wasn't. Hillary's campaign was my first foray into politics. And I was thinking, "Who is somebody that he would think was impressive, but that isn't in my world?" And I thought, "Well, I wonder who's the COO of Obama's re-election campaign in 2012?" I looked her up. She's not particularly famous. She's a talented operative, but not famous. Her name is Ann Marie Habershaw. And so, I tweeted at her and I say, "Hey, look," and I said, "I run this recruiting firm." I was thinking whoever does hiring for campaigns must be good, because there's no time, no money, all this pressure. So I tweeted her and I said, "Hey, I'd love to talk to you, maybe get some mentorship." I forget exactly what I said. "Would you be willing to talk?" And she tweeted back in two minutes, right away.

[laughter]

03:05 NK: She's like, "Yeah. Let's talk tomorrow or something." It was super fast, and he and I, we're both like, "Wow. That's crazy."

03:09 NK: So when talking to her, as soon as I got on the phone, those things I said, basically, like, "What's your guidance? I'm trying to build our company to be as effective as possible." And she said, "No, actually it was hard, because there wasn't somebody on the campaign who was dedicated." They didn't have a talent role on Obama's campaign. The teams are doing their own things, and so, without that central coordination, for example, sometimes you had senior people doing actual sourcing work, or if the deputies hadn't had experienced recruiting, it was problematic. She said one of her main recommendations was to gonna be to put a talent person on for the next cycle, whoever the candidate was. And I said, "Oh, well, in that case, whoever you hire or whoever that person is, I would have ideas for them based on what we know." And kind of turned it around, and yeah, we had a conversation. So that was that and I think it was [04:00] ____ multiply, many years ago, and then she had passed my name along, so when they actually executed on her recommendation, they... [chuckle] Yeah, got in touch, and started the conversation of... Feeling me out of, "Were you interested in politics? Could you see yourself doing something like this?" So yeah, one thing led to another and there it was. [chuckle]

04:20 JB: It just all started with Twitter.

04:22 NK: Yeah. It all started with Twitter.

04:23 JB: That's amazing. We like to promote the idea at Entelo that social media can be a powerful vehicle for finding jobs and finding people...

04:28 NK: It is.

04:29 JB: And this is exhibit A.

04:31 NK: Yup. Absolutely.

04:32 JB: That's fantastic. Well, what I wanna do is dive into some of the things... I think, initially, you got on our radar through a piece in Quartz talking about your role on the campaign. And there was some pieces in that that really struck me, and I consider myself fortunate to be able to sit here and be able to ask you these questions about some of the things that you said. And one of the things that you said, that I think, and something that surfaced in talking to my team, is the fact that, effectively, you're trying to recruit people for a campaign, many people are leaving a full time, steady, permanent job to come work on a campaign, that at a minimum, has an expiration date. You know the election's gonna be over on November 9th, but at the same time, uncertainty past that...

05:16 NK: Sure.

05:16 JB: Some people work on the campaign, then and ultimately move on into roles in government, but how do you do that? How do you convince people to leave the safety of whatever they're doing and work on something that is, at a minimum, very uncertain? 

05:30 NK: Yeah. It's a great question, and what I think we found was, first of all, owning that, just totally owning the fact. This is an adventure. This is not a typical job. This is the opposite. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is a career. I would say all the time, "This is a career adventure." You're gonna work a lot, but it's not in the same bucket of, just a next career step, job thing. There were two... In two different specific... In the one sense, saying, "Look, this is really meaningful. Either it resonates with you... This is, again, this is the kind of thing that only comes around every now and then, like you really want to do this." Also, for some people, who specifically... There's a way to say... "It's good news that you're gonna get to do another step at November 9th." Depending on...

06:13 NK: If someone was joining back in 2015... And we launched in April or May of 2015... That was a long way out. A lot of people weren't even realizing that the campaign had a staff then. So we're educating people, like, "Hey, look, we're already getting going." And that's a year and a half. That's almost what you do at another job, right? So it changed when it got closer, three months, six months, even that nine-month mark in 2016, in between that weird zone of, at three months, someone can almost take a leave maybe. But at that six to nine-month, yeah, we had to have people really, yeah, doing a gut check on, "Were they good with the uncertainty?" And I think we just sold it as, "You're gonna have the benefit of being able to take another step soon and not have to wonder when you're gonna move on for your next job." You know what I mean? I used that to our advantage.

07:04 JB: Yeah, now, that's great and I think it's something that, that whole notion of appealing to people around, "This is a once in a lifetime thing. How many times do we get those opportunities?" And I think that makes all the sense in the world. Well, you said another thing that also struck me, which was this notion of not needing people who have done exactly the thing that they're going to do before. And clearly, on a campaign, you're doing all sorts of things for the first time. Every single presidential campaign is like that. So how do you assess... Your team's interviewing someone, and you're interviewing them for role X, and they've never done X before. How do you assess the capability or the probability that they'll do a good job in that role? 

07:42 NK: Yeah. This gets to a hiring, a philosophy that I think is shared by some folks in Silicon Valley, for example, that when people are... It's the looking for the someone who's about to do the thing and not necessarily someone who's already done it. My answer is, this is one reason why it's really important to get good on scoping, 'cause if you can really accurately... And accurately doesn't always mean specifically. You can be accurate and vague, or say, "Look, we think it's these things. You may also end up doing this. Here's how we'll decide if you're gonna do that or not." You can get accurate at that level, putting that in front of somebody, having really, really well done role descriptions, and having them light up and say, "This, I wanna do this and here's why I wanna do this" and hearing that motivation, that's one piece, and it just, yeah, it underscores the importance of being able to articulate, "What are you hiring for and what's the point of this role?"

08:32 NK: And the second thing is looking for analogues, so I think of it as evidence. It's like, "What evidence do you have?" So if I say, "What evidence do you have that you can manage a $100 million budget?" Evidence can look different ways. You can say, "I was a deputy to somebody who did that, and I looked at all their files, and I saw their workflow." Or you could say, "Well, I've managed $10 million and I think that 10X is not a meaningful change from that skill set." And I can consider both of those as possible evidence. I think it's trying to piece together the analogue things that point to their ability that they are likely able to do that, and then that growth mindset. Someone said, I think maybe Marc Andreessen, someone had a thing around, "You want people who hang their confidence, and are more excited about what they're going to do, not what they've already done." And I completely agree with that.

09:19 NK: Anytime somebody is really landing super hard and making the case for themself purely on what, "I've done this. I've done this I've done this." That's, to me, actually a sign that there's not as much of a growth mindset as I like to see in... A lot of the work I've done tends to be in organizations that experience a lot of uncertainty, so startups, smaller organizations, a lot of the mission-driven world is... That the social sector's growing up, has been growing up over the last decade, so it's not as clear-cut as a corporate environment or something. So you need people who can handle uncertainty and the growth mindset is just absolutely critical part of that.

09:57 JB: I love that. And then I think the notion of there's different labels for... But the notion of hiring an up-and-comer, somebody who maybe is doing something for the first time, we think a lot about that. And [10:06] ____ talent doesn't mean you should exclusively hire up-and-comers, necessarily, but that notion that they're going to be very hungry, very motivated, because they've never done this before...

10:13 NK: Absolutely.

10:13 JB: Versus someone who's like, "Oh yeah, I worked on eight presidential campaigns and I've done all this stuff before."

[chuckle]

10:18 JB: They're like... Well do you really have the desire then to get in the ring and put in the long hours, and the blood, sweat, and tears, that is required? 

10:23 NK: Well, and let's talk about that for a second. 'Cause even in that example, it can be problematic if somebody has had those experiences before, because the world shifts and changes. And when you use the same mental models before... I won't say too much, but the point... Literally, the one you've used, in a political environment, having run playbooks from the past doesn't mean that those playbooks are what's needed now. And when you have to deal with people's mental models, that it could even set you back. It's not even just a question of, "Could somebody else do this as well?" It's like, "Could they actually do it better, because they're gonna be more like first principles learning in real-time?" You know what I mean? I think if I'm talking about for startups and also for campaigns, it's really important to have some fresh perspective. And I don't mean zany, creative... I don't mean 'throw things at the wall' energy. I just mean approaching it with, "Okay, just what are the fundamentals? What do we know now?" As opposed to saying, "What did we do before?"

11:16 JB: Yeah. That makes all the sense in the world and, obviously, you wanna balance it with experienced leadership and people who do have those contacts to pull from. But if you're only bringing on people who have, again, been in this world forever, they probably aren't gonna bring that fresh energy, very similar to how I think you'd think about hiring for a startup.

11:35 NK: Yeah.

11:35 JB: Very, very cool. Well, talk to me a little bit about scaling the leadership around recruiting and training the leadership. You had all these different offices. You had people all across the country. When you brought in people, when your team brought in people to run these offices and they had to recruit people, were you looking for people that had recruited before? Were you saying, "Hey, even if people haven't recruited before, we'll train them how to recruit"? And if the latter, how did you do that? 

12:02 NK: I think I'll start with just the set up of the organization, 'cause I think a lot of people don't know what actually goes into a campaign. So we had our headquarters in Brooklyn, and by the end of the campaign, by the end of 2016, we had many thousands of people in the states across the country. The total amount of people was somewhere in the 4,500 mark. It's more people than I think a lot of folks realize, on staff, in place.

12:26 JB: These were all full time in the campaign? 

12:28 NK: Yeah, that's paid full time. That doesn't count volunteers, of which there are tens of thousands. So, of the 4,500, somewhere around... I don't know exactly... Somewhere between 600 and 800 were anchored at HQ, or worked at HQ, and then the rest were out. In the beginning, as we were entering the primaries, even pre-primary in 2015, we were mostly growing HQ, which looked... HQ there's 11 different departments. It looks like a full stack startup. You've got everything from lawyers, and accountants, and a budget team, to the fundraisers, to digital, tech, analytics. Those are three different teams. You got policy. You've got communication. It's like a full company.

13:10 NK: In the states, the organizing department, which includes everybody in the states, essentially, they were more like their own dedicated skill set. Organizing is when you... Political context, when you're out talking to voters. Talking to volunteers who are gonna talk to voters. So, I just mean to say that the majority, by the end of, folks were in the organizing department, but HQ was the central mothership. So, the answer is, it was different for different cases. My role was basically a service provider sitting within the operations team to partner with department heads, their deputies, and team leads, so, at multiple levels, to figure out on a case by case basis for each team, "Where were they? What do they need?" For some, it was more sourcing work. For some, it was more... In the beginning, we did a lot of interview process design, trial project design.

14:10 NK: And so my role was Director of Talent, Acquisition and Development. I was also holding space for manager trainings and we did a pro bono coaching program, where we got a partner who had a bunch of executive coaches who could come in and coach some of our leaders. The answer is, it was case by case, and really depended on what those teams needed and their experience with hiring, which was all across the board. And in many cases, folks had done hiring in the sense that they had hired people, but they had never been trained in how to hire, and they didn't know...

14:42 JB: Sure.

14:44 NK: They wouldn't have been able to parse out the difference between scoping, sourcing, screening, selecting, and the frameworks that are best for those things. A lot of the work in the beginning was establishing that body of being on the same page and then letting them say, "Okay, I think we need more help with this." That's a long answer, but the way it wound up being, was at volume... To get to the... Talking about the organizers, we needed a system and we wound up using Lever, which was great for us. We needed a system to organize the intake of however many, 10 or 15,000, or something resumes, to get down to those 4,500-ish, or I guess 37, or whatever, that were out in the states. And it was a combination of folks on the ground going out to colleges and trying to recruit students to be organizers, and also them getting resumes piping in through our... Essentially, our marketing work from HQ.

15:39 NK: We had the website up. We were doing content. We were pushing. We did things like Facebook ads, and we did all kind of different things, and that combination got them what they needed. And a lot of that work was... We were kind of there as... We would send guidance. We would say, "Hey, here's our take on the most efficient way to go out and make this case." But they're ultimately semi-autonomous in terms of how the different states and cities decided exactly how they were gonna do their part of the recruiting.

16:04 JB: Got it. And did you have an overall framework? You said they were semi-autonomous, but for example, were you trying to implement structured interviews? Or any pieces of the equation that you really did try to achieve consistency office-to-office, or did you see a lot of variation, based off of the... And again, it's such a quick...

16:26 NK: Yeah, it's fast.

16:26 JB: Quick thing in terms of how fast it moves.

16:29 NK: We had a pretty good... I think folks were on the same page about what they were looking for in evaluating whether somebody was gonna be... To your point, organizing is very important work and it's the difference between winning and losing a district. So you wanna pick people who you're reasonably certain are going to show up. And it's the time and energy. It's a lot of time and effort kind of thing. So you gotta pick people who you think are gonna push through and learn things they need to learn and show up... It's similar to certain kind of sales, actually, in the kind of... Almost wanna say, almost the personality the person you wanna get, relative to, for example, their exact professional background. We had people who... All the different ranges who were organizing...

17:14 NK: We had people taking time off from McKinsey to come. We had people who had been a barista at Starbucks. We had people who were just leaving college, people who didn't go to college, the whole range, which was great, which is how we wanted to do it. And in terms of the... From a process standpoint, I think that by the time we were really doing that hiring work, 'cause that was probably in July, or June, July, August was when were really growing it to that amount. I think we were pretty consistent with the interview questions that were getting asked, and the number of interviews, and things like that. That said, campaigns are total chaos. There was always a consistent [chuckle] 10% to 20% of just, "Who knows what's happening? And it's just happening, 'cause it's working and we're just gonna do it." It's a sort of, we call 'em a customization on the team's part. And that was just the reality. That's just the deal.

18:05 JB: Yeah, excellent. Excellent, and I wanted to double click on sourcing just briefly, because it's an area of great interest to our audience. Obviously, it's a big part of what we provide at Entelo. Any thoughts there? Any lessons learned? As you look back on that piece, how'd you do it? How'd you feel about how you did it? What advice would you give to someone doing it in the future for a political campaign? 

18:30 NK: Yeah, that's a great question. And so for some context, I had a staff of three, and one of which was dedicated to the intern program, which was... I didn't even mention before, that we had 800 interns over the course of the campaign come through and serve time at HQ, and for the semesters. So with basically two staff and me, it was hard. As with any team, we could tell you that we'd love more people, we'd love more time, and more money [chuckle] to spend on sourcing.

18:54 JB: Sure. Everyone who's in recruiting would say that. [laughter]

18:57 NK: Yeah. And we specifically had a policy of not using any recruiters. We didn't pay recruiting fees, which is a key thing on the [19:06] ____ tech side, that just changed the dynamic a little bit of what you have available to you, compared to maybe a funded startup. My answer on sourcing was, I think a little bit because of the brand, because of who Hillary is, and was, and how well known she is, I think a lot of our work had more to do with correctly or efficiently organizing the inbound interests. That's not to say that we... And I'll come to a second, the outbound work that we were doing. But especially on the organizer level, I was saying, "Our first order of business was, make sure we're organized about how people are coming in." Because also in the political space, folks know each other. Everybody in the campaign had some number of emails a day coming to them of like, "Hey, I'm ready to join," folks that worked before. So we got a system pretty well in place at HQ, where we would just be air traffic control for that. The department had to just forward those emails to me and we would figure out, "Okay, we're gonna interview this person." We have a shortlist of folks that we had talked to, who we weren't sure where their role they would go to, but then we would route them out, so there's a little bit of that.

20:12 NK: In terms of the sourcing, we used LinkedIn in the beginning. Earlier on, as I said, when people weren't really paying attention to... It was in, let's say, May, June, July of 2015. People knew Hillary Clinton was running for president, but I don't think the general population was really tuned yet. This was before all the hubbub and everything. So yeah, there was lot of education work. Most of what I was doing then was network activation, getting really wide-reaching email chains and network listservs, and just establishing, "Hey, this is happening. Here's what I'm doing. This is the intake valves." Trying to make people aware they should be considering this and coming in, sending interest.

20:57 NK: The technical tools, yeah, this is all to say, I think we used fewer technical tools for actual sourcing work and it was more trying to organize just marketing level sourcing work. That said, there are certain roles, like the guy who built our entire operational backend app that controlled how everything was kept track of, the system of record, we got him off LinkedIn. Someone on my team found him from General Assembly and he was great. So there's examples of the more specific roles. The digital department, for example, they had videographers, they had designers, they had a digital ads team, and they were a full-stack media company, as I was saying. Some of those roles are so specific, they're, yeah, we had to spend time either on their behalf, or with them, or coaching them, or having them set up to do that.

21:48 JB: That's great. That's great. Well, I've got, I think just one more question, which is, I'd love your thoughts, and you give a very unique perspective on this one. In 2018 or 2019...

[chuckle]

22:02 JB: Someone is going to download this podcast, who's going to be working on the next campaign, the next presidential campaign. And what I would wanna hear from you, is what advice would you give them? Now, having been in the trenches, having seen this up close, having scaled an incredible organization in a very short amount of time, if that person was talking to you right now and you're saying, "Hey, I gotta pass along one piece of advice," what would it be? 

22:28 NK: Yeah, that's a great [chuckle] question. Well, I think the main thing I would say, is just recognize right away that influence and authority are two different things, and it is absolutely critical that you spend the time of building trust, getting to know the teams. It's not to say that I didn't do that, but I think I did... It took me a minute to fully realize the scope of how much there was to do. In order to correctly prioritize, it was really important to get to a rapport with certain leaders, where you're like, "You just should do this." And not have it have to be this long conversation, 'cause they just trust that you know what you're talking about and looking out for them. So I would just say getting really sensible with that right away at the get-go. And then, yeah, the playbook that we have, I think it worked pretty well for... I was very happy in terms of the experiment of talent at the campaign.

23:22 NK: I was very happy with how it went and we got great... The operations team would do these things like these internal customer surveys, and scores, and stuff, and we did really well on those. So I think that definitely brought a lot to the campaign and... Yeah, I think just showing up to the whole scope of it. Talent is this multifaceted thing. And it's true that when you have somebody who's only looking through that lens, they can really highlight awareness, things that other leaders should be aware of, that those leaders are just focused on more the content of their work, you know what I mean? It's almost like my advice would be, "Trust your instincts, that if you're showing up to that work, that you do have something to contribute, and... "

24:03 JB: That's great, and especially when you're on...

24:05 NK: Which is probably true...

24:05 JB: Uncharted territory. It's a startup. It's a political campaign.

24:07 NK: Right. Yeah, I think, what I just said is probably true of any lead people role anywhere, is you wanna have as much insight into how the business is operating as your teams do, because then you're the real partner.

24:20 JB: Exactly.

24:20 NK: You don't wanna be in a situation of more, what's the word? Transactional activity. That's hard for everybody. It doesn't work well.

24:28 JB: And we see it all the time with companies, as they start to transition to thinking of talent more strategically. And to think about it as something that is really, the most important thing that they do, core to their success.

24:39 NK: It's your whole company. It's who makes your products, and services, and your strategy.

24:40 JB: Yes, it is. Exactly. Exactly. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for your service on the campaign. It was really remarkable to just read the history and all the things that happened in such a short amount of time. So thank you for that and we'll be tracking you and your upcoming lectures...

[chuckle]

24:57 JB: And excited to see the future chapters for you. And thanks for the time today on Hiring On All Cylinders.

25:03 NK: Yeah, you bet. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

25:05 JB: Thanks, Nathaniel.

25:05 NK: Thanks.