A Seat at the Poker Table with Susan Hailey: Innovation in Recruitment

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Susan Hailey

When Harrah’s VP of Talent Acquisition Susan Hailey decided she needed a new approach to attracting MBA talent, she utilized the strengths of the brand. Hailey and her team made waves in the business press with the 2006 MBA Poker Championships. The first event of its kind, it provided a wildly successful recruiting and branding vehicle. The event attracted external sponsors like Google, Dewar’s, Activision, Microsoft, Dell, Nationwide, Beam, CareerBuilder and Jungle Magazine. In 2007, Hailey and her team led activities to improve the processes, systems and people resources for all of Harrah’s employment activities, which resulted in 20 percent reduction of turnover and a 10 percent increase in retention throughout a brand. Hailey speaks candidly about recruiting MBA grads, working for Harrah’s and what excites her about talent management.
I read Harrah’s hosted a poker night in Las Vegas for MBA graduates, but you initially had major objections from your team. Why were there objections, and how did you convince your company to get involved?
I like the classic expression, "It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission."We knew it was a good idea—my recruiting team knew it was a good idea—what my business didn’t understand was that MBAs would be willing to pay their own way to come to Vegas to play in a poker tournament and that they would give us their resumes. This event had never been done before, but we had done a lot of work with branding with hard-to-attract talent. We had sponsors from other companies but we didn’t feel competitive with them. The sponsors brought spice to the event with parties and giveaways.

There was a lot of uncertainty, and we still didn’t know how we would do. We knew we had a lot of sign ups and demand from the students but weren’t quite sure how it would play out. It ended up being a huge success. We have done this poker event for four years now.

We didn’t need the whole business case to get permission. The amount of money we spent on the MBA poker night was insignificant with respect to other recruiting events—and a lot of the cost was covered by sponsors. The cost of the event was $120,000, and $80-90K was covered by sponsors. We brought in about 150 students.

In the first year, we didn’t know if it would go. Even our sponsors took a risk with us. For Harrah’s, it was about proving a concept. We were more worried in subsequent years—we had to build the business case about having sponsors. Last year I hired a sales consultant to help us, and subsequently we involved more organizations like Nationwide and Microsoft.

Are other companies currently doing this?
Not really. MGM knows all about it. The first year we didn’t include our competitors in the conference, but eventually we caved. Copying is the best form of flattery.

Harrah’s recruits on school campuses based on track record and proximity to your market. Can you talk a little more about this strategy?
The students we hired successfully in the past have been successful in a couple of dimensions. They have to be intelligent to function at Harrah’s. It’s very demanding in the form of brain power. Because we are in the hospitality and gaming industries we look for people who genuinely enjoy leading and managing other people. This includes schools that emphasize leadership. We have entry-level positions for MBAs, but we also have a very diverse employee base including single moms and high school graduates. Managers have to be able to lead diverse groups.
We generally like to work with schools like Duke or Vanderbilt. We have hotel locations in different places from Mississippi to New Orleans to Kentucky. Some students are open to moving to these locations. A lot of the student body of Duke and Vanderbilt are at the school because they grew up in the South or have an affinity for that part of the country. We want to be smart about how we spend our recruiting dollars.
We have also been very successful with UCLA MBA students. There are a lot of opportunities for them to be in leadership roles. We have to be particular. Some schools are good at turning out students who are going to be investment bankers or consultants, but it’s important for us to make sure they’re a good match for Harrah’s.

What do you think about the state of the economy?
I am not Bob Bernanke [Head of Federal Reserve] but in my experience we have business cycles and we are in one right now that is different than in the past. It’s a little like the recession in the 1970’s with the oil crisis. In technology and in California, the housing market has stayed steady. Technology is doing pretty well and people are buying technology to save money. Not every industry is in dire shape. The ones that touch all of us, including housing, food and oil, are arguably the toughest right now. I predict we will be in this for another 18 to 24 months.
On the other side of the recession is employment. I think this recession is temporary, but we are going to be facing a demographic shortage of talent over the next few years, which might not take us to a better place.
This too shall pass—something always changes to return supply and demand cycles to an equilibrium. This feels a little different now with the price of oil. Food prices and the housing mess will get sorted out. Once all of that is cleaned up the housing market will be back. You have a demographic of Millennials and Gen Y’ers looking to buy houses, and baby boomers are downsizing. The housing market will take two years to sort out. Baby boomers won’t exit as quickly as you think—they haven’t saved. It’s difficult for Gen X’ers to get to the next level. There are a lot of blockers for Gen X and there is half the number of them than baby boomers. But the job market remains vibrant through all of this.
What was your career path to Harrah's?
My career path had a lot of twists and turns. I went to UC Berkeley and studied economics. My first job out of college I sold computers systems for IBM. I went on to get an MBA from Harvard and spent 15 years in tech marketing and large sales companies. I spent a lot of time at start-ups in sales, marketing and business development.

I am an economist, not a technologist, by training, but I found executive search to be really fun because I enjoy selling people to people. I then moved from talent acquisition to the talent management space.

In 2000 the high tech market was crashing and I decided that after working for 20 years, I would take some time off. After this brief hiatus I had the opportunity to take over the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE).

The goals of the FWE are to connect women with resources to start their businesses and take them to the next level. I wanted to help women enter the closed circle of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who are generally men. A lot of us had connections through business school and colleagues who otherwise would have had a difficult time getting funding.

I did a lot of non-profit work and volunteer work and, even in high school, I always was interested in helping women. I ended up running FWE, which at the time was in pretty tough shape. We were able to eventually increase membership, put funding back in place and give the FWE a new lease on life. We involved women who were connected to resources to build up the technology business. The goal of the group was to help build relationships and focus on women entrepreneurs.I worried every single night if we had enough money, but after two years we had enough great members and good people who were passionate.

I was later offered the Talent Management role at Harrah’s, and my role included re-energizing the attractiveness of the company. Top talent would generally go to McKinsey or Goldman Sachs—an equivalent with skill-building and career potential but not as much fun.

You recently left Harrah's. Why did you leave, and where do you see yourself going?

Over the last two years we have been going private. Harrah’s was bought by two private equity companies, which closed at the end of January. After a company goes private, the key thing is to increase your valuation. When a private equity company buys your business, they take on a lot of debt. They want to increase the valuation of the company over X period of time so they can take it public again (an exit strategy) or sell it. The owners are looking at ways to do all the things they normally do: increase revenue, reduce costs and generate enough cash to service the debt-increase equity. You are generally in a mode of cost-cutting or containment of cost (as opposed to a high tech company during growth).

When I first came to Harrah’s we needed to hire a lot of talent quickly. We were hiring like crazy to keep the business going. It’s now stable. There could be events in the future that would require a big hiring, but nothing like when I started there. The things I love doing include high growth and taking a brand and transforming it for the desired talent pool. At Harrah’s I remember sitting in a meeting with the CEO Gary Loveman. I recall he said, "We don’t have enough talent! Where is the talent? Get me more!" The same meeting three years later he said, "We have the talent we need—develop and retain it." I am proud of the work we did but as I look at the future, I am ready for new creative work. I am ready for a bigger challenge, something bigger than Harrah’s.
Don’t get me wrong—I had a fabulous time at Harrah’s. Like any good recruiter you want to be at a place that is really growing and bringing new people into the business.
Interview by Blake Landau, editor