Lauren Feiner: You’re listening to Deciding by Data, the podcast that brings you into the C-Suite to learn how data drives successful businesses. I’m Lauren Feiner and your host is Jeremy Levy.
Today on the show, we explore the future of work. We sat down with Kathryn Minshew, the co-founder and CEO of the careers platform, The Muse.
The Muse is a careers platform that lets candidates peek into companies before they apply through photos and videos. Companies pay to have profiles on The Muse to stand out from competitors on text-heavy job boards and source candidates who understand their values before they step through the door.
We asked Kathryn, can data help you find your dream job? What even is a dream job? And what happens when life no longer centers on being employed?
Jeremy Levy: We all had that childhood friend who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do with their life. There’s the captain of the debate team who wanted to be a lawyer since age 5 or the science nerd who knew everything about marine biology. But if you were to meet that friend decades later, would they be doing the job you expected?
Take Kathryn Minshew, the co-founder and CEO of the careers platform, The Muse. If you met Kathryn at age 18 and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d probably say something like become a diplomat or work somewhere in foreign service. But become a CEO of a company?
Kathryn Minshew: Absolutely not. It’s funny actually my dad still teases me because when I was either late teenager or early 20s, we were having lunch and at one point I stood up and in a very dramatic way I was like, ”Don’t you know I hate business.”
Jeremy Levy: After working for the U.S. State Department in Nicosia, Cyprus, and dreading the slow pace of government, Kathryn took a role at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey and Company after graduation. A couple years later, Kathryn was in her mid-20s, working as a management consultant and thinking to herself:
Kathryn Minshew: … how did I get here? How do you know what a company is like before you apply?
Jeremy Levy: Classic millennial, right?
But really, Kathryn was asking a question that so many of her peers were wondering too.
And sure, previous generations did just fine dropping their cover letters in a mailbox and hoping it got a response. But we’re talking about a generation that has never rented an apartment without seeing pictures inside or even experienced a truly blind date.
And in a job seeker’s market, there are just so many options.
So in millennial fashion, when Kathryn decided to make a major career change, she first tested the waters.
Kathryn Minshew: I was both interested in entrepreneurship but also in global health and International aid. And I thought well, I can do one of those things for six months. not the other. So, I took a six-month job that would let me live in Africa. It was a great experience but, when I came back I was really committed to diving in and starting a business.
Jeremy Levy: When she got back to the U.S. from Rwanda and Malawi, Kathryn was still wrestling with this question of ‘how can you know what you want to do with your life?’ How can you find a career that truly suits the lifestyle you want at this specific point in time?
Kathryn created The Muse in 2011 to begin to answer these questions. The Muse has taken an approach that blends data with authentic, humanized content.
Jeremy Levy: So you go to a standard job board like Indeed or Monster, and you pretty much know what to expect: You’ll see the job titles first, then the company name, and job description, all on this very plain, text-heavy page. When Kathryn looked at these sites early in her career, she thought, there has to be a better way.
Kathryn Minshew: You know, most of the job search sites that came before us focused on quantity over quality. They were very functional tools, they might help you organize your job search or give you a list of 3,728 responses to a query about what jobs you were looking for, but there was nothing about what is the company’s culture and environment like? I mean it sounds so silly but we were one of the first people to say, ”As an organization, you should put pictures of your actual office and your actual employees on the Internet instead of stock photos.” Right? That is just 101 level stuff and yet nobody had brought that to the career space. It was, again, it was a very- I keep going back to the phrase transactional. It was a space that was focused on utility and getting results, but not about providing people the context and the information to make trade-offs and decisions between them.
And, I remember thinking, at one point I was online shopping, and I was looking at just all of the care and attention and money that companies were pouring into the listing pages for whatever it was that I was looking at buying. You could read product reviews, you could see them from different angles. And I clicked on the career site for that company and it was just awful. There was none of the same care selling their employment opportunities, their careers, their business culture. And to me, it just seemed obvious. I think there was a utility to being so naive and fairly young because we didn’t realize that there were so many other players in the space, of course, we looked at LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster, the big ones, but I had no idea what we were sort of diving into. And in some ways that was helpful because it just seemed incredibly apparent to me that the way it was being done was not enough. It was not right. And that with some care and attention to company culture, to context and personality of different employers and different career paths we could create something much better.
“There was none of the same care selling their employment opportunities, their careers, their business culture.”
Jeremy Levy: So, with the other job sites that you mentioned. Is it more of a volume game? And then, as the candidate, it’s my responsibility to go look at social, look at a website, stock photos amongst other things to figure out what is the culture that I’m applying to beyond just spray and pray from a job perspective?
Kathryn Minshew: Part of it is that the entire market has changed. Right? We’ve been out of a recession period for a while now since 2009, 2010, 2011. People differ on when the recession ended but, the market for talent has never been hotter. And so that means, that if you’re a very talented salesperson or engineer or operator you have more options. And so, instead of just looking for a job and a paycheck, a lot of talent is looking for the right fit. They want to find purpose, they want to find meaning, they want to find a fulfilling work environment. And so, that’s up to the game on what companies are expected to provide. At the same time, if you look at what the HR profession was characterized by 10 or 20 years ago, people would regularly talk about filling roles as getting butts in seats. And the metrics that a lot of HR professionals were judged on were how fast and how cheap can you make a hire? How many clicks did you get on your job ad? Those aren’t metrics that lead people towards thinking about quality and fit. It’s very much — it’s a volume game, exactly. It’s how many applicants can you get? How fast can you move people through?
And there’s been a lot of really interesting research that has changed the way the entire industry is thinking. One, is simply that companies are starting to realize the impact of a really good hire is substantially more than the impact of a just good enough hire. So, that obviously means that it’s easier to dedicate more resources to finding great people. Two, companies are starting to look at the bottom line impact of retention… [W]hen you hire people and then you lose them in three months or six months, you’re actually losing a tremendous amount of money that if you were more honest and authentic upfront you could potentially have saved by only attracting people that want what you’re offering.
And then, there’s also just been some fascinating research coming out about candidate experience, about how important it is to treat applicants to your company well because ultimately many of them are your customers. Just one fun statistic there: 44 percent of people who have a negative experience applying to a company say they will sever their business relationship with that organization. And there have been follow up studies that prove people will stop buying your product. They will tell their friends and family not to go work for you. And so, it’s just changing the game in terms of how companies are thinking, they have to approach recruiting candidates. And likewise, I think individuals are really raising the bar and what they expect.
“44 percent of people who have a negative experience applying to a company say they will sever their business relationship with that organization.”
Jeremy Levy: How much of that is a factor of the fact that unemployment is at a, I think a 17-year low. Is it because there’s such demand for talent now that potential candidates can be very selective at where they want to work?
Kathryn Minshew: It’s certainly a huge factor. I think, that said, if we saw a big change tomorrow, and the market shifted towards more of an employers’ market, I still think the best people — you know, you can’t really put that genie back in the bottle. The best people are going to say, ”Wait a second, this is an equal partnership. I’m giving you 40, 50, 60 hours per week of my life, and I want you to treat me well. I want you to sell me in the same way I’m going to sell you.” So, I’m not sure that this trend of interviews becoming a two-way street and companies needing to compete for candidates, just in the same way that candidates have always competed for the roles, I don’t know if that trend’s going in full-scale reverse anytime soon.
Jeremy Levy: While the relationship between an employer and employee may be a partnership, Kathryn says the idea of a career soulmate is a myth.
Jeremy Levy: What is the perfect candidate or the perfect job? Like what does that concept even mean?
Kathryn Minshew: So, I actually don’t believe in it. I think that there can be the right job for you, but I’m a big believer in fit or alignment as a concept. And this is kind of like-
Jeremy Levy: It’s like dating.
Kathryn Minshew: Yes, exactly. I was literally just going to say could you describe like the perfect man or the perfect woman? I mean sort of, but that person wouldn’t be an actual human. What you need to do as an individual is you need to find the right partner for you. And I believe the same thing is true of a career and a job. When you’re very early in your career you might prioritize learning a tremendous amount. You might be okay with a lack of work-life balance or a highly structured environment where you’re not given a lot of latitude to make your own decisions because that’s the tradeoff, that’s the right thing for you at that point in your life. Later on, I think that you may make different choices. And that doesn’t make one of those choices good or bad. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to be frustrated by the trend in the past few years to rate companies according to these sort of vertical star scales. Because again, your two-star experience might be someone else’s five-star experience. I do think that there are some things that are just objectively better or worse in terms of work experience, but many many things are a matter of preference, of fit and my goal with The Muse, is to create a platform and an experience where individuals and organizations can find that alignment.
“…your two-star experience might be someone else’s five-star experience.”
Jeremy Levy: How do you even quantify those factors?
Kathryn Minshew: It’s not easy to do. I will say that upfront. I think that there’s the pre and the post version. In terms of how do you quantify that you’ve done it. We’re looking at retention a lot right now, not necessarily long-term retention although ultimately of course when you start a new job, or when a company makes a hire, they’re hoping that person will stay for two, three, four, or five years, but even just the first six months.
Jeremy Levy: How does that feedback loop work? Do companies tell The Muse when someone gets fired or laid off or leaves? How does that work?
Kathryn Minshew: We don’t do this across all of our companies right now. We have 700 companies and for anyone who spent time in HR data systems, there’s a lot of issues right now with different systems talking to each other on a reliable basis. So, we can get it on a spot basis from individual companies, and then we actually can survey our user base because we have so many individual consumers that are very active. We’ve also looked at it in terms of early on, when we were just trying to prove if this was a good hypothesis to follow, we actually looked at the LinkedIn profiles of the subset of people that we knew had been hired through the site and looked at how long till they were promoted, how long till they were- left the company, what inferences can we make about their career path and then-.
Jeremy Levy: But is that saying you’re doing an ongoing basis now? I mean, I love this idea of, I like the dating analog. It’s like finding the perfect match for someone, but it requires I feel like, a lot of information in terms of understanding the efficacy because everybody’s different. Can you maintain that? Can you continue to build that profile of what a good match is?
Kathryn Minshew: So, I believe it’s possible to do better than we’re all doing today. I don’t know that an algorithm is ever going to find your spouse and I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to build the perfect career genie, but I do think there’s a huge amount of room for improvement. We’re looking right now at- we’re already are able to get some data from various applicant tracking systems which usually stop when a hire is made, that gives us a sense of how people are progressing through the application interview process. But then, we’re also looking at how we get data consistently from essentially HR management systems that contain things around employee tenure performance. That’s obviously very sensitive data. And so, that’s one of the questions for us is, how can we make sure that we’re having access to that on a regular basis in a way that’s not crossing any privacy lines.
I also think that when we’re looking at the different factors that lead people to choose one career over another, we’re starting and we’re very early in this but we’re starting to pay attention to are there factors that seem to both drive decisions but ultimately I want to look at what leads to that long-term success. Because just because you take that job that sounds really sexy and has great perks, if you leave in six months, have you really done the right thing for yourself or for that employer?
Jeremy Levy: Do employees or even prospective employers know what they’re looking for? I would imagine that if I was new to the workplace, I wouldn’t even have enough experience to know what type of job I’m looking for.
Kathryn Minshew: That’s a huge problem. In fact, we have a diagram that we often use internally at The Muse and in the middle is career alignment or fit. Getting those two sides together but, on either side with individuals and organizations, we have questions like, “How do I know what I want? How do I know what I can offer?” It’s a huge issue and for employers, we made a acquisition last summer of a company called Brand Amper. We call it Brand Builder now internally, and it’s this fascinating tool because it lets us go into the employee bases of our company partners and source a tremendous amount of data and content about what their experience is working at the company.
Jeremy Levy: So wait, that means that you can connect to their HR systems around their experience at the employers? Did I understand that correctly?
Kathryn Minshew: We have a separate tool. It doesn’t plug into their existing systems, but we partner with the company to send out, usually via email, a link, that is a unique link for every single employee, that leads to the Brand Builder tool on The Muse’s servers. And what it does is, it almost serves like a Mad Libs for the individual. They’re answering some questions about who they are, what they do, why they love it, how they experience the company. The output of it for the employee is a sort of summary, like mine is on my LinkedIn profile. Anything that you might need, or anywhere that you might need to put a summary that says who am I and what do I care about.
But on the back end, what’s really interesting for the talent teams and the leadership of these companies is they can see what were the attributes and adjectives that they thought describe their company the best versus what their employees choose to describe the company. How did engagement or responsiveness and also, selection of these different cultural attributes? How did that differ across different functions, or offices, or types of people at your company? And then, you get access to a lot of this raw content about how your employees would describe what it’s like to work here. And, I think that there is a gap in a lot of companies between what they think is the truth about their employee experience, and what’s actually the truth and so we are aiming to provide more of a grounding in data as well as in content. I think data is both the numbers and the insights but also sometimes the stories and the anecdotes especially in aggregate that help make a picture of, what is it like to work here and we want that to be a more honest and authentic one.
Lauren Feiner: We’re going to take a short break, but when we return, you’ll hear from Kathryn about how automation could impact The Muse, and what universal basic income might mean for the future of employment. Stay tuned.
Lauren Feiner: Welcome back to Deciding by Data. We’re talking with Kathryn Minshew, co-founder and CEO of careers platform, The Muse. Kathryn told us that The Muse is focused on the human element in career matching, despite a lot of the hype around artificial intelligence. She explained why she’s skeptical about algorithmic matching because she hasn’t really seen one do it well — at least not yet. She’s concerned that AI might take away from the humanistic element of recruiting.
Jeremy Levy: Before we started our taping, we also chatted very briefly about the AI aspect. And you had a great comment which was, your focus is more on the individual, on the individual people. What role is there for AI in the job space?
Kathryn Minshew: Yeah, I think that there are a lot of things that AI can do better than humans right now. Such as answering simple questions from people who are being interviewed, giving you information about where do you need to be, when, who will you be speaking with.
At the same time, I’ve been a little troubled by this trend that has popped up in a few recruitment companies to automate everything. And that’s kind of what we were talking about before, which is, I am a big believer that part of what’s been a positive development in the entire talent ecosystem in the last decade, is this movement away from being highly transactional and just processing candidates as if they were numbers or resumes, and towards thinking about how do we get the right fit, how do we treat people, even if it’s at scale, how do we treat people well?
“I’ve been a little troubled by this trend that has popped up in a few recruitment companies to automate everything.”
And some of the AI companies that I’ve seen, I think, blur that line a little bit. So, I would say that if you want to hire really talented people that are competitive and you want to get them to your business away from your competitors, giving them a bot to talk to when they’re trying to really engage with a human is probably not going to be a winning strategy. Because if that other company gives them a human, that makes a huge difference to candidates. They want to feel respected and valued because they are a human investing their time.
At the same time, I think there’s a lot of ways with, be it interview scheduling, there’s some great AI and kind of bots that are helping to just automate that, which is a fairly thankless task on both sides. There’s some really interesting work being done around just helping people get access to the information that they need without having a human to have to go and pull it for them. But I do think that the smart companies, in my opinion, are thinking about, where are the areas where that personal individual touch really matters? Let’s double down on those. And what are all the other things we can do?
Jeremy Levy: But is there an opportunity for AI in this space? I mean, the scheduling is interesting, but it’s sort of more procedural than it is helping to find that best match. And I wonder maybe the data doesn’t exist today to fully understand this, but in the future, will the data exist and can there be an algorithm that can at least help narrow down that process? Not necessarily take the human out of it entirely, but help you quantify and then recommend jobs that would be culturally or, in terms of your goals, align more perfectly. And is that something you’re working on?
Kathryn Minshew: No, it’s very much a topic of discussion within the company. I’ll leave it at that. But it’s interesting. Where I thought you were going, because there are also a few companies trying to do this, is creating tools for employers to winnow the field. And I am just hesitant about that because I feel like employers have had far too much of the power in the equation. And of course, we work with a lot of great employers, I want to empower them, but I also want them to meet candidates as if it’s a two-way street. I’m much more interested and excited by the idea of helping an individual… assess what is it that is going to be the best fit for them and then making those recommendations. So, it’s very much on the radar.
Jeremy Levy: Kathryn said The Muse tries to serve as a best practice advisor, but she says companies will attract the candidates they want by being true to themselves.
Kathryn Minshew: We try not to advise companies to do things that wouldn’t be honest or authentic to who they are as employers. My favorite anecdote on that front is that when the New York Times published that article about Amazon, that was very critical of many of their workplace practices, applications to Amazon actually went up, because a lot of people said, “That doesn’t sound so bad to me. I’m in.” Other people looked at that and thought, “I will never work there.” And that’s exactly that sort of polarity that I think you get in very strong cultures. It doesn’t mean that I personally would want to work somewhere, as long as I think that we can portray it in a way that some people would, and would be happy with what they get.
So, we definitely hear from a lot of our employers that the quality of candidates has gone up. What’s interesting is that they measure quality in different ways, in some cases, based on what they’re looking for. So, for some companies, that does just mean that they feel like they’re getting more highly qualified applicants based on the schools that they’ve gone to. For others, it’s the applicants that are coming in the door really know what my company does, what our mission is. They seem very aligned with our values, they’re on board with our ways of working, and I think that is sometimes really under-appreciated. There are, I think, at least six companies right now in the HR and talent space, working on matching resumes or LinkedIn profiles to job descriptions, and it’s all about hard skills, but I think that it’s equally important to think about the type of work experience that you’re creating. And, again, we do that through a combination of data and content. But I think that that’s an area where there’s a huge amount of white space left to explore.
Jeremy Levy: Kathryn does see a place for The Muse to play a role in shaping the future of the workplace, and making work more fair.
Jeremy Levy: Taking a step back to look at the larger market, The Muse sits at an interesting place, in between employers and employees. And looking at things like, be it gender inequality at a company, unconscious bias from a hiring perspective, women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. Do you see that The Muse can help solve some of those problems because you sit at that intersection?
Kathryn Minshew: Yes, I would really love for us to play a big part in that. It’s something that I’m very personally passionate about, as well, having started my business at a time when it was not uncommon to go to technology events and see one or two women in the room for every 20 plus men. I think that we influence those issues in a few ways.
First of all, we do try and act as best practice carriers and recommenders. Our account management team really develop very deep expertise in different types of company cultures, different types of employee advocacy groups in fighting discrimination, promoting inclusion and belonging. And they’re very happy to work with a lot of our companies to help them think about what are the best practices. We don’t do consulting, so we’re not going to get in there and actually help you fix it, but we might refer you to someone who can, or point you in the direction of people that are doing it really well. So, that’s one way.
Secondly, it’s, I think, very powerful to show what different career paths can look like for people across genders, races, backgrounds because you can’t be what you can’t see. And so one of the things I’m also really proud of is we work very hard when we’re spotlighting successful engineers, high-powered salespeople, entrepreneurs, leaders, to make sure that the people that we’re showcasing are as diverse, and fascinating, and representative of what the world looks like in the 21st century. And I think that role modeling can be really important. I do think it will be very interesting as we grow The Muse to think about how we might be actually able to assess companies on some of these metrics.
Jeremy Levy: Do they come to you sometimes and say, “These are things we want to change?”
Kathryn Minshew: Yes, absolutely. And I think, partially, it’s because we work hard to do this ourselves. We speak a lot publicly as a company and there’s a lot of individuals at the company about more inclusion, more equality, more diversity across both the technology industry and other industries. I think for us, we have a lot of tools and ways to help companies with hiring strategies that might focus on bringing in more diverse hires. But we try and make sure that it’s genuine.
Just trying to bring in diversity as a sort of window dressing is not going to be very effective. Not only because you won’t be able to keep those people if you don’t provide a really inclusive positive experience, but also because candidates have lots of ways of back-channeling, whether you’re serious about what you say, and lying in the recruitment market is not anywhere near as effective as it used to be. And we just pretty much try not to work with it.
“Just trying to bring in diversity as a sort of window dressing is not going to be very effective.”
Jeremy Levy: I hope that’s a tactic that you tell companies not to do. [Laughs]
Kathryn Minshew: Yes, we are very, very forceful about all the reasons why that’s not only a losing tactic but if they’re interested in doing it, they should go somewhere else. So, that’s really big for me. But I do think that a lot of companies, that haven’t historically been as strong at diversity and inclusion in the past, are starting to wake up to the need to do something about it. And I think the best ones are the ones that are honest about that. And they go to the market and say, “Look, we have not always been great at this, but we really want to do better. We want to bring people in who will help us change and we’re going to meet you more than halfway and do that change as well.” Because if you try and pretend like you’re a diversity and inclusion pro and you’re not, that’s just going to backfire. And again, it’s not authentic, it’s not honest. You need to bring that message that is accurate and that will resonate, and you will find people who want to get on board with helping be the change, and that I think can be the first step for a lot of those companies.
Jeremy Levy: Let’s say The Muse perfects the career matching algorithm and solves our job-seeking problems. What happens when machines take over the jobs they worked so hard to match?
Kathryn Minshew: I think when you look at history, most of the major technological advances that have threatened to wipe out employment, have in fact increased employment but for people that are willing to learn more skills. Which is not always a positive fact, but does seem to be a pattern in history. And so, I think one of the advantages that we personally will have as a business, is most of the people who use The Muse are highly skilled workers. Many of them are at the beginning of their career. Our average user is about 30 years old right now, on the individual side. But they, more likely than not, are salespeople, operators, marketers, engineers, finance, biz dev, a lot of those positions are not likely to be automated away anytime soon, although aspects of those jobs may certainly be eaten by software. And so, I do think that the workplace will look massively different if we see even one-tenth of the innovation that’s been promised… And personally, I’m very intrigued by a lot of the experiments being done on universal basic income because I think that giving people the latitude to support themselves in a variety of ways is going to be really important if we do see that sort of massive job loss. But I don’t actually know if it will affect us quite as much as other sites. And when you look at the HR industry as well, there’s historically been a divide between products and platforms and services that cater to hourly workers versus salaried. We fit very squarely in the latter camp, in the salaried camp. And so, we’re keeping a very close eye on it, because it’s going to affect the type of jobs, the competition for those jobs, but most of the jobs that I think will be in that first wave of possible automation, are not currently listed on our platform anyway.
Jeremy Levy: Do you think in our lifetimes that there will be a scenario where the purpose of society isn’t around employment, it’s about human growth or more leisure endeavors?
Kathryn Minshew: I think that humans are- many humans are somewhat competitive, and that desire to have something that looks like work is fairly deep.
Jeremy Levy: Purpose.
Kathryn Minshew: Exactly, purpose. So, it may not be that in 50 years, the majority of people are working a certain amount of time purely for their own sustenance. But I do think that once you establish a baseline, people still work for all of the things above the baseline. They work for prestige, they work for their families, they work for a luxury car, or a vacation to Egypt, or whatever it is. And so, I certainly could be wrong about this, but my belief is that even though the way that employment works may and probably will change dramatically, especially for positions that are at higher risk of being automated, I think that there will still be a core work-like engine that forms a basis for 40 plus hours a week for many people.
“…my belief is that even though the way that employment works may and probably will change dramatically, especially for positions that are at higher risk of being automated, I think that there will still be a core work-like engine that forms a basis for 40 plus hours a week for many people.”
Jeremy Levy: So, The Muse has a bright future.
Kathryn Minshew: I sure hope so.