10 Must-Do's If You Want to Recruit the Very Best Candidates

May 23, 2018

The market for the top 5-10% of talent, technical or otherwise, is one of the most intensely competitive markets in the world. And for good reason—elite performers can be truly game-changing for organizations that are lucky enough to employ them.

For any company, capturing your “unfair share” of this talent is entirely possible. However, it requires an unconventional strategy—relying on ads and blind outreach to fill the top of the funnel won’t get you any closer to your goal. That's because top performers rarely browse job postings or respond to inbound requests from unknown parties. If you rely on this, you'll spend a lot of time filling your pipeline with weaker candidates and, as a result, you will pull precious resources away from your team. This limits your ability to find (and land) the “best of the best.”

Instead, use the below tactics to both find, engage, and recruit top talent. 

First, you need to think like your target talent

The most important first step is to put yourself in the shoes of who you are trying to recruit. Take top engineers, for example—the individuals that, according to one oft-quoted study, deliver 10x the impact of their average counterparts. Having personally interviewed over 50 such individuals about their career decisions, a few patterns are common. Here is a fair characterization of the mindset of an elite performer:

  • I am busy, of course, but I’m always thinking about my options—I’m more open to a discussion than you might think.
  • I am on a roll in my career, but I’m actually quite anxious when it comes to taking on new roles—I can’t afford to make a bad career move.
  • I don’t want a job—I can get just about any job I apply for. What I really want is to be inspired. I want to be excited by my work, rewarded for my contributions and fulfilled by the impact I am having.
  • I care more about cultural fit than you do! There’s always the “devil I know” (my current employer). How can I be sure this will be a better fit?
  • I want someone to take the time to learn about what I have already done in my career—if you fail to learn about my prior successes in depth, I fear I will be undervalued.
  • Above all, I do NOT want to work with mediocre colleagues. I want to be surrounded by awesomeness!

Next, use these 10 tactics to find and hire the best

When you truly put yourself in the shoes of these high-value targets, you can quickly see that a traditional recruiting process won’t do the trick. Here are some specific strategies and tactics to help you win their hearts and minds:

  1. Focus on the “heroes” you already know. Talk to the people in your own networks who are exceptional performers, regardless of whether they are looking. They may not be candidates themselves, but they are the ones who are far more likely to know those candidates by name.
  2. Talk to those contacts live, one-on-one. Ideally, connect with them when you are already with them (a dinner party, an alumni event, etc.) Reaching out to them for the sole purpose of recruiting can come across as transactional.
  3. Be specific about who you are recruiting. Don’t ask for the best technical people they know, ask for the best, say, site reliability engineer they know. Human beings are better at recalling names when given specific prompts.
  4. Pick the right outreach person for each lead, and aim high. If you are a recruiter yourself, avoid the temptation to handle all of the outreach yourself. High performers are inundated with inbound opportunities from recruiters. Our research shows that these top performers are most likely to respond to (in order), (1) people they know and trust personally, (2) impressive, senior or influential people, or (3) people they at least view as peers. Given this, who can you collaborate with to give you the best chances of a response?
  5. Get them talking first. What are they excited to do in their careers? What do they love about their current job? What do they not love about it? Top performers are turned off by a sales pitch. Getting them talking reveals their motivations, of course. But more importantly, it requires them, subconsciously, to justify to themselves why they are sharing this information. Why am I telling this person about my career aspirations? It must be because they are important and are worth talking to!
  6. Play back what you have heard. Inspiring a top candidate means communicating a message that is personal and specific, not a canned pitch about your company’s potential. If they love the learning and growth in their current role, but are frustrated with the bureaucracy, focus on how this opportunity specifically addresses those needs.
  7. Sell them on APPLYING. Candidates make two decisions before joining you, and the first is saying “yes” to being interviewed. Do not attempt to interview someone who is simply exploring their options. If it requires multiple conversations, that’s fine—better to cut off a tire-kicker than waste your (and their) time.
  8. Once they are in your process, interview them—thoroughly. Top performers love to be vetted, because it gives them confidence in the quality of the rest of your team. If their process was “salesy” or lacking in rigor, they can only assume it was for others as well. Dive into the details of their prior successes. Gauge the impact they did (or did not) have. Ask openly about the mistakes they’ve made. Give them tough problems to solve. Digging deep won’t scare them off—it will actually attract them!
  9. Ask about their prior job changes. Even top candidates are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear if you ask them explicitly why they are interested in you—they have little incentive to do otherwise. But when you ask them what led them to make prior changes, you will reveal the implicit motivators that have actually made them move in the past.
  10. Tailor your selling plan. Once the offer is made, craft a simple, three-question selling plan: (1) What uniquely matters to THIS candidate (vs. all others)? (2) If they decline, what is the most likely reason? (3) What is the one thing we can do as a team that will move the needle most? Put this in writing, circulate it with the team, and execute flawlessly against it.

Any company, regardless of size or brand name, can acquire an unfair share of top talent. But they must be committed to that goal, and they must be willing to do things differently than their competitors. It also requires a healthy commitment of time from senior leadership. But as any CEO with a disproportionate number of top performers will tell you, the investment is well worth it.

Jordan Burton is the founder of Burton Advisors LLC, a boutique talent advisory firm serving a select group of high growth companies and their investors to help them identify, attract, hire and retain top talent at all levels. He was formerly a Partner at ghSMART& Company and a Case Team Leader at Bain & Company, serving clients in the high technology and private equity industries. His website can be found at www.burtonadvisorsllc.com.

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