Jeff Hu Leads by Sharing at Atomic Recruitment in Shanghai

by David Niu on Aug 23, 2012 7:08:49 AM
Jeff Hu is one of the most unassuming and laidback entrepreneurs I've interviewed thus far. He told me that, as a kid, he learned two key lessons. First, his parents raised Jeff to respect, care for and listen to others. Today, he embodies this lesson when he "leads by sharing." Second, his first job was working at The Gap in high school. He found that work was never going to be easy, and realized at an early age the importance of career planning before entering the workforce after college.
True to form, Jeff Hu's first job after graduation was as a management consultant. He then worked in startup environments before eventually starting his own venture. At the same time, his wife, Lina Li, started Atomic Recruitment "Atomic" in Shanghai in 2005 with a business partner. After selling his venture and graduating with his MBA, Jeff joined Atomic in 2008. Jeff now heads up business development, marketing and HR operations. Atomic has grown into a recruitment agency that places mid-to-senior level roles for multinationals in China, and 99% of their placements are local Chinese talent. Atomic employs 45 people. Jeff shares that three of Atomic's main competitive advantages are:
(1) Professionalism - Because Atomic's clients are foreign multinational corporations, they expect and demand a very high level of service. Since Jeff Hu and many on the team have worked at larger foreign companies, he knows how to meet and exceed the expectations that many domestic operations just can't match. Atomic's professionalism and high level of service is one of the main ways for it to differentiate itself to both clients and candidates.

(2) Technology- even when Atomic was at 10-15 people, they invested in the future by implementing technology at the level a 100 person recruiting company would. Consequently, their CRM and databases are very robust and flexible enough to scale to support even 100 more personnel at Atomic.

(3) Culture- Jeff Hu admits that in his business, it's very easy for an employee to leave for a competitor that offers slightly more money. So they have consciously created a family-like business to make people feel welcome and comfortable. In addition, one of their cultural pillars is a strong sense of ethics. For example, Atomic doesn't hold bonuses or commissions and pays out 100% when people leave.

Jeff Hu and the team spent a lot of time creating the aforementioned competitive advantages. Of course, he's experienced his share of both wins and setbacks throughout this process. As Jeff reflected on Atomic's growth and success, he revealed the following guidance and learnings:

*Transparent and Celebrated Performance - At Atomic, they have a big board that stack ranks and lists everyone's name and sales number by it. So there is no hiding and no hidden agendas. On the same token, every quarter, they have a kickoff, which honors high achievers, top billers, and staff who hit their targets. They'll give away five to 10 awards during this celebration. And they have even taken a company trip to Hainan Island after hitting a company stretch goal.

*Flexible Goals Based on Reality - Many businesses have goals for their staff and stick with it despite what macroeconomic conditions may call for. At Atomic, Jeff adjusts employees' quarterly bonus every quarter depending on the economy and how the person is performing. These targets are meant to challenge people. Since 80% of their compensation is commissions, these additional bonuses based on goals are variable to keep them motivated and challenged without being daunting.

*Buddy System for New Hires - To get new hires integrated and acclimated to Atomic's culture, they assign a buddy that introduces the new hire to everyone. This buddy is also the new hire's go-to person for question about the company's operations and policies. They don't discriminate based on role, and the buddy system applies for interns as well as management consultants.
*Clear Career Development Path - Jeff Hu realizes that offering a transparent career path is one key to keeping talented staff members. This includes mentoring as well as taking a personal interest in their career goals (such as providing support to get into a Master's program). He spends a lot of timing balancing the goals of the staff member and aligning it with Atomic’s goals.
*Set Culture Free - Like many companies, Atomic has a vision, mission and cultural values. And like many companies, these points are all created and then mothballed with even the executives not being able to recite them, much less the entire company. Atomic's cultural values are trapped in their brochures and not fully communicated to the company. Jeff Hu and the executives take it for granted that their actions reflect the culture, but he acknowledges that this isn't realistic. They have a good motto which is "Placing people with energy," so I think once the vision, mission and values are evangelized, Atomic's culture as a competitive advantage will only strengthen.

*Don't Change Company Policies to Police Minority - At one point, Atomic initiated policy changes to specifically target the actions of one to two people. Everyone in the company knew that the changes were meant to address these individuals' behaviors. Upon reflection, Jeff doesn't think it was a good business or cultural decision and in hindsight would have addressed the situation directly with the individuals without affecting the other 95% of the company.

*Grow with Executive Coach - Atomic has hired an outside consultant to create a fair and comfortable environment for their executives. In Jeff's mind the next step is to take the process to another level by having the coach conduct 360 review for each executive. This then creates a non-threatening forum to discuss how the executives can improve individually and as a team.

*Conclusion - I think Jeff Hu's parents would be proud that their son took their life lessons to heart and now "leads by sharing" at Atomic. I think recruitment can be a very transactional, numbers-based, "what have you done for me lately?" type of business. But with Jeff's deft touch and influence, they're incorporating sustainable and hard to copy advantages such as professionalism, transparency, and culture that endears them to their clients and candidates. As Atomic continues to flourish, I think that the next evolution of the company will be for management to grow with their executive coach and for management to set their culture free.

*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.

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This post was written by David Niu

David is the Founder and CEO of TINYpulse. After being burnt out from his previous company, he decided pack up all of his belongings and go on a careercation with his family. Through that journey, he met with numerous leaders around the world that taught him about work culture, employee engagement, and what it takes to be an inspirational leader.

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