Recruiting Top Performers: It’s Your Job!

This past Friday (March 26, 2004), Lou Adler penned an article for his ER Daily column entitled, Why You Must Hire Top Employees, Not Top Candidates. The title of this article is something akin to an absolute truth in my book. In philosophical terms, an absolute truth is an idea or notion that cannot be discredited by any line of thinking. I have come to the belief that the words in his title area the truth not only because I am a diehard capitalist who firmly believes in measuring performance over effort, but also because it is the message I hear most from CEOs, COOs, and CFOs. Hiring Top Performers Is Your Job As recruiters, you do not directly hire anyone in most organizations; that’s generally a decision left to the hiring manager, as it should be. However, you do control all of the processes and procedures responsible for generating the short list of candidates that hiring managers actually see, except in the cases where managers take actions into their own hands and pursue candidates by working directly with third-party recruiting agencies and via direct referral. But as masters of the recruiting process, and the selected representatives of the profession, it is your responsibility to make sure that the processes you put in place and the criteria you use to select candidates doesn’t weed out the very candidates your senior leaders want most. Lou Adler was dead on when he indicated, as a number of studies confirm, that the bulk of criteria used in most recruiting organization has absolutely no correlation to on-the-job performance post hire.Success Is an Attribute Granted To You By Others, Not Yourself In my dealings with numerous recruiting organizations, both domestically and abroad, it has become apparent that most recruiting organizations thoroughly believe that they can determine when they have been successful, and when they have not. But contrary to every self-help book on the market, the notion that you can brand yourself as a success is false. Success is an attribute that others grant you based on the degree to which you have performed to their expectations. The key phrase in that last sentence is “their expectations.” Most recruiting organizations measure their success using bland, generic, and absolutely useless efficiency metrics that have absolutely no correlation to line managers’ and senior leaders’ expectations of the recruiting function. This is a practice that has to change. Recruiting Top Performers: Your Process Doesn’t Work, No Matter What You SayEvery time someone has approached me with a story of how they have built a recruiting process or system that hires the “right” person at the “right” time, a short evaluation has shown that all they have really done is repackage the same old process, adding even more tools or criteria that have absolutely no correlation to on-the-job performance. Just a few weeks back, I received an email from a publisher in Australia. The gist of the email was that one of their readers was outraged by my article, How Many Turkeys Do You Hire? This reader boasted that his newest system was 100% effective in determining which candidate is the “right” hire. The email made me laugh. No system is 100% accurate; that’s why we have terms like margin of error, error rate, Six Sigma quality improvement, etc. We are human, we make mistakes, and, because we are the architects of the systems we use, our systems make mistakes. The goal isn’t to eliminate mistakes, but rather to minimize them. Recruiting top performers doesn’t require elaborate online assessments, grueling multi-part interviews, background checks, or even resume element verification. On the contrary, all it requires is simplicity. Top performers are almost always employed, unless they opt not to be. In most organizations, they are respected, and in a select few, even rewarded appropriately. They have neither the interest nor the drive to sit through the cumbersome, often painful, process many recruiting organizations have installed to weed out candidates with absolutely no chance of being hired. Such systems are built around averages, or the lowest common denominator by which candidates are considered potential hires. By definition, top performers are not average. What Works: Steps In Hiring Top Performers If you and your organization are really serious about hiring top performers, here are the steps you need to take:

    1. You must find the names of the best without any help from them.They won’t actively apply for jobs, so getting their names (and resumes) takes some work. It should be the manager’s job to know the names of the best and what makes them better than the rest. Use your current “A” employees to help you identify other “A” players.


  1. Assume you need to build a long-term relationship with the best in order to get them to say yes to any offer. Most of the relationship will be electronic and not face to face. Top performers will not talk to “strangers” and probably dislike recruiters. They don’t read want ads or go to job fairs.
  2. You have to wow them continually to get them to even consider you. Whatever you do, it must be unique if you want to get their initial attention and to keep them interested. If your firm isn’t well known or doesn’t have an impeccable reputation, they will not even consider you (which is one of the reasons why you must build your great-place-to-work brand first).
  3. Assessment of a candidate’s abilities should be done subtly over time, before they enter the job search mode. Assessment must often be done remotely, without the candidate’s help or knowledge. Assessment should be done primarily in non-traditional ways (at conferences, through email, in chat rooms, by seeing their work and ideas on the web, in casual phone calls, etc.). Top performers probably don’t have a current resume, dislike formal interviews, and will often refuse to fill out an application.
  4. Employed top performers need a “triggering event” (usually a negative one) to get them to leave their current job. You’ll need first to have built a long-term relationship in order to learn what their “job search triggers” are. You need to be in constant touch with them or their friends if you expect to know when they begin looking for a new job. That generally means you must rely on their friends or family to let you know when they are becoming unhappy with their current job.
  5. You need to do a “candidate profile” of what is needed to excite them enough to leave their current “good” job for your new job offer. This will be done mostly without their help, by talking to their friends and from previous market research on what top players demand.
  6. You will need help from others to get them to work for you. Their friends or mentors will need to encourage or okay the move to your firm before it will occur. Most top performers will not make the decision alone.
  7. Assume having to look for a job is a bit of an embarrassment for top performers. Any element of the process that makes them look like they need a job will cause them to flee!
  8. Both the assessment and the offer process must be fast and easy if you expect to get a yes. Expect top performers to be on the job market one day or less! If you are not available and prepared to make an offer the day they decide to leave, you will lose them. Assume your own internal managers might not share your sense of urgency about the need for a super fast hiring decision. Also assume that your firm will not have an opening that day ó so you will have to be able to hire them even though you have no current position, requisition, compensation approval, or job description!
  9. You must have an offer that is such a wow that they will not even consider the inevitable counteroffer they will get from their current employer. Get it right the first time, and do not under bid!
  10. Turn-offs like drug tests, filling in forms, or “death by interview” will not be tolerated by top performers!
  11. Once top performers accept your offer, they will expect you to keep every promise you made during this lengthy process ó or they will leave you also!

Conclusion The expectations are clear. Line managers and senior corporate leaders think you know what you’re doing and expect you to help them build an organization of the very best talent available. It doesn’t matter if you think you are successful, it matters if they think you are successful ó and trust me most don’t. Leading recruitment professionals need to track their performance according to the terms that have value to their customers, and the number of candidates reviewed presents no value to anyone! Regardless what you think, your process damages your organization’s chances of hiring top performers, a fact that you need to address before demand for hiring really takes off in the months to come. Hiring top performers isn’t easy, but neither is it rocket science. Top performers have different behaviors than the average candidate, but once you recognize them, you have won half the battle.

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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