Recruit From A Competitor’s Team… And Rejuvenate Your Business Results (Introducing team-level competitor recruiting)

Hire one key person from a competitor’s team and instantly gain all of their operational knowledge (i.e., non-product secrets). Yes, Team-level Competitor Recruiting is a targeted recruiting practice (some mistakenly call it poaching) that operates at the team level.

This approach is designed to hire one key person away from your equivalent team that operates inside a competitor company. However, you must realize that this single new hire will be extremely powerful.

First, the new hire will bring with them an intimate knowledge of the competitor’s best practices, solutions, and plans. Second, the new hire will provide the team with new skills, new ideas, a new perspective, and the energy you can expect from a quality of hire. And third, because they have just lost a key team member, you will simultaneously disrupt the team at the competitor company.

These three factors will almost always bump up your team’s business results. And at the same time, it will make your team more competitive within your industry.

The Factors That Differentiate Team-Level Competitor Recruiting From Standard Recruiting

Team-level competitor recruiting (TCR) differs from standard recruiting and company-wide poaching in 10+ different ways. Those key defining factors include: 

  • It is guaranteed to have a strategic impact – filling the average job on a low-priority team isn’t likely to have much of a business impact. However, this recruiting approach is usually restricted to high-impact teams under TCR. A linchpin new hire into your team is assured to have a significant strategic business impact.
  • A single hire is all that’s required – it’s important to realize that hiring a single linchpin employee is enough to help your team instantly. Because you really only need one hire from your competitor’s team to gain all of the desired insights about the team. And that single attention-getting hire will likely be enough to re-energize your team.
  • An individual hiring manager owns the TCR process – today, almost all recruiting is centralized and managed by corporate talent acquisition leaders. In direct contrast, the TCR process allows team leaders to create and manage their own customized recruiting process without the help or any interference from corporate HR.
  • Recruiting is easier because you’re not targeting the competitor’s team leader – obviously, in the cases where you are trying to recruit a team manager, the competitor will purposely create many roadblocks. However, you are not recruiting the team leader under the TCR program. Instead, you are targeting a “key linchpin employee” who could serve in many different roles. Including the second in command, the informal team lead, the leader of a sub-team, a subject matter expert, or their best problem solver. Fortunately, individuals working in these roles are almost always less well-protected than the team’s manager.
  • It uses only passive candidate recruiting methods – because your recruiting target will always be fully employed. They won’t likely respond to traditional active candidate recruiting approaches like job postings on job boards. So, to start, you will first have to convince them that they should look for a new career opportunity. And after you accomplish that task. Next, it may still take a significant effort on your part to convince them to apply for your open position formally. Then, because they don’t really need a job (they currently have one), you will have to continually motivate them to prevent them from prematurely dropping out of your hiring process. Finally, you will likely need to convince them that you consider them special by personalizing the recruiting and selling approaches you use. 
  • A TCR hire will increase team learning – because you are hiring a current employee from your competitor, you will learn a great deal about that competitor, including their best practices, metrics, and plans. You can discover more about the practice of “hiring to learn” here.
  • Another goal is to hurt your competitor – in addition to the many benefits that your team will gain. You can be assured that the loss of a key employee will also directly “hurt the team” by causing disruptions like an acceleration of team turnover and a loss of focus. You should also realize that by hiring those who beat you, you will instantly shift the existing competitive equation in your favor. You can learn more about the “hiring to hurt” practice here
  • TCR will improve your team’s competitiveness – your team should consistently try to build and maintain a competitive advantage. Fortunately, the TCR hire will help your team better understand your competitor’s competitive strategy. And with this new inside knowledge. Your team will now be more competitive because it is better able to counter whenever your competitors are currently planning.
  • Your team’s overall recruiting effort will also improve – this single recruit may send a WOW message to previously only mildly interested potential candidates. They should now consider joining your team as a strong career move. You may also be able to convince at least one additional recruit to follow their colleague to your company. Provided that the new hire likes their new opportunity. 
  • Most find TCR easy to implement – the best part of this extremely powerful targeted recruiting approach. It can usually be initiated and run by an individual team leader without outside approvals. All you really need is an open hiring slot, a data-driven recruiter, and a commitment from everyone on your team to contribute to identifying and landing your recruiting target.
  • The TCR tool has a high ROI – because it only targets hiring a single individual. Your recruiting and salary costs will be relatively low. When compared to the business impacts that it produces. And if you collect program metrics, you will find the program has a high ROI ratio.


Now, shifting to the implementation steps for a new TCR process

Now that you know the key differentiators that separate team-level competitor recruiting from traditional recruiting. It’s appropriate to highlight the elements of each implementation step. 

Implementation Step I – Identify The Best Competitor Company To Target

You should know that there are three implementation steps that you will need to follow. The first step involves selecting the competitor company in your industry with the best-performing team in your functional area. I recommend that you select the competitor that your executives continually talk about. And refer to it as “The benchmark team that we want to be like.” 


Implementation Step II – The Top 10 Approaches For Identifying The Employee That You Will Recruit

Once you have identified the competitor company and the team, you will target, determine which of the many candidate identification tools you will use to identify the best employee to target and recruit. Below, you will find a list of those recommended identification approaches. The most impactful and easiest-to-implement approaches are listed first.

  • Seek out employee referrals from the top performers in your own team – the most effective way to identify names is to rely on referral recommendations from your top performers. Start by having your recruiter and the hiring manager approach each of your team’s top performers individually (preferably face-to-face). During that meeting, ask each one directly for their help. In addition, ask every individual team member to accept the role of a 24/7 talent scout, where they are constantly searching for names. You can learn more about increasing team referrals here.
  • Asks for “names only referrals” from your best vendors – vendors have the capability of making great referral recommendations. Because, like most of your employees, they have had many chances to work with and identify top talent across many companies. And they are usually willing to help out because improving your business results will allow them to earn more from your company. So ask your well-connected vendors that you trust for their help. And incidentally, “names only” (because of confidentiality issues).
  • Task unbundled search firms to provide names – if your team is good at selling candidates but weak at identifying them. Consider using unbundled or competitive intelligence search firms (e.g., RW Stearns). These unbundled firms specialize in identifying the names of the key employees in any team that you would like to target. This alternative may cost you money, but it will allow you to focus 100% of your time on selling the identified candidate.
  • Ask officers in your professional association for names – I have found that most of the officers in professional associations already know the top talent in their functional area. Because these association leaders are continually trying to identify them for speaking assignments, opportunities to author an article, or for future association leadership positions. If they are initially reluctant, offer to do a speaking gig as a trade.
  • Find the names of potential candidates using LinkedIn profiles – in many cases, a simple search of LinkedIn profiles using a combination of your targeted job title and the competitor’s company name will highlight some potential candidates. Have a teammate review the most promising profiles in order to determine if the person has the necessary skills and experience. Of course, LinkedIn searches can be problematic because many in-demand professionals purposely minimize their LinkedIn profiles. 
  • Allow “name only” referrals from your employees often, your busiest employees know the best people. However, because they are busy, these employees simply don’t have the time to convince potential candidates they know to become referrals. So, as an alternative. Offer a substantial bonus to your employees for simply providing the names of individuals who work on your target team. You should also consider offering even higher bonuses for diverse names. Of course, the bonus should only be paid when the name provided by the employee is offered an interview slot. This “names only” approach was once found to be effective at Google after their top performers complained that they just didn’t have the time to go beyond providing names.
  • Look for collaborators as likely targets – if the leader of your target team periodically writes articles. Consider any of their listed co-authors (who also work on your team) to be potential targets. Also, consider targeting those teammates that share a patent with your leader. Or that have shared a speaking engagement with the team’s leader.
  • Ask for referrals from recent hires who previously worked at your target competitor – check your employee files in order to identify if any of your recent hires came directly from your target competitor. If these employees don’t know any top names themselves. Encourage them to use their contacts at their old firm to identify potential referral names. In the same light, ask your most loyal former employees who now work at your target competitor to provide you with a few names.
  • Ask your candidates who currently work for your target competitor for names – during their interviews. Ask candidates who currently work at your target competitor firm to name the very best they have worked with on your targeted team. If you find resistance to this direct request. Make it clear to the candidate that you only recruit individuals who find a way to work with the best. A more subtle alternative approach is to ask every one of your finalist candidates to name the best they know who are working in your team’s functional area. Based on the hope that they will mention at least one “best employee” that is currently on your target team. In a related approach, having your recruiter offer an interview to every minimally qualified current applicant that currently works at your targeted competitor makes sense. In the hope that anyone who works at your target company might be able to provide you with some quality coworker names.
  • Ask frequent benchmarkers for names – a side benefit of benchmarking for best practices is that you learn the names of those who are responsible for best practices. So, seek out individuals that frequently benchmark in your functional area and ask for their help. Also, consider encouraging your interns or friends at other companies to make cold calls to the phone number of anyone who was part of your target team. And have them simply ask, “Can you refer me to the person that is in charge of xyz?” Add those names to your target list of potential candidates.


Implementation Step III – After Identifying Your Target Candidates, You Will Need Bold Approaches To Sell Them

Once you have identified your recruiting target, you will likely need to use multiple approaches to convince them to become a candidate and take the job if offered formally. The top 8 most powerful (but least used) candidate convincing/selling approaches to consider include:

  • Offer them their dream job – rather than money or power. Most top performers and innovators specifically want the opportunity to “Do the best work of their lives.” And that makes “the dream job offer” the most powerful non-compensation attraction and convincing tool. So, if the team’s manager is flexible enough, start by asking your target candidate to list their dream job features. And then offer the target candidate an opportunity to negotiate a dream job that closely fits their most important features. You can find more details about developing a dream job offer here.
  • A significant sign-on bonus is a top attraction factor – from the beginning, make it clear that you offer a significant sign-on bonus (between 25% and 50% of their base salary). This approach is often the #1 most powerful compensation-driven incentive for candidates. It has proven that it can get even the most intransigent recruiting target to become more interested in your job. Using another bonus approach. You can incent your target candidate to accept your offer more quickly. If you convert any standard bonus into “an exploding offer,” which is a bonus amount that automatically reduces itself after a specified number of days.
  • Buddy hiring can change their mind a buddy-hire approach is where you offer your target candidate a chance to work alongside one of their close friends or colleagues. This “hire them both” option is amazingly effective because most of us have a close colleague, relative, spouse, or friend with whom “we’ve always wanted to work.” And as a result, many will jump at this rare option. You can learn more about buddy hiring here.
  • Right day” selling may be required – because the best candidates are likely already well-treated. Many of your targeted candidates will remain noncommittal unless their current work situation changes dramatically. That means that you must continually monitor your candidate’s work situation. So that you are ready “to react immediately” whenever they encounter what is known as “a negative career event.” Such as being turned down for a project, a raise, or a promotion. Or when they feel their job security may be impacted by upcoming layoffs or ethical issues at their company. You can learn more about right-day selling using this link.
  • Sometimes, potential candidates just “need to be asked” – many professionals at the top of their game consider it beneath them to “actively look for a job.” And in the same light, they hate getting recruiter calls. However, even though they are not actively looking for a job, some top performers regard it as an honor and a form of recognition when a manager they don’t know proactively reaches out to them. I call these currently employed people “those that need to be asked.” So encourage your hiring manager to reach out to them in a subtle way that doesn’t initially feel like a recruiting call. Instead, it feels like the first step in building a relationship with a colleague.
  • Proactively influence the “influencers” – because your target candidate will likely have a network of “influencers” advising them on all of their major decisions. Selling these candidates may require you to identify and subtly convince their influencers to support your opportunity. 
  • You will need a talent pipeline / evergreen approach – because the selling of any top candidate will take some time. You likely will need to stretch out your normal candidate attraction approach so that it extends over several months. This “talent pipeline” approach gives you more time to sell and build a trusting relationship with your target candidate. Another necessary feature will be your ability to offer them a job the minute they are ready. So, you will need to establish an evergreen job slot, which remains open for as long as it takes the candidate to say yes.
  • You may need a hiring committee – because many hiring managers hire infrequently. They may not have the skills and current experience that are necessary to convince a top candidate to leave their current job. So, if your corporation requires success from your TCR program every time, consider following the lead of top firms like Google and Intuit. They have shifted to using permanent hiring committees because they improve hiring. You may need a team-based permanent hiring committee. Not only will its members be continually involved in hiring and selling. But they also will be able to stay current with what is happening in the competitive recruiting marketplace. 
If you only do one thing approach a number of your team hiring managers in order to determine if one of them would be willing to pilot a TCR recruiting effort for their team. And after hiring a targeted candidate away from a competitor company. Have the hiring manager estimate the program’s success, problems, and bottom-line impact on team results. Then, use that information to sell the program to other hiring managers.

Final Thoughts

In my view, almost all corporate recruiting today is too centralized and too passive. Most corporate recruiting approaches are designed to avoid even the slightest hint of controversy. So, if you are a hiring manager or a corporate recruiting leader who wants a much more aggressive and impactful decentralized hiring process, you should seriously consider adopting this team-level competitor recruiting approach.

It should be tried because it is the only recruiting approach that not only aggressively draws key talent away from a competitor team. But it also provides your team with extensive competitive intelligence that covers every operational aspect of your competitor’s team. In fact, it’s hard to think of any other hiring program that will allow a team to turn around its business results any faster.

Author’s Note

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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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