Stop the Recruitspeak: Learn to Talk and Think Like a CEO, Part 3

Risk Taking

CEOs love to bet on almost anything for fun, to show that they are good at taking calculated risks. Some CEOs will literally say that they are "betting the future of their corporations" on some of their major decisions. CEOs get major kudos and bonuses when they produce business results. Unfortunately, it is difficult to produce striking results without sticking your neck out and taking some significant risks.

It's important to realize that CEOs don't take wild risks, nor do they admire those who do. Instead, they demand that the risk-taking process be stringent and controlled. This means that all major risks are calculated in advance, and only risks that fall within an acceptable range are taken. CEOs also demand that should any risk result in a failure, there must be immediate learning and then feedback to ensure that others will not repeat the same error.

CEOs measure risk taking not by your success rate but rather by your failure rate. One manager I know at Intel, for example, actually expected two out of three projects to fail. A high rate of failure for sure, but he saw a high failure rate as a requirement for a high rate of learning and an indication that his employees were stretching, but not breaking, the limits of business practice.

Lesson Learned

Unfortunately most corporate recruiters are not risk takers. In fact, they make accountants seem like wild and crazy people. For example, they frequently outsource the important executive level jobs, in part, to avoid the risk of failure in the visibility that comes with it. This is unfortunate, because with successful risk taking, you get the opportunity to earn great rewards and recognition, as well as an opportunity to fail (and learn form it)!

Corporate recruiters don't like statistics, and therefore they don't usually calculate the probability of a candidate's success or failure. Unfortunately, most are more than willing to settle for the "safe applicant" (i.e. the candidate with the most education and experience) rather than to take a risk on a candidate with a higher potential return. This risk-averse practice would seem strange to some CEOs, who were not stars in college or who started firms with little job experience (Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell come to mind). A recruiter's interest in avoiding risks generally results in the almost immediate rejection of any candidate who dares to be innovative or creative in their resume or interview.

The first step in becoming a risk taker is to begin talking about and calculating risks. The risk involved in any candidate or new hire should be calculated based on past hires and discussed. Risks are normally measured by the probability of success for a particular decision and the dollar consequences of the success or failure resulting from that decision.

Once recruiters begin to understand the value of calculated risk-taking and lose their fear of risks, they then need to realize that there can be a high ROI from raising your level of risk taking in recruiting. For example, instead of going after the easy-to-get candidate in the active category, recruiters should be encouraged to attract candidates who have a lower probability of accepting (currently employed top performers) but the potential for a high dollar impact, should they be convinced to apply and accept. Rather than recruiting the "vanilla" candidate, you should begin to focus on the hard-to-get superstar candidates.

Taking a calculated risk on the difficult to attract and the difficult to close is what great recruiting is all about. For example, recruiting high school players like Kobe Bryant can be a high risk endeavor, but it's also one that can have "wow" returns. If you land the next Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Shaq, the risk will be worth it.

If you do fail, learn to immediately do "failure analysis," which is the process of identifying whether the source, the assessment process, or the selling process was the cause for the candidate failure. Once recruiters know the risks and see how failure can actually make you better, others recruiters will see the improved results and they, too, will gradually begin to increase the level of risks that they are willing to take.

Other high risk but high return recruiting approaches include poaching from direct competitors, internal executive search, hiring the bright but less experienced candidate, and bringing in "magnet" hires.

Key words: Probability of failure, failure analysis, risk analysis, risk averse, and calculated risks.

Global Thinking and Capabilities

Even the CEOs of small-sized companies long ago realized that they must think globally. It turns out that even if you don't sell products around the world, it's almost impossible to produce or assemble a product without utilizing global components. As a result, CEOs have become the leaders inside their corporations in espousing the need to globalize. They see global thinking and acting globally as necessary requirements for all.

As a result, they have zero tolerance for anyone, including administrators and overhead types, who doesn't educate themselves about the global economy and then act to take advantage of their global opportunities. Recruiting the very best in your immediate geographic region is rapidly being replaced with the goal of recruiting the very best from every country around the world. The need for global diversity will also be a prime driver of both future business and recruiting success as businesses see the need to hire individuals that reflect and think like their global customers.

Lessons Learned

When it comes to globalization, corporate recruiters are in the dark ages. While baseball, the NBA, and the NHL have been recruiting players from around the world with great success for years, most corporate recruiters wouldn't have the slightest idea about how to recruit top talent outside of English-speaking North American. It's a sad fact, but even in global organizations, corporate recruiters frequently do little or no recruiting outside of U.S. borders for U.S.-based jobs. If you expect the CEO to listen to you, you must learn to act and think globally (like they do). For example, no one in the NBA thought to recruit players from China until Yao Ming changed the rules forever, and now international players are approaching 40% of the players in the NBA.

The first step in becoming a global recruiter is to begin reading about global business. That means reading what CEOs read, which quite often includes the Economist, the Financial Times, the Herald Tribune, the Asian Business Review, as well as global industry and functional journals. Once you expand your understanding of the global world of business, the next step is to identify international companies that are known for their high quality of talent and global recruiting practices (IBM, HP, GE, Shell, Ikea, Nokia, Siemens, etc.).

Recruiters should make benchmark calls as the first step in learning to understand the different approaches to recruiting (and retention) that are taken in other countries and regions. If you meet initial resistance, offer to teach them a U.S. practice in trade. If language is a difficulty, try email, because there are numerous free programs that will translate the written word. Recruiters should also visit the many different corporate and recruiting websites that include international candidates and jobs to learn how their approach differs from the different regional approaches around the world. CEOs do a great deal of international traveling, so recruiters should seek out similar travel opportunities both in their business and personal life.

When you begin presenting senior managers with top candidates from the international operations of major competitors, you will immediately begin to see their initial surprise, but almost immediately, you will also gain the respect of these senior leaders. The key to success in international recruiting is to begin to think like international soccer teams. When you do, you too will learn that the very best teams that consistently win championships recruit the best people from literally every individual country around the world.

Key words: Global opportunities, international poaching, predatory hiring, global reach and mirroring your customer population.


There are few more consistent things over the history of mankind than the fact that the speed of everything has continually increased. From walking to bicycles, to cars to airplanes and eventually to rockets, everything continually gets faster. CEOs appreciate the value of time more than most because their free time is so limited. They love to fly on the fastest planes and often drive the fastest cars.

CEOs are aware of this progression of speed over time and as a result they expect everything in the corporation from product development to supply chain and even hiring to continually get faster. Speed in every aspect of the corporation is essential to CEOs, because they realize that the first entry into many markets is the ultimate winner. Look at Amazon and eBay as prime examples. In addition, getting there first generally means higher margins and higher market share, both of which are difficult for competitors to cut into.

In short, speed has become a major competitive advantage. And internally, if you are fast and first, you will invariably get the CEOs attention.

Lessons Learned

Unfortunately, few things in recruiting are fast. When a key player gets hurt in the NFL, for example, within one to three days they are replaced. Although some organizations measure time to fill, taking 60 or even 30 days to hire candidate is certainly not "fast" in most managers' eyes.

Recruiters should know that speed is essential in getting top candidates, because top candidates are on the market for such a short period time (as little as one day). If a recruiter is attempting to think and act like a CEO, they must both measure and continually improve their speed in responding to candidates and in hiring people in as little as one day.

In order to gain a competitive advantage, recruiting departments must also be the first in the industry to utilize new recruiting tools and approaches. Once everyone copies you and begins using the same tools, your unique approach quickly become a common one. Being first and fast will win you many more battles in recruiting than being slow and cheap.

Key words: First entry advantage, time to market, time for a competitor to copy, time to fill, and the time value of money


You don't have to drive a luxury car or have a corner office in order to think and talk like a CEO. The first step in impressing a CEO is understanding what they care about, which invariably revolves around increasing revenue, profit, stock price, and their own personal bonus. The next step is to understand the personal characteristics that they admire. These characteristics include risk taking, competitiveness and the ability to prioritize. The final step in becoming more "CEO like" is demonstrating that you understand and can emulate key business success factors, which include increasing customer value, speed, and having a global capability.

It's obvious that if you ever want to be a CEO, or even if you just want to impress your current CEO, you need to immediately change the way you think, talk, and act. Unfortunately, most corporate recruiters have no desire to be a CEOs, and very few even take the time to understand and to emulate their CEOs. Understanding and impressing your CEO is essential if you expect to get sufficient resources to be able to do great recruiting and to become a great recruiter yourself.

The time to start is now. Start by reading books written by famous CEOs. While reading, note their language, the analogies they use, and their unique approaches to business. Next, seek out your own CEOs speeches from the PR department or your corporate website. Try to identify what they think is important and how they use analogies and a particular set of words to make their points. Also try to identify their biggest problems and information needs. Then work closely to make a contribution in those areas. If you follow the "lessons learned" highlighted in this article, in no time you'll find yourself thinking and speaking like a CEO. Eventually, you'll begin to act like just like one too!

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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