“It’s the work (stupid)”
That is the gist of the answer that you get when you ask top performers, “What would attract you to a new job?” If you were Picasso, wouldn’t you only be attracted to a new job if it provided you with the opportunity to “do the best painting of your life.”
A 5 star high school athlete would only be attracted to a college where they would have the “best opportunity to perform at the highest level”. And an architect would only be attracted by the chance to do “the very best design work of their life.” If you’ve ever been fishing, you already know that you can’t expect to land a “hard to catch” high-performance fish like a Marlin with the same bait that you would use to catch an average fish. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to recruiting leaders that the secret to recruiting top performers is not to bore them with information on superfluous things like benefits. But rather to provide them with information covering the elements that comprise “an opportunity to do the best work of their life.”
“The best work of your life” is the primary attraction factor for top performers
The premise that “the work” is the primary attraction factor for top performers is simple to understand. But in my experience, it’s surprising that literally 90% of corporate recruiting leaders don’t grasp it. A quick visit to almost any corporate career site will almost immediately reveal the factors that corporations “think” that potential applicants care most about, which are: benefits, corporate values, their corporate culture, career development, sustainability and diversity/equal opportunity. But my research reveals that top performers are best attracted by the factors that contribute to them doing “the best work of their life.” So the key lesson to be learned is that:
If you want to attract top performers and innovators that are not actively looking for a job, you have to make it easy for them to find out about “the work” and the components of their job that will allow them to “do the best work of their life” at your firm.
The difference in expectations between average candidates and top performers
If you expect to recruit top performers, it’s not enough to simply be aware that they have unique attraction factors; you obviously need to know precisely what those factors are. You can get a quick snapshot of what top performers expect by looking at top firms like Apple and Facebook, firms that only hire top performers. If you analyze their employee’s comments on glassdoor.com, you quickly find that what primarily attracts and retains top performers at these two firms involve some variation of three categories of factors. Starting with “the work that I am doing is so exciting that I can’t put it down,” “I’m having a major impact,” and “I’m working with great coworkers/managers.”
If you want to contrast the difference between what average and top performers expect in a job (I call them job acceptance factors), start with the publicly available results from organizations like Gallup, SHRM and the Boston Consulting Group, who have all identified what the “average worker” wants. The BCG survey, cited below, for example identifies 10 average employee “happiness on the job” factors, and they are listed in the left-hand table below. My own research indicates that the elements that top performers expect are completely different, and these attraction factors are shown in the right-hand table below. You can quickly see that there is almost no overlap between the two different lists of “job acceptance factors.”
Fully understanding the elements that comprise “doing the best work of your life”
If you are going to successfully attract a single high-impact “top performer”, you must first completely understand what their “best work of your life” attraction factors are. And then why they are so important to them.
- “I can’t put it down” exciting work – this is the #1 factor by far. Top performers and innovators expect the work that they will be doing to be so compelling and exciting that they won’t want to put it down or get it out of their mind. Usually, an “I can’t put it down” level of work involves a “breakthrough approach” that leads the way in a functional area. This work is so exciting that they literally go to bed the night before excited about the opportunity to work on it again in the morning. When they mention what they’re working on, their professional colleagues react with some combination of surprise and envy.
- Seeing the impact of their work – it’s not enough that their work will be exciting to them, top performers expect to “make a difference.” These exceptional individuals demand that their work to have a major impact on some combination of the following: their function, on the customer, on the company and yes, even on the world. They don’t want to be kept in the dark about their impact; they want to know the potential impact before they start and then they want to feel/witness the actual impact after they have completed their work.
- Working with top co-workers – business is no different from sports; everyone wants to work alongside the very best coworkers. Top performers want to learn from coworkers that are not only experts but from those that are often smarter and better performers than themselves. Yes, everyone cherishes the opportunity to play on a team with superstars of the caliber of a LeBron.
- Having great managers – bad managers are often the #1 cause of turnover, so having a great manager is a major attraction factor. Why, because managers have the single largest impact on providing the freedom and the direction that allows top performers to do their best work. Just like a great movie director is the dream of every actor, having a manager that proactively provides top performers with the support and the resources that allow them to succeed is the hope of all top performers and great innovators.
- A chance to win / to be first – once again, just like in sports, top performers are drawn towards opportunities where they have the highest probability of winning. They want their work to contribute to products that will have the most advanced features that will make them #1 in the marketplace. Apple, for example, is a great draw for top performers because its employees are almost guaranteed to have an impact on a highly successful product that everyone purchases and talks about.
- Learning advanced things / to grow – to a top performer, continuous learning is essential because it is necessary in order to remain on top. Average workers also want to learn and grow, but top performers want to be “on the leading edge of knowledge.” Rather than classroom learning, they prefer to self-direct their own learning. Self-direction allows them to ensure that their learning occurs primarily “on the job” or it comes from sharing with their coworkers and their professional network. It is important to note that top performers want to continually grow their capabilities, but not all of them define growth as a promotion or moving into a new field.
- Opportunities to innovate / take risks – to an innovator, nothing is more important than the opportunity to take risks and to innovate. Top performers don’t want to be the sole innovator, instead expect to be among the team of innovators that they can collaborate with. Rather than being satisfied with continuous improvement, top performers want the opportunity to develop a breakthrough that improves the existing approach by at least 25%.
- Being an expert / mastery of an area – even top performers in lower-level jobs want to master their functional area. Becoming and being recognized as an expert provides a sense of pride, even in mundane jobs. Providing your top performers with the resources and the time to develop a “mastery” in an area allows them to feel superior to the average worker that has no interest in becoming an expert.
- Opportunities to implement ideas – most top performers are continually coming up with new ideas, but they get frustrated when they don’t get the opportunity to implement them. Top performers expect that decisions on their new projects or ideas be made quickly, so that they can more immediately find out if their idea works. Being supportive of new ideas is not enough, the best expect that they will also be provided with the free time, resources, and the management courage that are necessary for brand-new ideas to be fully developed, approved, and implemented successfully.
- To be constantly challenged – the average worker often avoids doing new and challenging work. However, being continually challenged provides top performers with multiple opportunities to try new and more difficult things. Top performers like “stretch assignments” and challenges because they test their capabilities and they build the confidence that is necessary in order to take on even more difficult tasks in the future.
- Freedom and a choice of projects – freedom is an essential element of” doing the best work of your life” in a fast-changing world. Because having to wait for executives to approve something new can be incredibly frustrating. To avoid this frustration, you must give top performers the opportunity to move on their own with few restrictions or approvals. Google even emphasizes the need for freedom with the phrase, “If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom that you’ve given your employees, you haven’t gone far enough.” You should also follow the lead of Google and Facebook by giving your top performers a choice of projects; because that ensures that top performers are always working in areas and on teams that allow them to do their “best work”.
- Input into schedule & location – although the work itself is the most important factor, where and when the work is done also makes a difference. Giving top performers significant input into their schedule also improves performance because top performers best know “when and where” they do their best work. Obviously, teamwork and collaboration require a great deal of interaction, but allowing input from top performers is also essential so that they feel that they have some control over when and where they work.
- Opportunities to make decisions – although not every top performer wants to make major decisions, they do want control over their work. The best managers provide direction on “what needs to be done,” but they allow the top performers to decide “how it should be done.” Nothing stifles top performers and innovators more than micromanagement.
- Measure & reward performance – all champions and top performers demand that someone “keep score.” As a result, they expect the use of metrics that continuously allows them to see how they are performing compared others. Top performers also prefer pay-for-performance and a differential in pay and recognition, based on performance. They dislike and resist across-the-board pay increases that don’t reward performance.
Are top performers worth the extra effort?
It’s no surprise that most recruiters are quite satisfied when they find candidates that “meet the qualifications.” In direct contrast, the Holy Grail for hiring managers is a much higher standard. This is to hire top performers, because these exceptional hires perform much better but also because they have the additional skills of innovation, leadership, and the capability of finding a way to guide their team to a win. Top performers have a much greater impact. In fact, Steve Jobs determined that a top performer was worth 25 times more than the average worker. It’s easy to see the tremendous value of recruiting a top performer by using LeBron James as an example. It wouldn’t take a CFO to calculate that the hiring of LeBron for an NBA team would obviously have a much higher dollar impact and ROI than hiring a handful of average players. So my conclusion is that the dramatic performance improvement provided by top performers and innovators makes it well worth the added trouble of providing them with the elements that make up “the best work of their life.”
Candidate research can tell you specifically what your firm’s recruiting targets expect
Obviously, great recruiting requires that you avoid relying exclusively on the general factors that attract most top performers. Instead, you need to find out exactly what your own firms targeted prospects and candidates expect. The best way to identify the factors for your targets involves “candidate research.” Although the concept of candidate research might sound sophisticated, all you really have to do is survey a sample of your applicants, candidates and new hires to identify their job acceptance factors. And then determine the specific factors that the top candidates/hires have in common. However, because every one of your candidates are unique individuals, you should find out what each of your individual top-performer that is invited into interview expects. The best way to find out what an individual candidate wants is to ask them directly in a survey that they get right before their first interview. Or give them a direct question during the interview that asks them to list their job acceptance factors.
Effectively communicating that “your work” is exciting
Obviously, once you have identified the high-impact job acceptance factors, then your firm must gather and communicate convincing evidence that your firm can actually meet those expectations. Be careful of relying exclusively on your corporate careers website to provide “best work of your life” information because many applicants don’t consider corporate website information to be authentic or credible. Instead, spread the word about these “best work” elements through your employees when they are seeking out new referrals. Also, encourage your employees and managers to write about these elements on their blogs and in their social media postings. Video job descriptions showing the team describing their “best work” elements can also be powerful. And finally, you should do periodic Internet searches in order to determine how easy it is for top performers to find information about the “best work” elements that relate to a particular job family or team.
The premise that there are differing expectations between the top and the average is well-established. Top runners expect different things in their running kit than the average jogger. Foodies expect different menu items and ingredients than the average restaurant goer. And top-performing professional athletes require more and higher level conditions before they will join a sports team. So it makes no sense for recruiting leaders to literally “lump” all levels of applicants together based on the assumption that they all want the same thing. The fact is that top performers are not just a little different from the average prospect, they are miles apart.
Incidentally, if you don’t believe my list of top performer attraction factors, independently survey/interview a sample of your own top performers and average performers in the same job. Give them a combined list of all 24 of the desirable job elements in random order and ask them to rank the top 10 most important factors. Then compare and you shouldn’t be surprised when you discover that top performers demand completely different things in a new job. If you find that your firm is in providing enough of the “best work” factors, you need to work with your managers to make that the work becomes more compelling to top performers. And if you are, in fact, providing your top performers with their “best work” elements, when asked, they will literally say, “I’m doing the best work of my life right now”. And some will be so happy with their current opportunity that they will likely also say “I never feel like I’m going to work!”