When the War for Talent Ends With a Peace Treaty

What if the war for talent ended in a peace treaty?

That was the question Teach for America asked itself several years ago as it confronted a recruitment and retention problem that was growing in proportion to the expansion of the national nonprofit and the like-minded institutions that spun off from it.

Teach for America, which trains recent college graduates to teach in America’s most underserved schools, has grown rapidly since its inception in 1990 with 500 teachers to more than 7,300 today. Five years ago, the organization decided it wanted to double the number of teachers it placed in schools to 8,000 by the end of 2010. In one year its administrative staff grew by 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the organization’s success has spawned similar but separate institutions, some launched by former Teach for America employees.

These institutions share Teach for America’s broader mission to end educational inequity and ensure that children in poor school districts have access to the highest standards of public education that children in wealthy districts have.

Like Teach for America, these organizations also are growing rapidly, often with the help of similar sources of funding. They also share a need for experienced, energetic educators and staff members.

“When we started this period of quick growth, we realized our talent needs were butting up against each other,” says Maryanne Kiley, Teach for America’s vice president of talent acquisition. “We wanted to establish rules of engagement. We wanted each other’s talent, but we didn’t want to poach each other’s staff.”

The organizations found they were increasingly competing for employees, a problem complicated by the fact that they shared similar goals. The more they could work collectively to help one another, the more they could do to provide children with a better education. The approach may offer for-profit organizations a lesson: Consider forming alliances and protocols with competitors or customers to avoid conflict while recruiting.

‘An open partnership’
Teach for America proposed to its allies the creation of an agreement to guide the recruitment process. Though called the Partnership Agreement, it operates more like a nonbinding memorandum of understanding. It went into effect in 2008 and governs the way recruiters across the country recruit teachers and staff members.

“It is an open partnership,” says Maia Heyck-Merlin, a former Teach for America teacher who is now chief talent officer for charter school management firm Achievement First. “We draw from the same talent pool and we want to help staff each other’s organizations.”

Organizations signing the agreement include Achievement First, which has launched charter schools in New York City and Connecticut; and Lighthouse Academies, which has established schools in New York, Chicago, Washington, Indianapolis and Gary, Indiana, as well as Little Rock suburb Jacksonville, Arkansas.

Other organizations train school leaders. New Leaders for New Schools, headquartered in New York, trains school leaders to work in public schools across the country. The New Teacher Project, also in New York, helps train teachers to work in low-performing schools nationally.

KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program—is a network of charter schools. Started by two former Teach for America members, KIPP partnered in 2000 with Gap Inc. co-founders Doris and Don Fisher to launch the KIPP Foundation, which focuses on training school leaders.

Teach for America would not provide a copy of the agreement. The organization and other signatories say it is a living document that constantly changes. Much of that change since the agreement was first drafted in 2006 has attempted to simplify the guidelines to make them easier on recruiters.

“We took a step back and said we’re not going to be able to control all the intricacies of all the situations that can arise,” says Mazher Ahmad, chief people officer of the KIPP Foundation in San Francisco. “We decided to simplify and lead with our values, then put basic guidelines in place.”

The agreement allows the organizations to send one another’s employees mass e-mails with job postings. It’s OK for employees to reach out to other organizations, but when they do they are encouraged to tell their managers if they plan to apply for a job.

Likewise, when recruiting another organization’s employee, recruiters are expected to reach out to that person’s manager.

If an individual has been contacted three times by e-mail but has not responded, the recruiter is expected to drop their effort. The agreement also prohibits recruiters from disparaging the other organizations.

Another important element is timing. Losing a principal before the start of a school year can devastate a school for an entire year. The agreement asks recruiters to be mindful of a school’s schedule and above all encourages communication among organizations.

“When in doubt, reach out and talk to each other,” Ahmad says. “We felt we’re all in this game together, let’s make sure we’re respecting each other in what we’re trying to achieve.”

The guidelines have helped reduce conflicts among the organizations while recruiting one another’s employees, Kiley says.

What about competition?
To many in the for-profit world, such collaboration may seem unnecessary. Competition for talent is good; it forces companies to address the needs of their employees.

“I’m more of a fan of the free market figuring it out rather than a gentleman’s agreement that we’re not going to recruit from each other,” says Kris Dunn, vice president of people at Daxko in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of blog The HR Capitalist.

Even Ahmad, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago and worked in the private sector as a consultant and in HR, was unsure at first whether limiting competition made sense.

“At first it was a little odd because that’s not how I was programmed,” Ahmad says. “But I got it: We’re all in this for a higher purpose.”

Even among nonprofits there is a belief that more competition would help weed out less effective organizations, just as it does in the for-profit world. Ultimately, however, what is important is not whether an organization collaborates or competes in the marketplace, but whether a strategy serves the mission, said Jerry Hirsch, a philanthropist who started the Phoenix-based Lodestar Foundation, during a fall conference on social entrepreneurship at Columbia University in New York.

Evan Rosen, author of The Culture of Collaboration and executive director of The Culture of Collaboration Institute, a think tank in San Francisco, says the agreement may not ultimately address the groups’ underlying challenge to balance the needs of each organization with the shared desire to serve a greater good.

The organizations might better collaborate by creating ways that allow employees to develop their skills by moving from one organization to another at the right time in their development.

“If they have a problem with talent being raided, maybe they need to look at how teachers can seamlessly move from Teach for America to its affiliates and back again without causing problems for the other organizations,” Rosen says. “And maybe they haven’t solved that issue yet.”

For-profit companies sometimes have similar agreements, even if they are unwritten. Dunn says companies often don’t poach talent from customers for fear of losing an account.

A key difference is that similar agreements among for-profit companies not to poach one another’s talent may be illegal. According to published reports, Justice Department officials are investigating whether an informal agreement reportedly made among Google, Apple and others in the high-tech industry to not poach one another’s employees violates antitrust laws.

Boon to recruiting, retention
The teaching organizations that signed the agreement say that rather than stifling competition, the agreement helps employers improve both their recruiting and retention strategies.

“If you find out a staff member wants to apply elsewhere, it’s your job to make staying in their current position attractive enough,” Kiley says. “We don’t want to block the exit.”

The agreement has helped several organizations fine-tune their recruiting and retention programs. Now when an employee at Teach for America wants to leave, Kiley’s staff will help the employee map out long-term goals.

“We’ve gone from hoarding talent to saying, ‘I’ve got this great person who in two years might be ready. I’d love for you to be able to talk to them,’ ” Kiley says.

Like for-profit companies, these organizations are partially constrained by the politics of who gives them money. Steve Mancini, public affairs director for the KIPP Foundation, says the Fishers provided $100 million to share between KIPP and Teach for America. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds both KIPP and Achievement First. As a result, they are expected to collaborate.

The collaboration also is a natural outgrowth of what each organization does. Teach for America has positioned itself to be a talent pipeline for many of these organizations, Kiley says. Half the leaders of KIPP’s 82 schools are Teach for America alumni.

The agreement has helped KIPP better communicate with its regional schools, which operate independently, to work together to better manage its own talent pipeline.

“If we are going to lose people, let’s lose them within the KIPP world,” Ahmad says.

If that doesn’t work, these organizations at least want to make sure talented employees stay within the field of education reform.

“We want great people to stay in the organization, but we want to fuel the broader movement with people we think are great because of what they learned here,” Kiley says.