Liza Bennigson

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far from the Nest: Lessons from HR Pro Jose Benitez Cong

Today I had the distinct pleasure of sipping coffee with Jose Benitez Cong, former Head of Talent at Nest and chief recruiter for Apple’s first iPod and iPhone engineering teams. Note that I didn’t say that I had coffee with Jose Benitez Cong, a Warriors fan who loves Maseratis and Silver Oak, though these details are also true. While our interests help describe us, for avid professionals, it is our career trajectory that defines us.

Jose’s past professional pursuits prove invaluable these days, as he prepares to launch his own company, currently in stealth mode. Startups in Silicon Valley are a dime a dozen, but a startup led by an ex-Google and Apple talent lead? My ears perk up. And I’m not the only one: Jose was able to raise his first round of funding and hire a team of 10 within weeks, all because of his career credibility and contacts. “Where I am today is largely because of my network,” he says.

When we work for a prestigious company, we wear our tenure like a badge of honor. However varied, our career paths give us depth and validation. Each team we work with expands our ecosystem and opens up new doors. After all, where we’ve been helps us get where we’re going.

Jose shares my belief in the power of alumni networks in particular. “From getting them to represent the brand to possibly boomeranging back to the company, alumni should be considered part of the culture,” he says. Yet, we agree, companies consistently miss the boat on leveraging this unparalleled branding opportunity. Startlingly, 80 percent of employees say former employers do not have a strategy in place to encourage them to return, and nearly half of managers claim there are no alumni communications. By burning bridges or letting relationships with former employees fizzle, companies lose their most authentic ambassadors. Forward-thinking organizations, on the other hand, trade resentment for pride, admonishment for congratulations, and closed doors for revolving ones. 

Jose takes a sip of his decaf Americano and talks about his non-conformist approach to recruiting. His number one criteria at Nest was “no a**holes,” and he was open to hiring supportive, motivating personalities and developing their talent on-site. People often ask Jose for the trick to scaling a great team, as though it’s some sort of secret family recipe. His response is straightforward and understated: leverage the talent you already have.

At Apple, Jose would sit down with his team to review each of their alumni networks, to determine who they’d want to work with again. The result? Unlimited access to pre-vetted candidates with just one degree of separation. Why hire someone based off of a piece of paper and a 1/2 hour interview, when you can get a firsthand recommendation from someone you trust? In this age of social networking and online applications, it’s still who you know that counts most.

Jose has hired some of the most exceptional teams on the planet, responsible for building some of today’s most innovative brands. So it’s no wonder he understands the importance of maintaining ties with ex-employees. The more you’ve invested in recruiting and professional development, the more you should care about your alumni—a select pool of high caliber professionals (even stronger than when you hired them the first time), who cost half as much to acquire, have an understanding of your company culture, and can hit the ground running twice as fast. 

Our coffees now drained, we share one last point: companies who celebrate the successes of their former talent are doing themselves a favor when it comes to recruiting. A desirable new hire is more likely to seek a launchpad than lifetime employment. The implication is clear: “Look at Tom, he ended up a VP Google after working here. You could, too!” 

As Jose and I part ways, I bring up a quote from former Nest CEO, Tony Fadell: ”I’d want Jose on my team, any day of the week, leading any and all recruitment efforts - period.” 

“Do you ever even have to interview anymore?” I ask.

“I don’t think I’ve revised my resume in, like, 15 years,” says Jose. 

And that, we concur, is the power of the network. 

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