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Agent Phil Coulson’s Guide to Attracting and Motivating Top Talent

Managing employees is no easy feat, especially when the top talent is working for a shadowy government organization. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (affectionately known as SHIELD) employs the Avengers, that small super-team whose little film made a few bucks earlier this summer.

Behind the wheel of recruiting, motivating, and negotiating with the most powerful beings in the universe has been Agent Phil Coulson. This unflappable government agent has traveled the globe tracking down superheroes and assisted in putting together an unstoppable team that keeps Earth safe.

Coulson knows a thing or two about attracting highly qualified candidates and helping them work together as a unit. By studying his strategies, you’ll have the industry’s mightiest heroes hoisting your company flag in no time.

This mild-mannered routine is wasting my time. I could snap your neck like a twig. How about the 24th at 7:00 pm at Stark Industries?


Ms. Potts, we had an appointment. Did you forget about our appointment?

Coulson takes the “we find you” approach to recruiting top superhero talent. Can you imagine Tony Stark replying to a want ad, even if it is looking for a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist? Coulson is not put off by initial lack of interest; he knows that Tony is a valued asset and is willing to let him play hard to get.

In Iron Man, he tries to set up appointments with Tony Stark’s personal assistant, Pepper Potts. After he is blown off by Potts, he arranges to speak with Tony at a party where he sets up a specific time and place to meet. Coulson knows that a highly qualified candidate is likely content in his or her current position, and it will take initiative on the part of the recruiter to set up a meeting and maintain contact.

We’ll even get you a little workbench for your hammer. Whaddaya say?

Pursuing top talent means you have to be willing to identify and convince those who would fit well with your company to hop on board. Great ways to do this include:

  • Asking employees for referrals (former mentors/mentees, fellow alumni)
  • Going undercover as a customer
  • Getting recommendations from local university professors

Also, be open to looking outside your industry for someone who may have a good fit with your company. Look at character traits such as creative thinking, charisma, and quick learning in addition to content knowledge. Michael Homula, Quicken’s director of talent acquisition, puts it simply in a New York Times article, saying, “We can teach people about finance. We can’t teach passion, urgency and a willingness to go the extra mile.” With time, many people can learn the trends and structure of an industry, but quickly establishing rapport with potential clients and problem solving in the face of a conflict are skills that are much harder to teach.

I have years of experience covering up international incidents, but why don’t you go ahead and make up whatever the hell you want? That’ll go great.


If you try to escape, or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch “Supernanny” while you drool into the carpet.

The Avengers should, by all odds, not work together as a team. These superheroes, spies, and semi-supreme beings have very different skills, strengths, and life experiences, and uniting them for a common goal takes up the first 121 minutes of the 143 minute Avengers film. No one knows how to motivate them better than Coulson, who responds to each member of the team in a way that earns him respect and compliance.

In Iron Man II, Coulson is tasked with keeping watch over Tony Stark, who is working on a special project for SHIELD. Before the agent heads out to check on another otherworldly threat, Coulson and Stark exchange words:

Coulson: Good luck! We need you!
Stark: More than you know.
Coulson: Not that much.

Three hours fighting one-on-one with the Hulk. He’s in ICU. I accidentally slammed my hand in the ambulance door while loading him up.

An initial dose of encouragement is met with arrogant snark. Then, Coulson meets swagger with calm assertiveness. This response is perfect for the man who is used to getting everything he wants. While making employees feel valued – especially in the recruitment stage – is necessary to keeping employees motivated to work toward company goals, maintaining an appropriate hierarchy is critical. Employees who feel they are too integral to be replaced under any circumstances may not feel the need to follow procedures or listen to others’ ideas. Keeping a well-rounded staff that support one another with their strengths can provide necessary moral support without any particular superstar getting carried away by feeling indispensable.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Coulson is stellar in responding to Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) in a moment of self-doubt.

Rogers: Well, I hope I’m the man for the job.
Coulson: Oh, you are. Absolutely. Uh… we’ve made some modifications to the uniform. I had a little design input.
Rogers: The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?
Coulson: With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.

Unflappable, adj. Having or showing calmness in a crisis. See also: Phil Coulson

When an employee expresses self-doubt, it’s tempting to just respond by saying their concern isn’t valid.

  • “I’m worried I’m not working fast enough.”
  • “Oh, no, don’t worry. You’re doing fine.”

That can sometimes be helpful if it’s true… and worse than useless if it’s not. When an employee recognizes his or her own weaknesses, managers have an opportunity to spin it into a positive light and brainstorm ways to get past the insecurity. Validating the concern establishes trust.

This is how Coulson might have done it:

  • “I’m worried I’m not working fast enough.”
  • “Being slow and careful means you’re catching more mistakes before they become an issue. But if you’re really worried about it, let’s talk about some ways you can repair a helicarrier engine faster, so we don’t all plummet to our deaths.”

Implementing employee incentive programs, recognizing personal events like birthdays and anniversaries, and fostering creative thinking for problem-solving keeps employee morale higher, so you’ll need to do less damage control when there are setbacks.

If you make me come down there, you will see exactly what the Hulk has nightmares about.


You’re at 114 Solenski Plaza, 3rd floor. We have an F22 exactly 8 miles out. Put the woman on the phone, or I will blow up the block before you can make the lobby.

With the fate of the world in his hands, Agent Coulson does not have time to mince words. He knows the value of a strong opening offer, and he has the resources to back it up. In his line of work, time is critical, and nickel-and-diming his way to what he wants is not an option.

In The Avengers, Coulson must contact a SHIELD agent immediately. The fact she is being held captive by seedy underworld types makes for a tiny obstacle, but Coulson makes sure his initial offer is strong. The criminals find this proposition impossible to refuse.

B*tch, please.

Many people believe that forcing the other person to make the opening offer gives the recipient some kind of advantage. While it makes sense that getting information about the other person’s resources is valuable, it also prevents you from setting the range of acceptable offers.

If an employee is called in for a review and is told she will get a raise with additional responsibilities, the manager can set the value of those extra duties with a strong opening offer. Had the employee thrown out an uninformed number that vastly overestimated or underestimated what those services were worth, she is likely to be highly disappointed in a lower counteroffer or miss out on additional compensation if the low offer were accepted right away. The manager has a strong advantage in opening negotiations, because the initial figure keeps the deal anchored within a close range of that spot.

Quick recap:

  • Employing the best and brightest requires proactive hiring managers that are willing to seek out and engage with potential candidates. They place weight on a person’s individual qualities and understand that content can be taught later.
  • Motivating overconfident and insecure employees means tailoring responses to personality types and concerning behavior.
  • Starting with a strong opening offer puts you in a position of power, contrary to popular belief.

Agent Phil Coulson’s strategies are just as applicable in manufacturing, sales, and service industries as they are in superhero team-forming. His tireless efforts to put together and motivate a strong team pay off when his assembled heroes stop an alien invasion from destroying Earth.

But hey, I’m sure your job is really tough, too.

What do you think of Coulson’s strategies? How have you struggled to attract and motivate top talent in a highly competitive marketplace? Any other tips we can learn from the son of Coul? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

P.S. #CoulsonLives


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  1. Jill Tooley

    “Coulson meets swagger with calm assertiveness.”

    That statement can be applied to everything Coulson does! Even though his future recruits blow him off, lie to him, and grossly underestimate his talents, Coulson persists and eventually gets all of them under the same roof. His coolness may seem like indifference on the surface, but it really stems from confidence. He has faith in them, and he knows that they’ll come around after he’s planted the seeds in their heads! And he’s damn good at that, just like any top recruiter would be.

    I also liked your point about negotiation and coming in with a strong offer. Coulson asserts his power by putting the offer on the table first, so there’s no doubt in the enemy’s mind that he’s serious about it. He has the upper hand and he’s not afraid to use it!

    As you know, I’m obsessed with these movies, and Agent Coulson has been one of my favorites since the first “Iron Man.” He’s a total BAMF. Can’t wait to see him in “Iron Man 3” next year! 😉 #coulsonlives

    • Jana Quinn

      I agree, Jill; Coulson’s confidence and unwillingness to take things personally or let his ego get in the way gives him the leverage he needs in striking deals. The confidence he has in his organization, in the cause, is ultimately the clinching factor in bringing each person on board.

      #CoulsonLives and #FuryLies

  2. Rachel

    What an awesome post, Jana! I should have known you’d find a way to write about Coulson, haha–and what a great way to do it. You’re so right, he does an excellent job assembling all these superheroes. I’m particularly fond of your section on motivation. I think it can be really difficult to find the “right” way to motivate people, because everyone responds differently to different stimuli. As you say, some people need encouragement, some need to be challenged, and others need to be reminded of the hierarchy in place. The contrast between Coulson’s handling of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is a great example of how Coulson gets it done right.

    Aaaand now I want to see the Avengers again … 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Rachel! I agree that people need to be motivated in different ways whether through encouragement, challengers, or redirection. There’s no one-size fits all.

      I’m hitting up my fifth viewing tonight. 🙂

  3. Amy Swanson

    I’m still ruining everything because I haven’t seen ‘The Avengers’ yet, but I really need to after reading this post. Coulson sounds like a really interesting man and like a really fun character!

    Your suggestion to ask local college/university professors for students they’d recommend to hire is a great one! I know several of us here all came from the same college, but graduated in different years. If nothing else it gives you a bond with new coworkers because there’s always the “Did you have so-and-so? How’d you like them? Is ‘whatshisname’ still teaching?” Excellent tips, Jana!!

    • Jana Quinn


      I never thought of the icebreaker angle, but it definitely does help in those first few days on the job. Also, you’ll know what kind of material the new hire has covered and where his/her strengths are and where you’ll need to provide support. Great comments!

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    I think that Phil Coulson is the physical embodiment of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Just looking at him, you’d think, “Well shucks, he’s just downright approachable!” But then he can take you down with his pinky. The man is patient, and knows exactly what to say to motivate action, but he’s not afraid to pull out the big guns (literally and metaphorically) when the time comes.

    Excellent post. Everything could use a little more Coulson. #coulsonlives 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Perfect analogy. Coulson has no need to put on a show like Stark or wear a dramatic costume like Thor, and his quiet demeanor means he’s often underestimated. He demands respect from the likes of Stark and Thor not because he yells or threatens but because he rises to challenges and sticks to his ideals.

      The whole world could use a little more Coulson.

      #CoulsonLives #FuryLies #PrettyMuchOverVisionTheoryButHeWillBeBackInSomeForm

  5. Ness

    I thought his first name was “Agent”?

  6. Shannen

    Honestly? I want to be like Coulson when I grow up. I just graduated high school, and, if I somehow wind up in a management position, he’s exactly the kind of manager I would hope to be.

    Also, well, #coulsonlives, #furylies.

    • Jana Quinn

      Now THAT is a goal! 🙂 I think if you keep the Son of Coul’s tips close, you’ll end up in charge in no time. After all, who’s gonna mess with anyone who can use a bag of flour as a lethal weapon?

      #CoulsonLives and #FuryLies

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