Make It

LinkedIn looked at billions of actions to see who is winning the talent wars. Here’s what I learned

Google office
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Google office

What does it take to get the best people to work for you? Based on an unprecedented data analysis conducted by LinkedIn, it comes down to two things: Excitement and opportunity.

I've been working with LinkedIn over the last few months on a project to understand which companies excel at both luring and keeping job seekers. The result is LinkedIn's Top Attractors list, an eye-opening ranking of the companies dominating the talent game. Scanning the list it doesn't take long to see the two qualities common across all of the winners: They have an energized culture and offer a chance at career enhancement.

Make no mistake. These are not the companies that are the "best" to work at, based on opinions and surveys. Nor are they the companies that are the largest, based on revenues and profits.

Rather, LinkedIn's Top Attractors List is comprised of the companies where people most eagerly want to land jobs, and stay in them when they do, as determined by 12 metrics that measure literally billions of online actions taken by LinkedIn's 433 million members.

Among those metrics: the number of views and applications per job posting on LinkedIn and other career sites; the number of views of a company's career page; and employee retention statistics as measured through profile updates.

All of the data was normalized across industries — so a tech company's metrics weren't measured against one in fashion — and LinkedIn only looked at companies with more than 500 employees. (For more information on the study's methodology, click here.)


Suzy Welch
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Suzy Welch

"Nearly every company is undergoing transformation. The pace of innovation keeps speeding up, which accelerates (and changes) competition and raises customer and client expectations," said Daniel Roth, LinkedIn's Executive Editor, to explain why the company embarked on the effort.

"The only way to meet these new demands is to hire and retain the right people. That means the companies who can hire better and keep the best — even if only for the few years that someone might want to work on your project — are going to be the ones who thrive in this transition."

The Top Attractors list certainly contains some companies you might expect. That Google came in at No. 1 on the U.S. list will likely shock no one that's observed the tech giant methodically seize world domination over the past two decades, all while offering beach volleyball in its sunny campus courtyard.

The ubiquitous, relentlessly innovative, industry-eating juggernaut called Facebook, at No. 3, is also not likely to stun anyone. Similarly, the sex appeal and sheer profitability of Apple (No. 4) make it something of an obvious entrant.

It's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't jump at the chance to work at a company that dubs its frontline employees "geniuses" and manages to conjure up magic year after year after year.

But the list also contains what would appear to be surprises: take, for instance Amazon (a company battered in the press for its culture) at 5; Stryker at 12 and Pandora at 16.

I say "appear" because once you look closely at those companies, you see the same themes run through them: they give people a chance to do meaningful work, make them accountable and make the work count.

Here are some other trends we see:

The Top Attractors are unusually tech heavy

Tech comprises less than 10% of the American GDP, but every single one of the top 10 companies on the Top Attractors list is in the tech space. And, looking at all 40 companies on the U.S. list, tech's 45% of the total.

By comparison, only one of the top 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list is in the tech space. (It's Apple, incidentally one of the few overlaps between the two lists.) Similarly, finance, at 7.1% of the U.S. GDP, comes in at 10%, showing up four times on LinkedIn's Top Attractors list, with Visa, BlackRock at No.19, Goldman Sachs at No. 27, and Morgan Stanley at No. 40.

By contrast, companies in the energy space and retail space, which together comprise 7.5% of the GDP and 25% of the top 40 companies in the Fortune 500, show up not at all. (I repeat, not at all.)

Of note as well: traditional manufacturing, which has taken quite a battering since the 2008 recession, still comprises 12% of the American economy and a full 10% of the Fortune 500's top 40 companies.

On LinkedIn's Top Attractors list, however, the only company that comes close to being in that category is Tesla, showing up at No. 8, but it's about as much a traditional manufacturing company as, well, a tech company that makes electric cars.


Bottom line: Though comparatively small and wildly competitive, the tech industry is Shangri-la for workers of the world today. When I talked to Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of two best-selling books about management, about this finding, he wasn't surprised.

"Every industry in the world is being disrupted by technology. Would you rather join a company that's leading the charge or watch yours go out of business?" he says.

"Tech companies have raised the bar on what it means to be a great place to work: not just free food and ping pong tables, but a chance to do creative work on important problems, collaborate with highly motivated, talented colleagues, learn from world-class experts, and have a real voice."


The Top Attractors tend to be led by founders

The vast majority — 65% — of the top 20 Top Attractors have their founders at the helm, most of them bearing names that are as familiar as family. (Think Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk.)

The trend continues even as you go down the list, at companies such as Box (No. 25), Starbucks (No. 31), and Yelp (No. 39). By comparison, only one company in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 is founder-led, Berkshire Hathaway, with its superhero CEO Warren Buffett, and few have CEOs whose names are commonplace.

To wit: ask a few friends or coworkers to name the CEOs of the Fortune 500's top 3 companies: Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron. Yes, exactly.

Again, like the outsized appeal of tech, the founder following makes sense to Grant.

"If I could pick any company, I'd want to work where the founder is at the helm. It's a clear signal that mission will come before profits, people will matter as much as technology, and values won't change like the weather," he says.

"People are drawn to a company with a strong identity—they want it to stand for something distinctive and enduring. The founder is a symbol that it will."


Popular, consumer-facing, even glamorous, brands helps attract talent

Consider this: Of the top 20 companies to land on the Top Attractors list, only three wouldn't be considered household names, Stryker, a medical devices company based in Kalamazoo, Mich., Workday, at No.15, a decade-old, cloud-based HR and finance software maker in California, and, at No. 18, Tableau, a Seattle-based data analytics business with 2,400 employees.

To see just how much a strong consumer brand helps lift and employer's brand, check out the dominance of entertainment companies, which make up just 1% of the U.S. economy.

On the Top Attractors list, they're 13% of the top 40, with Netflix, then Viacom, Live Nation, HBO, and Fox, all in the 30s. You've probably engaged with all three in the same hour at some point in your life.

Even as you go down the list, well-known brands dominate, with, for instance, Dell at No. 22 and Estee Lauder at No. 30.


There’s little correlation between a company’s size and its appeal to job seekers — except perhaps conversely

The top ten companies in the Fortune 500 employ about 4 million people. By comparison, the same cohort of Top Attractors employ about 583,000. Taking more companies into account, on average, Top Attractors have 1.6 million in their ranks; the top 40 companies in the Fortune 500 companies have 9.1 million.

Is small the new black?

Grant says yes, pointing to an article the late Stanford professor Hal Leavitt wrote called "Big Organizations Are Unhealthy Environments for Human Beings."

"There are some exceptions to Levitt's findings, I'm sure," Grant says. "But in general, the evidence is strong that the bigger you get, the harder you fall—and the harder it is not to fall. Size is an amplifier of everything else.

More people means more coordination and communication challenges. It also means more scrutiny: your mistakes get broadcast with a louder megaphone to a broader audience."


Finally, the Top Attractors list contains a high proportion of organizations known for giving their employees generous benefits

Some of them you've heard of —health club memberships, and extended maternity and paternity leave, for instance. Others are more unique, such as dog-friendly offices and free cooking lessons in every cuisine under the sun (at Google, natch), and coverage for sex-reassignment surgery (at Pandora.)

It might be odd that I talked about perks and benefits last. That's because I think people give them outsized importance when trying to figure out what makes one company stand apart from another. People don't work somewhere for the ping-pong table.

And frankly, I believe there's a more important and cohesive message in the list. Essentially, the companies who top the charts here seem to reflect what so many of us feel in our bones just by living and working in today's ever-changing and uncertain economy: people are hungry for jobs that give them meaning, purpose, and a future.

At a time when no career can really be planned and no job is ever really secure, we seek opportunities that are the most likely to offer immediate impact, an energizing culture, and a valuable credential.

No wonder, then, that Google, Salesforce, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon show up so at the top, right? All are profitable. All are growing fast, showing an average revenue growth of 22% over the past three years. All are widely known and respected, offering products and services used by billions of people in both the B-to-B and B-to-C spaces.

All have outspoken, celebrity-level and shoot-for-the-moon CEOs. And four of those CEOs believe in the mission so strongly because they founded the companies; these aren't CEOs for hire (the only exception is Apple's Tim Cook, and even he stands in the long shadow of his famous founder predecessor, Steve Jobs).

Their cultures vary, ranging from Salesforce's stated adherence to "mindfulness" and its CEO's encouragement to meditate, to Amazon's more lean-mean-fighting-machine model. Regardless, all five of these companies, and in fact, the majority of companies to make LinkedIn Top Attractors list, are known for feeling like fulcrums of buzz: places like Uber, Tesla, and even Twitter.

They're where news is breaking, the economy is happening, and the future is being forged.

And here's a related surprise: A company's level of stability is next to meaningless when it comes to luring job candidates.

Says Roth: "If your time at a company is going to be a short — and that might be your choice, it might be the company's decision, it might the be the market deciding a company's days are done — the best people are going to go places that are rewarding to them personally. No one's getting a gold watch; you might not even get a bonus. It's all about: Can you teach me something new, give me lots of opportunities to learn and shine and make the work (however brief) rewarding."

Want a good example of a company that has figured it out? Check out Stryker. The company is distinguished by its highly decentralized organization, allowing employees enormous autonomy early in the game. Or Netflix, which is jokingly known in Hollywood as "the land of milk and honey," because professionals there are given an usual amount of autonomy in their work, and the heady sense that they are reinventing the way the world consumes entertainment.

And consider too, Under Armour, headed by founder-CEO Kevin Plank, who, through town halls and company meetings featuring the likes of UA endorsers Tom Brady and Jordan Spieth, says he is driven to make each one of the company's 11,000 employees feel like an owner: passionate, fearless, and all-in. (Read a Q&A with Plank here.)

"We want everyone who walks in the door every morning and leaves every night to feel pumped about this company, as if they're owners, whether they hold stock or not," Plank explains.

"And we want them to feel like they can and will grow."

In other words...excitement and opportunity. The companies on the 2016 LinkedIn Top Attractors list are defined by it. As the world speeds up and fortunes rise and fall more quickly, the companies who make this list each year will surely change.

And that will only solidify the desire among job seekers to make sure they're spending their working days and nights wisely, investing their time in the companies uniquely right for them. If that's not a wake-up call to those hiring, it should be.

This story is part of LinkedIn's Top Attractors list, a ranking of the companies that are the best at attracting and keeping top talent. See the full list here.

For more on the list:
The man who's worked for Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft
What investors saw in top talent before they hit it big
Most attractive employers in the world
The 25 most attractive employers in the UK, according to LinkedIn
The most attractive employers in Australia
The 40 most attractive employers in America, according to LinkedIn