Develop a Who’s Who List of Outside Talent

Whatever you call it, it's a list of the top people working at competitors that is used primarily to expedite recruiting when a need arises. When you establish a names database, you make identifying candidates for job openings easier and quicker because you already know the best people in the field.

It Can't Be Done!

When I mention the need for a who's who database to most recruiting managers, the almost-immediate responses is, "It can't be done." That perspective is just silly. If you know anything about competitive recruiting, you know that every executive search firm on the planet worth its salt has a names database, as does every top college and professional sports team, the military, and all of the best corporate recruiting departments.

At firms like Cisco, Intel, and HP, their applicant tracking system database almost always exceeds a half a million names, while at executive search firms, it might just include a few thousand. If you are a true competitor, you always develop a formal way to keep track of the very best talent outside of your organization.

Benefits of the Who's Who Database

You utilize a who's who database in order to get a head start in identifying individuals to target the minute you get wind of a potential opening, but there are other beneficial uses of such a database.

These benefits include:

  • Benchmarking. An experts directory can be used to identify the very best for benchmarking and learning purposes.
  • Keeping managers current. Managers and employees can easily get stale or become too internally focused. By forcing them to constantly gather names and assess individuals, you almost guarantee that they will not only know the best people but also the best practices and problems at competitor firms.
  • Referrals. Even if you don't successfully recruit the individuals in a names database, if you build a relationship with these individuals, they will frequently act as referral sources to help you identify other top individuals and potential recruits.
  • Most wanted list. Rather than recruiting to fill openings, some firms begin the year by identifying the key individuals that they want to bring to the company. Because these "game-changer" individuals are seldom available at the precise time the company has a requisition open, they are courted over time and brought onboard whenever they become available. This most wanted list generally contains magnet hires, which are so well known that they automatically attract the very best when they join an organization.
  • Bench strength assessment. If you're really competitive, the who's who list can be used to assess the talent at competitors in mission critical areas in order to forecast the competitor's growth capabilities in the areas of product development and geographic expansion.

What Names Go Into Your Names Database?

Great recruiters classify individuals of interest into a hierarchy with nine categories, which are listed below.

  1. Suspects. People that appear on the surface to have a good skill set but need to be further assessed.
  2. Prospects. Suspects, who have undergone basic assessment that determines whether they would be a fit to the firm, become prospects. These individuals may or may not have shown an interest in your firm.
  3. Referral sources. Individuals who might not be able to join your organization but could help you identify individuals to target or who can help you further assess your suspects and prospects.
  4. Candidates. People who have shown an interest in your firm by applying for a position.
  5. Finalists. Candidates who have made it to your short list (and can be classified as "someday you will/can work for us" even if they don't get an offer this time around).
  6. Offered finalists. Finalists who receive offer letters.
  7. Employees. Finalists who accept offer letters (and who can also immediately become referral sources).
  8. Customers. All applicants need to be treated well because they may be (or become) customers or referral sources for your firm.
  9. Dropouts who may become future hires. Individuals who went through your recruiting process but were rejected merely because there were stars ahead of them at the time, or they were currently under-skilled or under-experienced people. These individuals must be looked upon as people who may someday become a fit with future training and experience. This category also includes individuals who turned down a previous offer from your firm, and highly-qualified individuals who dropped out on their own from a previous hiring process.

A who's who database tries to include individuals who are suspects, prospects, referral sources, and potential future hires.

Building a Who's Who List

There are two types of who's who databases: the contact-oriented and the detail-oriented. The first step is to determine whether your database will include just the names and basic contact information of the individuals, or whether you will go the next step and include a short assessment of each name and possibly even a resume.

The second step is to prioritize your jobs in order to keep your database focused and of a manageable size. If you can identify the mission-critical jobs, departments, and business units, you can reduce the size of your database by just capturing the names of the individuals relevant to these critical jobs, skills, and functional areas.

An Example of How the Database Might Form

  • The process of identifying experts and prospects might start with a business card obtained when an audience member asks for copies of a speech made by one of the managers on the speaking circuit.
  • The cards/names are entered into an off-the-shelf database software. An employee reads a professional article and captures the name of the author as well as any individuals mentioned as thought leaders or as experts.
  • Google searches are used to identify experts.
  • Recruiters contact benchmark teams within the company to capture the names of key individuals whom they have found during their benchmark and research activities.
  • New hires are asked on their first day, "Who else is good at your previous firm?"
  • Your own top talent is invited to a Rolodex party to capture the names of the experts they know.
  • Key employees are asked to enter the names of individuals whom they mentor and the very best individuals whom they compete against.
  • References for current candidates, consultants, and former employees are asked, "Who is the best at…?"
  • Names in the employee referral system (from top performers) are added to the database.
  • Award winners in professional associations are entered into the database.
  • PR announcements by talent competitors who mention whom they've hired and promoted are screened to capture names.
  • Highly-rated individuals who went through a previous recruiting process at your firm (but were not hired) are added to the database.
  • Whenever a new name is added to the database and it matches a name provided by another employee, that name is prioritized because two independent individuals have identified him or her as a suspect or prospect. A manager might set up a coffee meeting with the individual, or a recruiter might just call him or her to do a quick assessment.
  • When a major industry event is coming up, recruiters work with managers to select key individuals to target. Then, employees and managers who attend are asked to seek them out at these industry and trade events to further assess and to begin to "sell" them.

This triangulation from multiple sources allows you to accurately identify individuals for future searches or referrals. Names are generally not purged from the list because top performers almost always remain top performers and great recruiting managers are patient enough to wait until these individuals decide they want to move to another company.

HR Can't Do It All

Recruiters cannot be technical experts in every field. As a result, recruiters are often forced to screen strangers (people they don't know anything about other than what's on their resumes). Because strangers and their resumes can often fool you, it's essential to get functional experts involved in identifying the names of the top people in every mission-critical field.

Identifying the best names in a functional field is easier than you think because there are no secret stars in the business or technical fields. Recruiters might not know who they are but your own top performers will know them.

It's also important to note that if you're targeting the very best in a field to recruit, you must expect them not to be active job seekers, which means you must proactively seek them out. With some work and some out-of-the-box research and name-capturing tools, you can build a database of 80% or more of the people you really should be targeting.

Recruiting leaders must realize that this name-gathering process should not be solely an HR task. Recruiters can help maintain the list but most of the work needs to be done by managers, employees, and teams in each department because they are experts and they cross the paths of other experts on a regular basis. You might consider hiring a market research firm or just add someone with names research experience to your employment staff to help you refine your name capturing system.

HR can act as a coach and it can train managers and employees in the process of identifying the best in their field. However, you must make it part of the corporate culture (a recruiting culture) and reward those who bring in the names of the best. Consider giving your employees a small reward (a buck a name or a Starbucks card) for capturing the names and assessing the stars they meet. Also, talk to your recruiters who used to be headhunters. They generally know the tricks of capturing names.

Develop a "how-to-gather-names guide" for employees to use. This name capturing process has added benefits, in that it forces managers to define what good is in his or her field. If, when managers and employees make contacts, they also ask the individual about problems, best learning sources, and the best solutions, they will gain the added benefit of being on top of the learning curve as well.

Consider Outside Help

Incidentally, there are numerous vendors who can help you build your database. Services like ZoomInfo can help you identify top talent who don't post their resumes. Organizations like Jobster and LinkedIn can help you find names through referrals, and even the service known as Jigsaw can help you get names through the exchange of business cards.

If you can afford it, there are several unbundled search firms that will do the work for you and provide you with a great list of people by position title and company for a fee.


It's a fact that all competitive teams keep track of the very best players on the other teams. Whether in business, the military, or sports, if you're competitive, you build a names database.

All of the giants who I know in the recruiting field — from Michael McNeil to Kevin Wheeler to Michael Homula — support the need for names databases. But still, when I confront recruiting managers with their obvious omission, they come up with a million "I'd like to do it, but…" excuses (all "buts" stink!). My answer to them is simple: If you expect to win the war for talent, you can't afford not to do it. Any questions?

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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