Lessons from HR Pro Jose Benitez Cong

Recently, 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 wine, even though that would all be true. While our interests help describe us, for many avid professionals, it is our career trajectories that define us.

Cong'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 because of his career credibility and contacts.

"Where I am today is largely because of my network," Cong says.

When you work for a prestigious company, you wear your tenure like a badge of honor. However varied they may be, our career paths give us depth and validation. Each team we work with expands our ecosystems and opens up new doors. Where we've been helps us get where we're going.

Cong 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," Cong says.

And yet, companies consistently miss the boat on leveraging this unparalleled branding opportunity. According to one study from 2015, 80 percent of employees say their former employers have no strategies encouraging them to return, and just about half of managers say their organizations make no effort to communicate with company alumni. 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.

Cong takes a sip of his decaf Americano and talks about his nonconformist approach to recruiting. His No. 1 criteria at Nest was "no a**holes," and he was open to hiring supportive, motivating personalities and developing talent on site. People often ask Cong for the trick to scaling a great team – as though it were some sort of secret family recipe. His response is straightforward and understated: Leverage the talent you already have.

At Apple, Cong would sit down with his team to review each of their alumni networks and 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 half-hour interview when you can get a firsthand recommendation from a person you trust? In this age of social networking and online applications, it's still who you know that counts most.

Cong has hired some of the most exceptional teams on the planet that were responsible for building some of today's most innovative brands. 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, who constitute a select pool of high-caliber professionals who are now even stronger than they were when you first hired them. They also cost half as much to acquire as brand new employees, they already understand your company culture, and they can hit the ground running.

Our coffees now drained, we share one last point: Companies that 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 be seeking a launchpad than lifetime employment. The implication is clear: "Look at Tom; he ended up a V.P. Google after working here. You could, too!"

As Cong 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," Cong says.

And that is the power of the network.

A version of this article originally appeared on the KonnectAgain blog.

Liza Bennigson is business development director at KonnectAgain.