Be More Podcast: Attracting and Retaining Talent with Elena Valentine

Elena Valentine, CEO and co-founder of Skill Scout, shares an astounding story about vulnerability, reality, and how we can grow stronger by retaining and attracting talent.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Elena Valentine, CEO and Co-Founder at Skill Scout. 

Do you enjoy great storytelling? I do. When we started looking at guests for this season of Be More, we came across Elena Valentine, the founder and CEO of Skill Scout. Skill Scout focuses on storytelling, and I promise that during the next twenty-five minutes, Elena will tell you an astounding story about vulnerability, reality, and how we can grow stronger by retaining and attracting talent.

Elena helps talent acquisition, employer branding, and corporate communications leaders tell their company stories using video to attract and retain quality talent. 

"Everyone has a story of work and why it’s meaningful. And we see it as our honour to capture those experiences, to help people reflect meaningfully on their work experience."

Elena Valentine

Discover how to discover and retain talented employees by listening to the episode audio or reading the key takeaways and the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • Elena’s Career and the Mission of Skill Scout. Elena starts the conversation by explaining that Skill Scout intends to help people find the meaning of their work through their story, primarily through the medium of film. These videos could focus on anything from their job or company culture to a CEO in a vulnerable moment.

    Next, she describes that her career journey is grounded in two mottos. The first being “You cannot be what you cannot see.” The second being “If you want to change the story, you have to change the storyteller.”
  • The Art and Science of Storytelling. Elena believes that when we hear stories, we begin to relate to one another and see ourselves in those situations. We develop a level of empathy and connection to a person, community, and organization through stories. She believes that all people are natural-born storytellers. 
  • Vulnerable, Transparent, and Authentic Leadership. Elena states that we have pushed economies and companies to the point where making mistakes, acknowledging them, and being vulnerable are often treated as weaknesses.

    But she thinks that vulnerable leaders will be the ones to change our world and foster storytelling cultures. These leaders will feel safe enough to share their stories so that their employees can share theirs to increase their level of connection.
  • Adopt the Strategy of “Repelling the Many to Attract the Few." In a fast-paced business environment, it is crucial to react quickly to changes and adapt to remain relevant and to continue developing. Companies need to attract and recruit talents that can adjust to this complex and hard-working environment. Out of hundreds, only a few will match the criteria and values of a company. 


Patrick: Welcome to Be More a podcast by Peakon. I’m going to guess that you enjoy great storytelling. Our goal with this podcast is to bring you stories that you enjoy. I know that I love to listen to an amazing storyteller. When we started looking at guests for this season of Be More we were introduced to Elena Valentine. She is the founder and CEO of Skill Scout. This organization is focused on storytelling and I promise you that during the next 25 minutes Elena is going to tell you an amazing story about vulnerability, reality, and how we can all grow stronger. Elena, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.

Elena: Thank you. I’m looking forward to it and kicking off my Monday this way.

Patrick: This is the start of my Monday as well. We just talked for about 10 minutes before and had quite a few laughs. I think this is going to be a great conversation. Elena, let’s start out with tell us a bit about your career journey and let’s do a quick introduction to the audience so they can know a little bit about you, how your career has unfolded, how you founded the organization that you have now and a bit around the passion that the work that you do.

Elena: Well if that’s not the longest-running question.

Patrick: [chuckles] If you do that in a couple of minutes that would be great. [chuckles]

Elena: How I show up in this podcast episode today, I am a co-founder and servant leader of Skill Scout Films. Our essential intent is to help people find the meaning of their work through story, primarily through the medium of film. Everyone has a story of work and why it’s meaningful. We see it as our honor to capture those experiences to help people really reflect meaningfully on their experiences of work.

What that could look like is a job video, that could look like company culture, that could look like a CEO in vulnerable moments sharing the news that often might be challenging. Inevitably, it’s leveraging the power of film to create emotional connection, to get people to act. Whether that’s to lean into their roles to feel more connected to their jobs or their company or it might be because they are considering a new chapter and this story has helped them envision doing that.

That is what my team and I get to do every day. It is of our highest honor to fly on the walls. Oftentimes capturing people really showcasing the zeitgeist of what they do everyday that this is not just about daily bread as it is also about making daily meaning, and work can do that.

My career journey is really grounded in two mottos. The first motto is you cannot be what you cannot see. The second motto that I live by, personally and professionally, is if you want to change the story you have to change the storyteller. What do I mean by that? When we founded this organization seven years ago we did this because we saw social injustice in the world.

I’m a former design researcher at an IDEO-like environment. One of the projects that my co-founder and I were working on at the time was this national project in the states aimed to connect these 6 million young people who are not in school or in the workforce. How do we connect them to more meaningful pathways to employment? These were young people who often didn’t look good on resumes, nor did they have one. These are also young people who some of them had records of. These were also young people who had never left their neighborhoods and they lacked access and exposure to jobs. You cannot be what you cannot see. Job descriptions don’t show what a job is like.

Despite the fact that we knew that the workplace was filled with opportunity and filled with inspiration, our hiring process certainly was not. Neither was the way that we were exposing young people to what their careers really could be. At the essence of what we started to do, among other things, we were exploring solutions as we just started to film jobs and it started to work. Young people started to put their phones down. They started to ask questions.

What we saw was that there was a power in storytelling and there was a power in video. Initially, just to get young people excited about the world of work. Yet what we found was that this wasn’t just about young people. This was any candidate. Any candidate who was looking to understand this role, if this company could be right for them. Inevitably, what we saw was that companies were equally struggling to find, hire, and retain talent. Companies with very unique stories who often looked one and the same online.

We leaned heavily into the power of video to really work with companies to expose their candidates to these opportunities. It snowballed from there to become the workers’ filmmaker. That’s what we are. We are proudly the workers’ filmmakers and we have proudly built this business on the shoulders of small to mid-size manufacturers of the Midwest. Over the past seven years, we have been blessed to work with some of the biggest companies in the world. Nike, McDonald’s, Wendy, American Airlines, Thermo Fisher, Deloitte, Accenture, Dyson.

Yet what you find is that regardless of the industry, regardless of the size of the company, we all have stories to tell. There are inherent ways, the art and the science of story, to connect people to the meaning of the work and what they could do to contribute to your company. That’s a big part.

The other half of this which is important to share especially for– I’m sure the many people leaders that are on this, listening into this episode, is that my second motto inspired was if you want to change the story you have to change the storyteller. What do I mean by that? That means that I knew a long time ago that as an HR-focused company, if we are here to help other companies attract and retain diverse talent, then we needed to figure that out ourselves. We needed to be the ones to fail forward in the kinds of risks we were taking to create a diverse and inclusive workforce. Certainly especially given where we came from which was working with youth. Often working with youth who felt disenfranchised.

In practice what that has looked like has been one as of several years ago I raised my hand to say, “I manifest to become an employer of choice for women of color and non-binary creatives.” What that means is not that I don’t hire those that look like you Patrick. What that means is is that I am putting my investments in ensuring that women of color and non-binary creatives are at the center of my strategy because when I do everyone wins. What that also means is that when we are going out to companies who are trying to tell these stories of diversity, equity, and inclusion, that it’s not just thinking about who’s in front of the camera. It’s also thinking about who’s behind it and the necessity to have representative voices behind that camera helping to tell those stories.

In those two mottos inevitably sums up my reason for being, my essential intent, and why I have been put on this earth for my career.

Patrick: Elena. That’s amazing. First off, you are incredibly articulate. I can see why storytelling is your passion because you’ve had me on the edge of the seat for the past couple of minutes. Excellent way to start and so much in that I have a ton of questions but we have a 20-25 minute episode. We will be succinct about the questions. I’m curious to understand a bit more.

Let’s take a look at the conversation in two ways. One is I love this idea around how stories are so important within an organization particularly around connecting people. You talked about this connective tissue. There’s a lot of people leaving organizations today and it is a challenge for pretty much every company that is out there. That they have people some of their top talent is leaving businesses.

At the same time, there’s also a pretty decent amount of people that are applying to roles. There’s mixed opinions on that. Some people say that the job market is very low, that the talent pool is very low. Other people say there’s a lot of talent out there. It’s just, are you attracting the right talent, are you attracting, as you said, a diverse group of talent?

Let’s look at the conversation from those two angles. First, let’s talk a bit about people leaving organizations. What are your thoughts on how organizations can help increase their level of retention of their employees and let’s talk a bit more about this connective tissue and this idea around how and what stories could be told to potentially help with keeping or increasing that level of connectivity in an organization?

Elena Let’s first talk about the art and science of storytelling because this isn’t just some woo woo intangible, there’s a science to this. We think about our ancestors, our cavesmen, the fireside, that’s when stories began, that’s when we started to connect to other people through story. There’s a lot of things that happen to our brain when we hear stories. We start to relate to one another. We start to see ourselves in these certain situations. What that starts to do is create a level of empathy and a level of connection to this person, to this community, to this organization, if you can get better at story. There’s everything from the spectrum of the Toastmasters to just enveloping yourself in great films and books. Stories are all around us because they’re so personal and so let’s just assume we all can agree that there’s a science to this, that we can all learn, and in fact that we are all natural-born storytellers.

That’s something really important here is that people think that storytellers and storytelling is outside of us, and that’s not true. For any of us that have kids, that have gone out on the playground to listen to three-year-olds yapper, what you will hear very quickly, whether or not they are lies is that these three-year-olds have already developed the syntax to tell stories. Let’s just assume, okay, we recognize the science and the data behind the story.

Need I share, be it in resources or else that storytelling also has driven business results. It’s driven business results and how people perceive the value of products and services because, inevitably, people work with people. People don’t work with companies, which then gets to the question that you’ve inevitably asked, which is why are people leaving organizations?

The adage of people leaving other people, not their company is absolutely the truth. They are leaving because they felt a disconnect. Something got cut somewhere along those lines and let’s just assume for a second that money is off the table and other basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are off the table because there is a huge population of us that truly are just surviving. We can’t necessarily go into these upper echelons of thinking about purpose and meaning but let’s just assume we know, okay. It’s not money, not benefits then it’s something else.

That’s because people have forgotten, have lost, have felt disconnected, have felt isolated from the zeitgeist and the mission of that company, inevitably from those people. That’s what we hear a lot and the data shows that. If I had to think about really the two key ways that you’ve seen this turned around, and by no means, fast because Rome wasn’t built in a day and certainly, we also have to remember, Patrick, that many of these legacy organizations were never meant to have the people that they are trying to attract now. Our legacy organizations, they were not set up for black and brown women for anything.

Let’s just assume again, that you are also now going against legacy organizations who have further challenges. Despite how simple this sounds, it very much rings true is, number one, the reason why a lot of this happens is fear-based. We have pushed economies and whole companies where things like making mistakes and acknowledging them and being vulnerable and taking failure bows, has been seen as a weakness and not as a pure true human emotion.

As a result, we now are coming up against a generation where that will no longer stand, where vulnerable leaders will be the ones to change this world and vulnerable leaders will be the ones to change our companies. Vulnerable leaders will be the ones to foster storytelling cultures because vulnerable leaders will be the ones to tell their stories first and that’s what needs to happen. It’s these leaders, it’s these managers who are feeling safe enough to share their stories so that in turn, their employees can share theirs to increase those levels of connections.

The last thing I will say to this point is that when we also think about these companies, the challenges that we have faced from technology, but also this fear-based vulnerability has been that we can only have one story of Peakon or these select stories of Peakon as opposed to recognizing that it is a plethora of stories and a plethora of narratives that make up our companies. We are now at the level of technology that we have to make investments in ensuring that everyone gets to be a part of that mosaic and how dare we not increase those kinds of opportunities to increase these engagements with our companies.

Patrick: I have for years been incredibly passionate about this idea of vulnerable leadership. I could not agree with you more that vulnerable leaders– Actually, I think anybody in a work setting, or in life, let’s take in general, if you see vulnerability as a strength and you can get to a point where you feel vulnerability is a strength of yours, individual strength, I think that is one of the hardest things for people to do just in general, in life, particularly in the workplace.

When an organization supports vulnerability, transparency, authenticity from the most senior levels in an organization, the CEO all the way down, and I’m using down as a term, but I don’t mean– Down is not a good word, across the entire organization, that has always been incredibly impressive for me. I really feel like Peakon has tried and done a good job of being that type of organization but many companies struggle with that.

As you said, Peakon’s a six-year-old organization. I think younger companies can do that in a much easier way but to your point, there’s many organizations that really struggle to make this shift. There has been a significant shift at so many organizations, some organizations, a forced shift over the past year because of the situation and the pandemic. I think that’s actually one of the very positive outcomes of the past 18 months is that many organizations have been forced to put their people at the center of their equation. There’s another aspect that is this word and this term, a loving environment in the workplace. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that because–

Elena: I have another term for it, Patrick.

Patrick: Okay, please.

Elena: It’s heart-based leadership. We have spent well over a century only rewarding one out of six of our intelligences in the workplace and that’s logic. Are you good at math? Are you good at science? Are you good at solving problems? It’s not your logic that connects with people, it’s your heart and let’s just be honest. When we think about the forefathers of the American economy, these were men. It’s time to bring more sacred, feminine back into our workplace, the sacred, feminine, the heart-based leadership of intuition, of vulnerability. That’s what this is. That’s the change that’s happening

Yes, many companies, their hands are being forced and it shows. Then there are those who, despite many challenges, can feel assured and take the road that despite this being the harder one, despite this maybe not being the easiest road, this is the pathway for us to do good business, while still doing good in the world. I’m going to tell you, these Gen Z and these next generations, they’ve awoken to that. They’ve been traumatized by seeing their parents and others in the workplace and they’re demanding that their full selves come into work, which means that we better be ready to start figuring out how we share a bit more of ourselves too.

Patrick: Let’s move the conversation to a different point or a different aspect that we were touched on very quickly at the start around people joining the workforce now. Okay, so you talked about the fact that you’ve done a lot of work with people, new entrants into the workforce, new exposure into the workforce.

Organizations right now, they know that there’s a big need to hire new talent, to bring in talent into the organization. Something that is very common is recruitment teams, talent acquisition teams feeling overwhelmed, feeling that there’s so many roles, so many requisitions that are open, so many processes, hiring managers say, “I want 10 great candidates. I just want to be able to pick from a big pool of candidates.” You advocate a bit around a strategy of repelling the many to attract the few. I’m really curious about that. Can you tell us a bit about, A, what that strategy is and your perspective on that strategy, and why you think that is of benefit to business?

Elena: First, I want to highlight my UK friend, Bryan Adams of Ph-Creative, who very much has inspired that quote and approach. I also have another term for it, which is just lean into the suck. The problems that we are challenged with is that we tend to feel like we need to take on the same marketing approaches to how we build a business brand, which is everything is sunshine and rainbows.

When you do that, all you’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig. It’s okay to be a pig because you could be a dope pig and attract folks that are okay with that. That’s the difference here is that this is just as much about an opportunity to share the growth and share the fun and share the perks as it is to also ask the question, or respond to the question of, and here’s why people might quit. Here’s why this may not work for you.

Let’s just be honest, and put all of our cards on the table that rain, sleet, shine, or snow, airlines, airports do not shut down, and we have to start showing that and being honest. The challenge becomes the reason why we need to sell them the best thing is because we’re too held closely to the numbers and to the outcomes that they have to like this job.

When we have to surrender the outcome to say there are two paths here, both of them are perfectly okay. One of them is a candidate who sees this realistic preview of the role and says, “I’m up for it. I can stand on my feet for 12 hours a day. I’m good with a fast-paced environment. You’re right, I can see that the customer service aspect of this role can be challenging, but hey, I did this in my last role and I reveled in that. I’m good.”

You can also have a viable path where someone views this video and says, “Not for me, I’m okay with this.” Both of them are okay, because inevitably what you are doing is respecting that candidate’s time, as much as you are yours. You’re saying, “This is not about replacing the hiring processes, it’s expediting, it’s saying, look, you all who want to apply, go this way, you all who don’t, go this way. Good luck. Awesome, and those of you that truly are here and can understand what this role is, let’s get down to business and have a meaningful conversation.”

The data then will overwhelmingly show that those that are now in this, “All right, I know the sunshine and rainbows and the suck of it, I’m still down,” overwhelmingly become the higher quality candidate and overwhelmingly become the ones that get offered a role. That’s what this comes down to.

Patrick: Elena we are coming to the end of the conversation. First off, thank you for your just incredibly articulate– I can see why storytelling is such a passion of yours because you just told the story for the past 30 minutes, which is just, I really am excited for the audience to be able to hear this episode because so much heartfelt meaning in it, and an honest speak is what we need right now so thank you for that. Many people are going to be curious about storytelling and about you and your organization, so tell us a bit about where people can find you, can find a bit more about your company, and about your approach to storytelling.

Elena: We all know, Google.

Patrick: We do.

Elena: Skill Scout has a website, but I would also welcome anyone listening into this conversation to connect with me on LinkedIn. That’s where I primarily share a lot of these aspects around the story, so thank you.

Patrick: We will link your LinkedIn profile to the podcast post as well and also, the website for Skill Scout. Thank you for spending the time with me. My Monday is off to an amazing start because of you so thank you for that. Please keep doing what you’re doing because you inspire me and I know you’re going to inspire so many people that are listening today so thank you.

Elena: Thank you. It was my blessing.

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