Contest Recruiting: There’s No Better Way to Find Elite Talent, Part 2

Using Existing Contests, Challenges, and Awards Programs

The first step is to ask your current top performers in each mission-critical job family what prominent awards and contests already exist in their field. Professional organizations tend to offer the most awards and contests, and could often use sponsors and judges. Focus on the associations that represent your hard-to-hire and mission-critical functional areas. While sponsors can make demands in some cases, judges are given greater access to the actual talent, so figure out what you need from the relationship and pursue the role that best suits your needs.

If the opportunity to serve as a sponsor or judge is not available to you, consider building a relationship with the judges and follow up with them after the event to find out which contestants impressed them. If the judging panel isn’t cooperative, look for a way that is not as barrier-prone. For example, you might consider sponsoring a special section of a local university’s newspaper to profile the contestants or interview the judges.

Examples of Professional Association Contests and Awards Programs

  • The Robot Challenge. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the IEEE Robot Challenge. Founded by the Baltimore section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the challenge allows teams of students to design, construct, and battle robots. The contest is intended to provide students with a full life-cycle view of life as an engineer.
  • Gold/Silver/Bronze Quill Awards. The International Association of Business Communicators operates local, regional, and international awards programs that recognize outstanding results in thought leadership, strategic management, creativity, and resourcefulness in business communications. Chapters exist in most major cities.
  • IEEE Electromagnetics Award. This award is just one of many awarded annually by the IEEE. This award recognizes outstanding contributions to electromagnetic theory, application, or education. More can be found on IEEE Awards by searching its website for “awards.”
  • National Energy Finance Challenge. Hosted in 2005 by the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin, this challenges pits teams of students from top schools, including the University of Chicago, MIT, Berkeley, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wharton, against one another in case work. Winners in 2005 were selected by a judging panel that included corporate representatives from Chevron, Shell, Merrill Lynch, ConocoPhillips, Deutsche Bank, and Chiron Financial.

Other creative approaches to finding contests to use include:

  • Universities. Ask recent graduates, “What contests and awards identify top students?” I’ve known individual professors to hold contests using any real company problem within a key class in order to assess their students’ problem-solving ability. I have used this “solve a real problem” approach in my own classes targeting Google, Genentech, Intel, HP, and Cisco. In each case, at least one student was hired.
  • Business magazines. Also consider BusinessWeek, Fast Company, and Business 2.0, all of which frequently list top innovators and up-and-coming stars. For example, this month’s CIO magazine lists the top 20 up-and-coming stars in IT. It’s a recruiter’s dream.
  • Promotion announcements. Consider “just promoted” announcements in press releases or in your local newspaper as the equivalent of an award winner (for future recruiting) and several suddenly unhappy recruiting targets (those who didn’t get the promotion).
  • Benchmark companies. In addition to targeting individuals who win awards, you also need to look at companies that continually win awards like Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For,” Working Mother, or the Fortune diversity list as prime recruiting grounds.
  • Bloggers. There are numerous lists which highlight the very best bloggers in the different functional areas. Don’t miss them as targets.
  • People who are quoted. It might seem strange but individuals who can successfully run the cynical and demanding gamut of reporters and editors to get quoted in professional articles are likely to be people on top of their game.
  • Speakers. Individuals selected to speak at professional meetings and trade fairs are also likely to be, or to know, top performers.
  • The Web. Innovators can be found in many areas of the Web. Individuals who contribute to open-source programs are great targets, as well as individuals who write great entries in Wikipedia (in fact, Wikipedia itself holds contests).

Running Your Own Contest or Challenge

While running your own contest or launching your own registration-required publication may seem like a lot of work, it’s a relatively quick data-generating process in which people voluntarily tell you about themselves.

To top performers, competing in a process that tests their skills and provides recognition is significantly more palatable than sitting through an online assessment designed by a training professional using a textbook as the source of expertise. To get started, determine which job families within your organization will need or currently need an infusion of more than one candidate. Work with functional leaders in each of the areas that need talent to devise a real-world business problem that could serve as the basis for a challenge. Collaborate with line managers and corporate finance to determine the relative value of both the solution and the influx of new talent and secure resources for the award and the program.

With a topic in mind, next map out potential media partners. Media partners will bring participants to the process and lend the entire challenge more credibility.

You might also want to approach your organization’s strategic partners to cosponsor the challenge, offering them registrant information as a benefit and the opportunity to serve as judges. With all of that in mind, the next step is to work with an event planner to build out the time line, requirements, process, and event components. A contest will not happen overnight. If that seems like too much work, consider outsourcing the challenge to a local university; universities always need more resources, access to companies, and visibility in the community.


Because the very best are not hard to find, you should expect some competition in recruiting them. However, competition will be less of a barrier than you might think because few recruiters have the courage to target award winners.

That said, there’s one challenge you will have to overcome. These individuals are generally employed and now know that they are at the top of their game, so convincing them to consider another job requires you to provide them with an offer that is clearly superior to their current job.

When you use contest recruiting, the battle shifts from finding prospects to convincing them to apply and accept. If you’re not sure what it takes to convince them to shift jobs, consider asking them directly, “What would be your dream job?” Also ask, “What criteria would you use to determine if a new job was right for you?” If you can get these two questions answered, all you have to do is tailor the job and the situation to fit their criteria.

It might seem like a lot of work to tailor a job to these individuals, but these award winners are likely to be game-changers and magnets who will almost automatically attract other top performers. Organizations keep saying they want the very best. Now you know where to find them. The remaining question is: Do you have the courage to try contest recruiting?

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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